“[O]ne of life’s thorniest problems was knowing who to believe, since too many people, maybe most, were born or bred liars.”
That quote appears somewhat short of halfway through Ken Kuhlken’s The Good Know Nothing, but it can be understood as the principal maxim of this novel—the seventh and, by all accounts, final installment in Kuhlken’s series featuring Tom Hickey and his trouble-attracting descendants. Even for a work of mystery fiction, The Good Know Nothing is thick with prevaricators. Nobody in these pages can be trusted, with the possible exceptions of Los Angeles police detective Hickey and his curvaceous younger sister, Florence. (Well, maybe Hickey’s daughter is on the up-and-up too, but she’s only 5 years old.) Such crowding of duplicitous and devious players follows a pattern Kuhlken established with 1991’s The Loud Adios. That book, set in 1943, first introduced Tom Hickey, who was then a private eye turned military police guard in San Diego, called on to help rescue a cohort’s sister in the Mexican border town of Tijuana.
Ever since The Loud Adios saw print, and won the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel contest, Kuhlken has been jumping around through the 20th century, penning sequels and prequels both. (“If I’d planned [to compose a series],” he told an interviewer not long ago, “I might’ve started from the beginning, rather than write them in no particular order. What happened was, once I got immersed in the drama of Tom’s life, stories just kept coming.”) The plot of his last book, 2010’s The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles (see how mendacity has become a durable theme with this guy?), took place in 1926 and found him probing the lynching of an old friend. The events rolled out in The Good Know Nothing occur a decade later, in 1936, at a time when the Great Depression still has a stranglehold on the United States, and Hickey has moved up from struggling musician to LA cop. His future is not assured, however, since his candor and resistance to corrupting influences have led him afoul of his LAPD superiors. What happens in this new yarn is likely to get Hickey kicked off the force altogether and maybe imprisoned to boot.
Hickey’s growing-up years provided no model for familial bliss. His mother, Milly, was a seamstress who did some work for Hollywood stars, but she was also a “crazy woman,” guilty of abusing her children; Tom finally ran away with Florence when he was a teenager, hoping to save them both. Meanwhile, their father, Charlie, had been employed as a butcher, but he vanished 25 years ago, before his son reached school age. Tom and Florence matured with a deep resentment against their father for abandoning them.
However, as The Good Know Nothing gets started, Charlie’s old pal Bud Gallagher comes to Tom with what seems like an incredible story. Charlie, he says, “never meant to forsake you kids.” Instead, he hightailed it out of LA as his wife was in the process of framing him for the murder of an oil tycoon’s heir, Terence Poole, and went off looking for another home where the three of them could make a fresh start. Gallagher also brings with him a 414-page manuscript, in Charlie’s handwriting, that he’d received through the mail back in 1923, while Tom’s father was still apparently traveling around the world. It turns out that manuscript tells the identical story contained in a 1926 novel titled The Death Ship, credited to B. Traven. Had this Traven fellow stolen Charlie’s tale and published it under his own moniker? And to cover his tracks, had he then bumped off Tom Hickey’s sire—is that why Charlie never returned to reclaim his offspring?
There are enough mysteries surrounding Traven’s identity to raise questions—and give author Kuhlken room to concoct his own answers. Traven was a historical figure, but little of his personal history is known. He was supposedly of German birth (rumored to be the illegitimate son of Emperor Wilhelm II), but lived for many years in Mexico. It’s said that multiple people hid behind the Traven pseudonym, one of whom might have been a stage performer and ardent activist named Ret Marut. Traven’s skill at developing American characters, in The Death Ship as well as in his better-remembered novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), from which the 1948 Humphrey Bogart picture of that same name was made, suggests he could have collaborated with an American expatriate in penning his fiction. Might that have been Charlie Hickey?
After decades spent wondering what became of his progenitor, Tom Hickey is provoked to sudden action by the unearthing of Charlie’s dusty manuscript. He already has multiple responsibilities, from his career with the LAPD to the care of his lovely singer wife, Madeline, and their small daughter. Yet he appears willing to risk it all in order to chase after a man who helped give him life, but who may long ago have gone to an obscure grave. Aided by one of his wife’s admirers, a writer/director of Paramount slapstick flicks, Hickey lures a gent claiming to be the elusive Traven’s secretary (but who might in fact be Ret Marut himself) out to the West Coast, on the pretense of negotiating Hollywood rights to Traven’s fiction. When quizzed about links between Charlie and the purported author of The Death Ship, this secretary spins an account jam-packed with adventure and famous figures—from acerbic journalist Ambrose Bierce and Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa to newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and Harry Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid (of Butch Cassidy infamy)—that may contain vital clues to discovering Charlie Hickey’s fate. Unless it’s another pack of lies. Tom goes with the former option, and determines to see where the trail might lead, even though it will mean driving across the parched reaches of America’s southwest, tangling with a corrupt and lecherous cop and confronting an outlaw who was thought to have been killed in Bolivia 18 years earlier.
Kuhlken shows great care in constructing his cast, making its members credible and not wholly predictable. That’s especially true of Tom Hickey and his firecracker of a sister. It’s the case as well with Longabaugh (or at least the creaky gambler who claims to be the sexagenarian Kid). Although not as magnetic as the character David Fuller portrayed earlier this year in his novel Sundance, the Longabaugh on display here definitely manifests raw charms. “You mighta heard the Kid’s one of the bloodthirsty kind,” he says to Hickey soon after they meet. “Well, that is by no means a fair call. Though I will admit to a hot temper. Tom, my life is comparable to that of most men. We find us a suitable vocation, and from then on, we got expectations to live up to and procedures the profession calls for.”
I wish I could be as flattering of this novel’s Hearst. Tom and his sibling go to considerable trouble to locate the publisher/kingmaker, borrowing a Packard from Florence’s employer, controversial evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and zigzagging Bonnie and Clyde–style through northern California, searching Hearst’s various princely properties. Yet when the media baron finally puts in a showing, it’s anticlimactic: He makes little impression on the page, leaving his mistress, actress Marion Davis, to do most of the talking.
Perhaps that’s one of the problems with injecting so many celebrities into a short mystery yarn: There’s not enough space for everybody to shine. Kuhlken had other priorities here. He needed to integrate the peregrinations of Charlie Hickey into the historical timeline. He had to establish a proper period backdrop (which he accomplishes mostly by mentioning passing architecture and then-current cultural developments). He had to provide sufficient fireworks to keep readers engaged, and solve not just the fate of Tom Hickey’s father (which, by the way, he does in violation of “fair-play” rules) but also the terminal assault on Terence Poole. All in 277 pages. With so much else going on, William Randolph Hearst—who during his lifetime probably enjoyed enough hours in the limelight to satisfy 50 normal men—could afford to take a back seat to other storytelling demands. And that’s the truth.