Death of a Century: A Novel of the Lost Generation

Death of a Century: A Novel of the Lost Generation

by Daniel Robinson

Paperback(Second Edition)

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Overview

Greenwich, Connecticut, 1922. Newspaperman Joe Henry finds himself the primary suspect when his friend and fellow reporter Wynton Gresham is murdered. Both were veterans of French battles during World War II—the war that was supposed to end all wars.

Unanswered questions pile up in the wake of a violent night: Gresham lies dead in his home; a manuscript he had just completed has gone missing; three Frenchmen have been killed in a car wreck less than a mile from Gresham’s home; and a trunk full of Gresham’s clothes sits neatly packed in his bedroom. When Henry discovers a one-way ticket reserved in his friend’s name aboard a steamship to France, he assumes Gresham’s identity and slips away from the grasp of the town sheriff to pursue the truth about his friend’s death. In Paris, he becomes a hunted man. To clear his name he must find Gresham’s murderer while evading his own demise and discover the secret revealed in the lost manuscript. In the process, with the help of other shattered expat veterans living in Paris, he finds hope in a world irrevocably altered by war. With cameos from Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, Death of a Century is at once a playful romp that brings the Paris of the Lost Generation to life and a compassionate story of the enduring impact of war on a generation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628727555
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 04/18/2017
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Daniel Robinson won the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize for his Depression-era noir The Shadow of Violence. He has a PhD from the writing program at the University of Denver and has published numerous articles about Hemingway and the post-WWI Lost Generation. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he teaches American literature and runs a small historical collectibles business.

Read an Excerpt

Death of a Century

A Novel of the Lost Generation


By Daniel Robinson

Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Daniel Robinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62872-550-6


CHAPTER 1

"America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. ... Speak it plainly, no people ever recovered from the distressing waste of war except through work and denial. ... Let's get out of the fevered delirium of war."

—Warren G. Harding, May 14, 1920


Joe Henry stepped from his Hudson sedan and pulled up the collar of his overcoat to protect against the evening rain mixed with icy snow and coming down in pellets. It had been snowing on the cold days and raining on the warmish days every day for two weeks, creating pools in town large enough to drown lap dogs and toddlers. raining hard enough to send rats running for the cover of warehouse basements and alley cats scurrying after them. Keeping bums inside their canvas tents and timid children under the cover of protective awnings. Keeping smart men inside their homes with a glass of bootleg to warm them. Which is where Joe should have been instead of wandering into the night's skein of rain.

Around the back of the restaurant, Joe knocked twice on the alley door. The door to Willie's had a Judas hole the size and shape of a mail slot at about eye level. It opened. Shadowed eyes peered through the grate at Joe followed by the sounds of chains and bars being removed from the door. When it had swung fully open, Joe walked in, thanking the mute man who sat on the stool and guarded the door. He shook off his rain slicker as he walked into the room's circle of dim light. He knew Gresham would not show. Why should a man drive into town on an angry night just to talk about a book he had written? Still, Joe thought as he waved to Willie, it would be bad form to not at least wait just in case. So he sat and asked the big man behind the stick for a whiskey.

Willie, the speakeasy's owner and bartender, had arms the size of rough-hewn timbers and a thin scar a few inches up and out from his mouth that provided the appearance of a constant smile. He looked as though he would be more comfortable under the hood of an automobile or in a fighter's corner than dressed in a starched white shirt and striped tie serving illegal drinks from behind polished oak.

Willie poured a shot for Joe and placed it on the counter. "You take up drinking alone, Joe?" he asked as he leaned against the bar, a slight brogue rolling his words.

Joe smiled in return. "Looks like it. I was set to have dinner with Gresham and talk about some book of his on the war." He tilted his glass in silent toast and drank. "But the rain, you know." He nodded toward the door.

"Gresham not like to get wet?" Willie asked, smiling.

"Not especially. The rain. Memories."

"The war?" Willie's smile dissolved.

"Yes."

"He ain't the only one."

Joe nodded. Like Gresham and Willie and others who had fought in the Great War, Joe carried both an abiding sense of loss and an overwhelming memory of the climate of death.

"He in the trenches?" Willie asked as he cleaned a glass with his rag.

"Yes," Joe said.

"Where?"

"Western Front."

"Where?"

"The Somme, Passchendaele, the Champagne." Joe took another drink. "With the Brits."

Willie sighed, "Bad."

Of the several speakeasies in town, Joe preferred Willie's. Willie had been in Donovan's Irish 69th. He had been over there from Rouge Bouquet through the Argonne. He knew the stories and the lies, and he knew enough truths to not pretend to know any more.

Willie pushed himself from the bar, tossed his rag over a shoulder, and went to wait on a couple of college kids fresh from the rain. Joe watched them shake out their coats and giggle at the drops wetting the wood floor. The young man, his hair black and slick from cream, wanted to look like an Oxford man but fell several levels short. The woman's laugh sounded like cheap change. Joe watched them for a few minutes then turned his attention back to the last of his whiskey. He paused, picked up his glass, and drank all but a single mouthful, then raised the glass to inspect the amber liquid in the light.

Finishing his first whiskey in silence, Joe watched in the mirror the few people who had braved the rain to come in for a drink. None was Gresham. Pulling from his shirt pocket a notebook and fountain pen, he wrote a short note to Gresham in case the man arrived later in the night, after Joe had slid himself between cold sheets.

