The Barnes & Noble Review
John Dunning is a first-rate suspense novelist whose best work has directly reflected the various facets of his career. His experience as an antiquarian book dealer served as the basis for his award-winning Cliff Janeway novels, Booked to Die and The Bookman's Wake. His work as a historian of the early days of radio (On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio) now provides the backdrop for his latest book, a big, enthralling period mystery called Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime.
Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime takes place during the summer of 1942, just months after America's entry into World War II. Its appealing hero is Jack Dulaney, a former novelist whose damaged eardrum has kept him from being drafted. In the wake of a pair of personal tragedies (the death of his oldest friend at Pearl Harbor, the end of his love affair with Holly Carnahan), Jack has lost his way. As the novel opens, he is living in California and serving a three-month sentence for assault. When word reaches him that Holly is in some sort of trouble, Jack escapes and makes his way to Holly's home in rural Pennsylvania. From there, he follows an enigmatic series of clues that lead to a small New Jersey resort town called Regina Beach.
In Regina Beach, Jack makes a number of concurrent discoveries. First, he locates Holly, who has begun to make a name for herself as lead singer in a local band. Second, he uncovers evidence of a complex conspiracy that may have resulted in the death or disappearance of Holly's father, a handyman employed by WHAR, the Regina Beach radio station. Third, he discovers his own
affinity for the powerful, largely untapped medium of radio. After spending a brief apprenticeship writing "continuity" to fill the gaps between scheduled programs, Jack finds his voice and produces a series of original, controversial radio dramas that test the limits of the form.
From this point forward, Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime follows two interconnected paths: Jack's development of his own latent gifts and his simultaneous pursuit of the truth behind the disappearance of Holly's father, a disappearance that gradually sheds light on the tragic political history of an increasingly violent century. Dunning's knowledge of -- and affection for -- the world of old-time radio suffuses the narrative and lends its central dramas an aura of unimpeachable authenticity. The result of all this
is a compulsively readable novel that works on a number of levels: as a mystery, as a meditation on history, as a novel of character, and as an artfully detailed portrait of a vibrant, vanished era.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).
Read an Excerpt
Today, if she should by some trick materialize in the jail beside him, he could do a better job explaining it to her. It began with the fact that his lifelong pal had seen her first. He would always think of them as a couple, even if the stars weren't working and they never actually married. She knew this, of course, but there are shades of truth. He and Tom had been closer than brothers.
Most people would say that didn't matter now. Tom Rooney was at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, but even after his death she was still, in Dulaney's mind, Tom's woman. He would not come slithering upon her like some carpetbagger, wearing the shoes of a summer soldier. Tom would come calling, like Marley in chains.
But she was always on his mind as he worked his way across the land, and he'd thought about little else since yesterday noon. It had begun with the clang of the jailhouse door, the deputy waking him from a light sleep. "You got comp'ny, Dulaney. Fella says he's your lawyer."
Dulaney didn't have a lawyer. It had to be Kendall: nobody else would know or care where he might possibly be. The deputy opened the cell and motioned Dulaney ahead of him, along a dimly lit hallway to a little room at the end. The window was barred and the room was empty except for a battered wooden table and two rickety chairs.
Kendall was sitting in one of the chairs. He didn't look like a lawyer. His clothes, like Dulaney's, were those of a workingman. His shoes were scuffed and coming out at the toes. He looked like what he was, an out-of-work radio actor who had seen better days.
They shook hands and Dulaney sat at the table. The deputy stayed in the room, at the edge of earshot.
"How'd you find me, Marty?"
Kendall smiled sadly. "You weren't at the hotel, so I tried the café. I got there just as the paddy wagon was pulling out."
"I'm a little amazed they let you in here."
Kendall lowered his voice, cutting his eyes at the deputy. "I keep telling you, Jack, I was a damn good actor in my day. So what happened?"
Dulaney smiled. "Just a little mayhem. Resisting arrest. Assault on a police officer. Kid stuff."
