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(CNN) - "The Crook Factory" is a World War II espionage story of unique proportions. Set in Cuba, Dan Simmons relays the real-life adventures of Ernest Hemingway & his ragtag counter-espionage crew made up of friends from the Spanish Civil War, including (among others) bartenders, prostitutes, a priest, a millionaire, and a young boy. Perhaps the most impressive characteristic of this work of fiction, however, is that it's 95 percent true.
Simmons, known well among horror and science fiction enthusiasts, tackles a new genre with "The Crook Factory." His research is remarkable and proves for a strong foundation throughout the entire novel.
The protagonist is Lucas, an FBI agent by J. Edgar Hoover to keep an eye on Papa Hemingway during his sojourn into playing spy and chasing German subs in his boat, Pilar. Despite his initial feelings of indifference, Lucas grows quite fond of the writer and his particular slant on life. As history tells us, Hemingway and his crew never sank a German sub. They did, however, manage to discover much about how the FBI did its business in Cuba, some of which hints at conspiracy. In April 1943, "The Crook Factory" was shut down, and until this novel, the story of what went on has never really been told.
I'm always a bit skeptical when an author places real people into a work of fiction. What's more, given the nature of the subject matter, "The Crook Factory" might come off as hard to believe. For this, Simmons relies on historical facts and thorough research.
It's not necessary to be a Hemingway fan to enjoy this book. Although the plot is bound by history, the action is fast-paced and exciting. I found the insights into Hemingway's character and a glimpse into this small period of his life to be well worth the read. According to Simmons, "this period appears to be the basis for the raging paranoia in the last years of Hemingway's life - a period when the writer was certain that he was being followed by the FBI." Is this true, and if so, what could he and his crew have discovered to warrant such activity? Read "The Crook Factory" and find out.
At its center lolls the brawnily bravura Falstaffian bully/braggart Hemingway, who at age 43 lives with fourth wife Martha Gellhorn in their finca outside Havana, coasting on the great reviews of For Whom the Bell Tolls from two years earlier and editing his anthology Men at War; Hemingway is also overdrinking and trying to assemble a raggle-taggle spy group (or crook factory) in Havana to support his pursuit of Nazi subs with his famed fishing boat, Pilar, while falling under the spell of the FBI and IRS (who undermine his sanity, causing the paranoia that later leads him to suicide). And that barely scratches the surface.
Simmons also takes on Hemingway's sense of "the-true gen"-that is, how things work: guns, boats, boxing, fishing-and rivals him at his own game by creating a smartly characterized narrator, FBI agent Joe Lucas, who reads no fiction, has never read a word of Hemingway, and outsmarts Papa on boats, boxing, guns, and the true gen of spycraft. Simmons claims that ninety-five percent of his book is "true," derived from FBI files. Regardless, though, what helps vastly is that utter pragmatist Joe Lucas, fatally ill, has only nine months to write the book, unburdened by any strivings for an artistic excellence he knows nothing about. Thus when Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman show up to talk about filming For Whom the Bell Tolls,Joe has only the vaguest idea of what's under discussion.
Also on hand: foppish top spy Commander Ian Fleming, getting charged up for his James Bond novels. For a change, Papa never utters a syllable that rings false. Meantime, Simmons (Children of the Night, 1992, etc.) more than handily ladles out suspense, a German Mata Hari, and a steady stream of solemn bemusement. .
He finally did it on a Sunday, July 2, 1961, up in Idaho, in a new house which, I suspect, meant little to him, but which had a view up a valley to the high peaks, down the valley to the river, and across the valley to a cemetery where friends were buried.
I was in Cuba when I heard the news. There was some irony in this, because I had not been back to Cuba in the nineteen years since my time with Hemingway. There was more irony in the fact that July 2, 1961 was my forty-ninth birthday. I spent it following a greasy little man through greasy little bars, and then driving all night—still following him—as he drove three hundred and fifty kilometers out into the boondocks, out beyond where the armored train in Santa Clara marks the road to Remedios. I was out there in the cane fields and palm forests for another day and night before my business with the greasy little man was done, and I did not hear a radio until I stopped at the Hotel Perla in Santa Clara for a drink. The radio there was playing sad music—almost funereal—but I thought nothing of it and spoke to no one. I did not hear about Hemingway's death until I was back in Havana that evening, checking out of the hotel near where the U.S. embassy had been until Castro had kicked the Americans out just a few months before, in January.
