Off the Shelf: Post-World War II mysteries

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Reverberations from World War II have continued throughout the decades, but, when novelists deal with these echoes, they often focus on very different aspects. Take, for example, two recent novels: Joss Weiss offers a dystopian version of the United States in the 1950s – with Joseph McCarthy as its president – in “Beat the Devils” (Grand Central Publishing), while Claudia Riess focuses on art thefts that occurred during the war in “Knight Light: An Art History Mystery (Level Best Books), which takes place in contemporary times. Both works are mysteries, the former with a Jewish main character who survived the Holocaust and the latter with non-Jewish characters attempting to discover what happened to a Jewish-owned art gallery during the war.

Morris Baker, the main character in “Beat the Devils,” relives the horror of Holocaust in his waking and sleeping dreams. Desiring to do some good in the world, he became a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. When Morris and his Irish partner, Brogan Connolly, are called to investigate a double murder – John Huston, who had been blacklisted and no long makes films, and the young reporter Walter Cronkite – they find themselves told to back off when agents from the House Un-American Activities Committee Office (also known as Hueys) appear at the house. The Hueys are known not only for kidnapping and torturing those whom they suspect of being communists, but anyone who publically disagrees with any of McCarthy’s official policies. They also reflect McCarthy’s antisemitism. However, Morris finds himself unable to stop trying to learn the truth about the murders. He soon discovers a conspiracy that not only threatens the United States, but in which he is personally implicated. 

“Beat the Devils” is a complex mystery and thriller filled with exciting action. Even though readers may make some connections before Morris, there are more than enough plot twists to keep them involved. Even better is watching how the author develops Morris’ character. The cynical detective looks to reconcile his past with his present; he also must come to terms with the idea that many people believe their evil actions actually serve the greater good. It’s not clear at the end of the novel whether this is the first in a series, but, if it is, readers will certainly look forward to spending more time with Morris.

While “Beat the Devils” takes place in an alternative reality, the fictional world in “Knight Light” attempts to represent reality, although part of its plot does reflect that of Weiss’ novel. The detectives are Harrison Wheatley, an art history professor, and his wife, Erika Shawn, a magazine art editor, neither of whom are Jewish. Their current focus is on their newborn son. Then a former student of Harrison’s discovers a letter that could identity someone who looted Jewish art during World War II. Unfortunately, the discovery leads to murder. When Harrison decides the wrong person is being accused of the crime, he travels to Paris to learn more about the looted gallery, which moves the murderers’ focus to his family. It’s then up to Erika, with the help of an Israeli Mossad agent, to discover the truth behind the crime and uncover a conspiracy connected to the looted paintings.

At first, Harrison and Erika’s characters seemed too perfect, but this was the result of not having read the previous two books in the series. Their insecurities and difficulties are soon brought forth, which made them far more interesting characters. The last part of the novel was very exciting, for reasons that can’t be revealed because it would spoil the plot. Mystery lovers may find much to enjoy.