Kendall stifled the urge to laugh. Dulaney noticed streaks of gray in his mustache and in the curly hair around his ears. He had always thought of Kendall as around forty but now he thought fifty was closer.
He told Kendall how the trouble had started. He had gone out to get something to eat. Some sailors and some girls started razzing him about being in the home guard. "I guess I was the only fellow in the place out of uniform. This is nothing new. In the Civil War women would see a man out of uniform and they'd shame him in public."
Kendall said nothing. "They probably don't bother you," Dulaney said. "You're a bit older than me. And most of the time I don't let it bother me. But this one gal wouldn't leave it alone. She had the waiter bring me some squash. That's supposed to be the last word in insults. You feed squash to the home guard so the color'll stay bright in their backbones."
"So what did you do?"
"Hell, I like squash. Figured I might as well eat it." Dulaney leaned forward. "I've been hungry enough times that I'm not about to let good food get chucked just because some silly female wasn't raised right. What happened next is probably in the arrest report."
"They say you took on the whole café."
"One thing led to another. I finally told those boys they'd end up in the clap shack if they didn't quit messing with whores. I didn't have to say that, but there we were. The sailors had to stand up and they came up short. If those are the best fighting men we've got in this war, we may be in trouble."
The deputy cleared his throat. "You boys start winding it up."
"It didn't last long. The gendarmes came, four big cops with their billies out." Dulaney touched his head, a tender place the size of a peach.
"I wish you hadn't taken on the cops, Jack."
"I've got nothing against cops as a rule, but the sight of a billy club gets my back up. I've known too many good people who got their heads busted open just because they were down on their luck. So here I am."
"I hear judges get real mean when you start fighting with cops."
"The guard says he'll give me six months, unless I've got the money for the fine. That seems to be automatic for a first offense. If I volunteer to go to the work camp he'll cut my time in half."
"What are you talking about, a chain gang?"
"They don't call it that and they don't chain you together. I get the feeling it's not official and maybe that's why we get to choose. The word comes back to the prisoners through the guards if you work, they'll cut your time; if you don't, you go to jail and serve it all."
"Man, that stinks. Goddamn judge is probably getting paid off."
"Maybe so, but I'm going to take it. I'll use it in a book."
Kendall didn't say anything but again Dulaney felt a strain in the room between them. He couldn't put his finger on it, what it was about Kendall that had bothered him from the start. He thought there was a lie somewhere, that some part of Kendall's old life had been omitted or fabricated, and Kendall couldn't lie without turning away. Kendall had been an accomplished radio actor who could live a dozen lies a week on the air, but in real life he was like Dulaney: he couldn't lie to a friend.
"What's the matter with you, Marty? Something's been eating you since the day we met."
The deputy's voice cut across the room. "You boys about done?"
"Give us one more minute," Dulaney said.
He leaned over, and softly, so the guard wouldn't hear, said, "Are you in trouble with the law?"
"Hell no. I've never even been inside a jail before today. Christ, why would you even think of something like that?"
"I've been around enough men on the lam to know another one when I see him. Something's been on your mind, right from the start."
Kendall shook his head, a slight movement, barely perceptible. "That doesn't make any sense. How could I be running from the law and still trying to get back into radio?"
Dulaney waited but Kendall did not enlighten him. The guard made a time's-up motion with his hands. Dulaney said, "Look, I'd appreciate it if you'd check me out of that hotel. Pick up my papers and my notes. There's a half-finished story I'm working on: make sure you get that. Put it in a box and stash it in the trunk of the car."
"Consider it done."
"You've been a good friend, Marty. Even if I'm not always sure I know you."
"Let's go, boys," the deputy said.
But then at the last moment Kendall said, "Just one more thing. Do you know a woman named Holly Carnahan?"
Dulaney tensed. "Yes, I know Holly."
"There's a letter for you at the hotel. It just came today. It's three months old."
"Go back to the hotel right now," Dulaney said. "Open it and read it, then come here tomorrow and tell me what it says."
Copyright © 2001 by John Dunning