"Did you hear, señor?" said the seventy-year-old bellman as he carried my bags out to the curb.
"What?" I said. The old man knew me only as a businessman from Colombia. If he had personal news for me, it could be very bad.
"The writer is dead," said the old man. His thin checks under the gray stubble were trembling.
"What writer?" I said, glancing at my watch. I had to make a plane at eight P.M.
"Señor Papa," said the old bellman.
I froze with my wrist still raised. For a brief moment, I found it hard to focus on the dial of my watch. "Hemingway?" I said.
"Yes," said the old man. His head kept bobbing up and down long after the single syllable was uttered.
"How?" I said.
"Gunshot," said the bellman. "In the head. By his own hand."
Of course, I thought. I said, "When?"
"Two days ago," said the old man. He sighed heavily. I could smell the rum. "In the United States," he added as if that explained everything.
"Sic transit hijo de puta," I said under my breath. A polite translation might be "There goes the son of a bitch."
The old bellman's head snapped back on his scrawny neck as if he had been slapped. His servile, usually rheumy eyes flashed a sudden anger bordering on hatred. He set my bags down on the floor of the lobby as if freeing his hands to fight. I realized that the old man might well have known Hemingway.
I raised my right hand, palm out. "It's all right," I said. "It's something the writer said. Something Hemingway said when they threw Batista out during the Glorious Revolution."
The bellman nodded, but his eyes were still angry. I gave him two pesos and walked out, leaving my bags near the door.
My first impulse was to find the car I had been using—and had left abandoned on a street just outside the Old Section—and drive out to the finca. It was only twelve miles away. But I realized that this was a bad idea. I had to get to the airport and get out of this country as soon as I could, not go wandering around like some goddamned tourist. Besides, the farm had been confiscated by the revolutionary government. There were soldiers standing guard out there right now.
Standing guard over what? I thought. Over his thousands of books that he hadn't been able to get out of the country? His dozens of cats? His rifles and shotguns and hunting trophies? His boat? Where was the Pilar? I wondered. Still berthed in Cojímar or pressed into service of the state?
At any rate, I knew for a fact that the Finca Vigía had been closed up for this past year with a battalion of former orphans and beggars receiving military instruction on the grounds. Word in Havana was that the ragtag militia was not allowed in the house—they slept in tents near the tennis courts—but that their commandante slept in the guest house, almost certainly in the same bed that had been mine when we ran the Crook Factory out of that same building. And I had film in the false lining of my suitcase that showed quite clearly that Fidel had stationed an antiaircraft unit on the patio of the Steinharts' home on the hilltop next to Hemingway's farm—sixteen 100-millimeter Soviet AA guns to defend Havana from the heights. There were eighty-seven Cuban gunners at the site and six Russian advisers.
No, not the Finca Vigía. Not this hot summer evening.
I walked the eleven blocks down Obispo Street to the Floridita. Already, just a year and a half after the revolution, the streets seemed empty compared with the traffic I remembered here during the early '40s. Four Russian army officers came out of a bar across the way, obviously drunk and singing very loudly. The Cubans on Obispo—the young men in white shirts, the pretty girls in short skirts—all looked away as if the Russians were urinating in public. None of the whores approached them.
The Floridita had also become property of the state, I knew, but it was open this Tuesday evening. I had heard that the bar had been air-conditioned in the '50s, but either my informant had been misinformed or the cost of cooling the place had become prohibitive after the revolution, for this evening the shutters were all up and the bar was open to the sidewalks, just as it had been when Hemingway and I drank there.
I did not go in, of course. I pulled my fedora lower and looked away for the most part, glancing in just once when I was sure my face was in shadow.
Hemingway's favorite bar stool—the one on the far left, next to the wall—was empty. This was not a surprise. The bar's current owner—the state—had ordered that no one could sit there. A goddamned shrine. On the wall above the empty stool was a bust of the writer looking dark, amorphous, and ridiculous. Hemingway's kiss-up friends had given that to him, I had heard, after the writer had won the Nobel Prize for that stupid fish story. A bartender—not Constante Ribailagua, the cantinero I had known, but a younger, middle-aged man in dark-rimmed glasses—was mopping the bar in front of Hemingway's stool as if expecting the writer to return from the baño any moment.
I turned back toward the hotel on narrow O'Reilly Street. "Jesus Christ," I whispered, mopping the sweat from under my hatband. They would probably turn Hemingway into some sort of pro-communist saint down here. I had seen it before in Catholic countries after a successful Marxist revolution. The faithful were kicked out of their churches, but they still needed their fucking santos. The socialist state always scrambled to provide them—busts of Marx, giant murals of Fidel, posters of Che Guevara. Hemingway as the patron saint of Havana. I smiled as I hurried across a connecting street so as not to be run down by a convoy of military trucks with Russian drivers.
"La tenía cogida la baja," I whispered, trying to pluck the phrase from half-forgotten bits of Havana slang. This city, above all others, should "know his weak points"—see the code under the surface.
I flew out of Havana that night, thinking more about the implications of my visit to the camouflaged camp south of Remedios than of the details of Hemingway's death, but in the weeks and months and years to come, it was those details, that solitary death, which grew to an obsession with me.
The first reports from the AP said that Hemingway had been cleaning one of his guns when it had accidentally discharged. I knew immediately that this was bullshit. Hemingway had cleaned his rifles and shotguns since he was a young boy and would never make such a mistake. He had—as the news reports soon confirmed—blown his own brains out. But how? What were the details? I remembered that the only fistfight Hemingway and I had ever had came as a result of his demonstration at the finca of how to kill oneself. He had placed the butt of his Mannlicher .256 on the rough rug of his living room, pulled the muzzle near his mouth, said "In the mouth, Joe; the palate is the softest part of the head," and then pressed the trigger down with his big toe. The hammer had dry-clicked and Hemingway had raised his head and smiled as if awaiting approval.
"That's fucking stupid," I had said.
Hemingway had propped the Mannlicher against the ugly floral chair, balanced on the balls of his bare feet, twitched his fingers, and said, "What did you say, Joe?"
"That was fucking stupid," I had repeated. "And even if it wasn't, putting the barrel of a firearm in your mouth is something only a maricóne would do."
"Fag" or "queer" is too-polite a translation for maricóne. We had gone outside by the pool and fought then—not boxed, but gone at each other with bare fists and teeth.
Hemingway would not have needed the barrel in his mouth in Idaho that July day in 1961. Within days of his last wife's report of death by accident, it became clear that he had used a shotgun to kill himself; a double-barreled twelve-gauge, although later reports differed as to the make. Hemingway's brother Leicester later wrote that the writer had chosen a silver-barreled twelve-gauge Richardson. His first biographer reported that it was the double-barreled Boss twelve-gauge with the slow choke, Hemingway's favorite gun for pigeon shooting. I think it was the Boss. The Richardson with its gleaming barrels was a beautiful show gun, but too flashy for such work as blowing the top of one's head off. I remember once on the Pilar, Hemingway reading a piece in a two-week-old New York Times about the twin pearl-handled pistols which General George Patton carried. Hemingway had laughed: "Patton will be pissed off. He's always correcting these shit-stupid journalists. They're ivory-handled pistols. He says that only a pimp would carry pearl-handled revolvers, and I agree." The silver-barreled Richardson would come too close to that for serious work, I think.
But as the weeks and months and years passed, I realized that it had not mattered so much which gun he had used that morning as did the other details.
In the months before his death, Hemingway had become convinced that the FBI was bugging his phones, following him, and preparing a tax case against him in collusion with the IRS which would ruin him financially. It was this delusion of FBI persecution, above all others, which had prompted his fourth wife to decide that he'd become paranoid and delusional. It was then that his wife and friends had taken him to the Mayo Clinic for a series of electroshock treatments.
The treatments destroyed his memory, his sex drive, and his writing ability, but they did not free him from his paranoia. On the night before he killed himself, Hemingway's wife and friends took him out to dinner at the Christiana Restaurant in Ketchum. Hemingway insisted on sitting with his back to the wall and became suspicious of two men at a nearby table. When his wife and a friend, George Brown, called over the waitress, named Suzie, and asked her to confirm who the strangers were, Suzie said, "They're probably salesmen from Twin Falls."
"No," said Hemingway. They're FBI."
Hemingway's sometime friend A. E. Hotchner wrote about an almost identical incident in the same restaurant, but eight months earlier, in November 1960. Hemingway had previously explained to Hotchner that he was being following by the FBI and that his phone was tapped and his house and car were bugged. Hotchner and Hemingway's wife, Mary, had taken the writer out to dinner at the same Christiana Restaurant. Hemingway was in the middle of an amusing story about the days when Ketchum was a wide-open gold rush town when he suddenly stopped in mid-sentence and said that they all had to leave. Their meals were unfinished. When Hemingway's wife asked what was wrong, he said, "Those two FBI men at the bar."
Hotchner had gone over to a nearby table where an acquaintance—Chuck Atkinson—and his wife were having dinner and asked if Atkinson knew the two men. "Sure," said the Ketchum native. "They're salesmen. Been coming here once a month for the last five years. Don't tell me Ernest is worried about them."
I know now that the two men had been coming to Ketchum for the five years previous to that day, where they went door to door in the area, offering encyclopedias for sale. They were FBI men, special agents out of the Billings office. As were the two other men on that Saturday evening in Christiana's on July 1, 1961. They were following Hemingway. They had tapped his phone. His house was bugged, but not his car. Earlier that winter and again in the spring, other FBI agents had followed Hemingway as he was flown in a private plane to Rochester, Minnesota, where the writer was to receive his electroshock treatments. On that first trip, in November 1960, just two weeks after Hemingway's "paranoid delusions" in the restaurant, the FBI men landed in a private plane just minutes after the Piper Commanche carrying Hemingway and his doctor had set down. But four agents from the Rochester office had already followed the Hemingway party into town, using two unmarked Chevrolets—one ahead of and one behind the car transporting the writer and Dr. Saviers.
On that first trip in November 1960, according to the "unfiled" FBI report—one of the thousands of J. Edgar Hoover's Personal OC Files ("OC" for "Official/Confidential") "lost" in the month after the death of the FBI director in May 1972—the FBI men tailing Hemingway had followed the writer into St. Mary's Hospital, where he was admitted under the alias of George Saviers, but they had stopped at the door of the Mayo Clinic when Hemingway was transferred there. They did not stay outside for long. Later files show that the FBI had interviewed Dr. Howard P. Rome, the senior consultant in the Section of Psychiatry who was in charge of Hemingway's "psycho-therapeutic program." Those same files show that Dr. Rome and the FBI men had discussed the advisability of Hemingway's electroshock treatment even before the writer or his wife was presented with the option.
As I mentioned earlier, J. Edgar Hoover's Personal File sections of the OC files—all twenty-three file cabinets' worth of them—Were "lost" in the days and weeks after the director's death, at age seventy-seven, on May 2, 1972. That morning, less than an hour after the discovery of the director's death, Attorney General of the United States Richard Kleindienst, after conferring with President Nixon, summoned Assistant to the Director of the FBI John Mohr to the attorney general's office, where Kleindienst ordered the assistant director to seal Hoover's office and to keep all files there intact. A little after noon on the same day, Mohr sent the attorney general the following memo:
"In accordance with your instructions, Mr. Hoover's private, personal office was secured at 11:40 A.M. today. It was necessary to change the lock on one door in order to accomplish this.
"To my knowledge, the contents of the office are exactly as they would have been had Mr. Hoover reported to the office this morning. I have in my possession the only key to the office."
Within the hour, Kleindienst reported to President Nixon that "the files were safe"—meaning the "secret files" that everyone in official Washington presumed must exist in Hoover's office.
What John Mohr had not told Attorney General Kleindienst, however, was that Hoover kept no files in his office. All of the FBI's most secret files were kept in the office of Hoover's secretary of fifty-four years, Miss Helen Gandy. And even by the time Hoover's office was being sealed that morning, Miss Gandy had begun reviewing the director's Personal OC Files, separating them, culling them, shredding many, and placing the others in cardboard boxes to be hidden in the basement of Hoover's home at Thirtieth Place NW.
With six weeks, those secret files would be moved again, never to be seen again by anyone within the FBI or in official Washington.
But I am ahead of myself. What matters at this point are the events on the morning of July 2, 1961, my forty-ninth birthday and Ernest Hemingway's last moments on the planet. Those events made me vow to do two things before I died. The first of those—to track down and liberate the FBI's secret files on Hemingway and his counterespionage ring in Cuba—would take me more than a decade of effort and would entail danger to my life and liberty. But the second promise I made in July 1961 would be, I knew even then, infinitely harder to keep. That was to write this narrative. In spite of the thousands of case reports I had written over the decades, nothing prepared me to tell this story, in this manner. Hemingway the writer could have helped me—indeed, he would have been wryly amused that I was finally forced to try to tell a story using all of the sneaky tricks in a fiction writer's repertoire. "Fiction is a way of trying to tell things in a way that is truer than truth," he said to me that night along the coast as we waited for the German U-boat to appear. "No," I had said then. "Truth is troth. Fiction is a pack of lies masquerading as truth."
We shall see.
The events of the morning of July 2, 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho ... Only Ernest Hemingway knew the truth of those few moments, but the results seemed obvious enough.
According to the testimony of his fourth wife and many friends, Hemingway had made several clumsy efforts at suicide in the months before and after his second series of electroshock treatments in May and June. Once, as he was returning to the Mayo Clinic, he had tried to walk into the spinning propeller of a small plane warming up on the tarmac. Another time, a friend had to wrestle a loaded shotgun away from Hemingway at his home.
Despite all this, Mary Hemingway had locked the writer's guns in the basement storage room but had left the keys to the room in plain view on the kitchen windowsill because "no one had a right to deny a man access to his possessions." I thought about this for years. They—Miss Mary and friends—had felt that they had the right to authorize a series of electroshock treatments which all but destroyed Ernest Hemingway's brain and personality, but she decided that she could not keep his guns locked away from him when he was depressed to the point of suicide.
That Sunday morning of July 2, 1961, Hemingway awoke early, as he always did. This morning was beautiful, sunny and cloudless. Miss Mary was the only other occupant of the Ketchum house, sleeping in a separate bedroom. She did not awaken as Hemingway tiptoed down the carpeted stairs, took the keys from the windowsill, went down to the storage room, and chose—I believe—his faithful Boss twelve-gauge. Then he went back upstairs, crossed the living room to the tiled foyer at the foot of the stairs, loaded both barrels, set the butt of the shotgun on the tiled floor, set the muzzles of both barrels against his forehead, I think—not in his mouth—and tripped both triggers.
I emphasize the details because I think it is important that he did not simply load the gun in the storage room and do the deed there, in the basement, where even the sound might have been swallowed by the intervening doors and carpeted floors and cinder-block walls. He carried the gun to the foyer, to the base of the stairs, to the one place in the house where it was guaranteed that Miss Mary could not get to the phone or the front door without stepping over his body and the pool of blood, splintered skull, and blasted brain tissue that had been the source for all those novels, all those stories, all the lies he once tried to convince me were truer than truth.
Some months earlier, Hemingway had been asked to write a simple sentence or two for a book commemorating JFK's inauguration. After hours of futile effort, Hemingway had broken down and sobbed in front of his doctor: the great writer could not complete a simple sentence.
But he could still communicate, and I think that the place and manner of his death were a last message. It was addressed to Miss Mary, of course, but also to J. Edgar Hoover, to the FBI, to the OSS ... or the CIA, as it was now called ... to the memories of those who were there that year between late April and mid-September 1942 when the writer played spy and became entangled with Nazi agents, FBI snoops, British spooks, Cuban politicians and policemen. Spanish priests and noblemen, ten-year-old secret agents and German U-boats. I do not flatter myself that Hemingway was thinking of me that last morning, but if his message was what I think it was—a last, violent move to declare stalemate to a decades-old game rather than suffer checkmate at the hands of a patient but relentless enemy—then perhaps I was woven into the tapestry of his thoughts that morning, a minor figure in a baroque pattern.
I hope that on the morning of my forty-ninth birthday, in Hemingway's last moments, he might have been thinking, if his sorrow and depression allowed him such a luxury as coherent thought, not only of his final, decisive, twelve-gauge gesture of ultimate defiance but also of any victories he had won in his long-running war against invisible enemies.
I wonder if he was thinking of the Crook Factory.
Posted September 7, 2000
I primarily know Dan Simmons as a writer in the ¿horror¿ genre. I¿ve read SONG OF KALI, CARRION COMFORT, SUMMER OF NIGHT and CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT, and I personally think that these books represent some of the best horror fiction written during the last twenty years. To my knowledge, THE CROOK FACTORY is Mr. Simmons¿ first venture into the ¿suspense/thriller¿ genre, and the quality of this novel is on par with his other works. The story centers on FBI counterintelligence agent, Joe Lucas, who is personally assigned by J. Edgar Hoover to help Ernest Hemingway set up a rather amateurish espionage ring in 1942 Cuba, where the famous writer is living. The purpose of the spy ring is to gather information concerning the activities of German Abwehr & SD agents in Havana, as well as possible German submarine sightings off the coast of Cuba. Lucas is told to not only assist Hemingway, but to also spy on him and report his actions directly to Hoover. Though Lucas doesn¿t take the assignment very seriously at first, it isn¿t long before he begins to suspect that there is something going on behind the scenes, and that quite possibly both he and Hemingway are being set up for a very dangerous fall. The question is who to trust? What¿s the FBI¿s true agenda with regards to Hemingway, and is Lucas expendable? And who should Lucas and Hemingway fear the most¿the FBI or the Germans? THE CROOK FACTORY is an excellent blend of history and fiction. Mr. Simmons does a marvelous job of weaving in real-life characters such as Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond), Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, and Marlene Dietrich with the fictional ones. The reader gets a good view of what the American, British, and German intelligence services were like during World War II in the southern Hemisphere, without being bored by too many details. In fact, during the three days I spent reading this novel, I actually felt that I was experiencing a small part of history¿that I was a part of the story, interacting with all of these wonderful and not so wonderful people. While the writing was light and fun to read, Mr. Simmons still managed to keep it suspenseful. Though I knew Hemingway committed suicide during the early Sixties, I couldn¿t help but wonder if he would make it through the summer of 1942. That I was still guessing right up to the end of the novel is certainly a credit to Dan Simmons¿ craftsmanship as a writer. If you want a good ¿read¿ for the end of the summer, this is definitely the book to get. Highly Recommended!
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 11, 2013
Posted May 23, 2005
Dan Simmons hits all the right notes in this novel. Hemingway is resurrected beautifully as a character; history and fiction are blended seamlessly. I have read and reread this story and recommend it to any mystery/thriller fan. The setting of Cuba comes alive, as do the myriad secondary characters sprinkled throughout the book. The final confrontation with the 'villian' in the graveyard and Hemingway's boat is the most vivid and memorable I've read. The only thing that hinders the flow of the story is the narrative jumping back and forth in time. Sometimes it works and is invisible, at others it is awkward. If I was stuck on a deserted island, this would be the one novel I'd want with me!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 13, 2001
I must admit that I was skeptical about reading a book filled with real and imagined characters. Ernest Hemingway in Cuba running a spy ring certainly peaks your curiosity. Throw in the legendary J. Edgar Hoover, a few crooked Cuban officals and movie stars from the the 40's and the plot becomes even more tantalizing. A very good read while riding the train to work.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 11, 2013
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