"His book about the war?" Willie asked as he placed a second whiskey in front of Joe.

Joe took the whiskey and tilted it. "To the Lost," he said this time and closed his eyes for a moment, then drank. "I think so," he said, answering Willie's question. "He never told me, but I think it's about the Champagne."

Willie shook his head. "Bad," he muttered again.

"Worse than most," Joe agreed, "and most were bad enough."

Willie did not at first reply, but following a breath he asked, "It going to be one of those with maps and arrows, a lot of numbers? Those are the ones I like, the ones with maps. I never knew where the hell I was over there until I got me a book about the war that had maps and arrows. Them writers don't know a damn thing about what it was like over there, I already know that, but at least they can show me where I was. They set everything down in black and white, clear as gin. That I like." To emphasize his point, Willie tapped his finger against the top of the oak bar illustrating the importance to him of seeing things in some material and tangible form. Then he strolled down the bar, a man in control of his universe, no matter how small it may be.

A woman as alone as Joe and wearing a dress the green of pool table felt slid over a seat to be next to Joe. "You looking for company tonight?" she asked, her voice husky from drink and smoke.

He looked at her and saw that at one time she had been beautiful. However, like any rose at end of season, what was left of her beauty was remnant. She had dark circles under her eyes. Her lips were poorly painted and her dye job was new. Her skin was dry and wrinkled from a life lived on the lip of a bottle.

Joe smiled and said, "No. Not tonight."

She nodded, almost a shrug. She knew. She said, "I don't have what you're looking for."

"I didn't say that."

"You don't have to. I know."

Joe took a sip of his whiskey and let it slide down warm and comforting. "What do you know?"

She lit her own cigarette, blowing a breath of smoke toward the ceiling to join the decades-old haze of cigarette smoke already there. "I know you need something you lost a long time ago." Another drag. "Love maybe. That I don't know."

"What makes —"

She cut him off, "Because that's what I need. Only I'll settle for a lot less."

He nodded and she winked at him. "See you around sometime, maybe?" she asked.

"Maybe," Joe nodded.

She slid back over a seat and looked down at her drink on the bar between her elbows like a seer reading leaves. Only she couldn't see any futures. She saw what any lonely person sees when they look into a half-empty glass of whiskey. ... She saw the ruins of her life and heard only the inaudible voice of the past.

Like so many other young men who had gone to the trenches of the world war, Joe knew well those same sights and sounds of loss.

He stood and tossed silver coins on the bar. He nodded toward the fallen woman for Willie to bring her another round. Willie understood.

Holding the note outstretched toward Willie, he said, "Give this to Gresham if he comes in tonight."

Willie nodded and put the note in his shirt pocket.

"I'm heading home for a good night's sleep," Joe added as a pleasantry, for he never got a good night's sleep. Not since the war.

"I could use one of them myself." Willie reached to retrieve the silver then raised his hand for Joe to listen, "Matter of fact, there were these Frenchies in last night looking for Gresham. Said they were friends of his."

"How'd they know to come here?"

"Beats the hell out of me." He rubbed the stubble of his chin.

"They said they had a present for him from a friend in France, a book by some Joyce woman. I told'm I didn't know where he lived and they left. Said they'd check at the newspaper later."

Someone called from down the bar and Willie walked away to draw a beer for another customer. Joe pushed himself from the counter. He might just drive out to where Gresham lived outside of town. The short drive in the sleet was better than staring at plaster cracks in his bedroom ceiling.

The young collegiates were leaned into each other ignoring the rest of the world. Joe remembered once being something like that. That time seemed long in his past, before everything went all to hell in his life. A lot can be lost in the span of a handful of years.

As he walked past their table, he could hear the man singing into the woman's ear, "I am the Sheik of Araby / Your love belongs to me / At night when you're asleep / into your tent I'll creep."

The woman giggled her giggle and leaned her breast into the man's arm.

"Take care, Joe," Willie called from behind the counter.

"Will do," Joe said, waving. "You do the same."

Willie tilted his head as to say, "What else?" Willie had once told Joe that he had never gotten over the war but he had gotten past it by concentrating on simple things — properly brewing a pot of strong coffee, pouring a drink just right, tying a fly that catches a good fish. That helped, he said, because it was immediate and allowed nothing else and there was a right and a wrong and nothing else. and nothing hidden.

Joe drove his Hudson toward Gresham's home south of town, moving through the night with the sky and darkness pressing around him. He drove into the slanting rain, his headlights pinching shallow holes in the night, and felt as though he had been transported back in time. The sleeted rain beat against the roof of his automobile, thrumming a devil's tattoo causing him to miss the turn to Gresham's home.

Joe cursed himself when he realized his mistake and drove on to find the next available place to turn around. He knew, though, that roads engineered in the previous century for horse and wagon traffic were lucky to be paved, much less wide enough for a turnabout.

A dozen miles down the road, he spotted a number of car lights. Drawing closer, he saw the spotlights of police and ambulance pointing into the brush alongside the road like the jacklights of poaching hunters. He pulled in behind them and parked. Keeping his coat collar up and his fedora low over his ears, he walked to the first policeman he saw, a tall man in yellow rain slicker.

"What happened?" he asked the officer huddled into himself under the long slicker.

The officer lifted his head just enough to look through a curtain of water drops. "Who're you?"

"Joe Henry." When that brought nothing more than a blank stare, Joe added, "Reporter at the Beacon."

The officer ignored Joe and turned into the wind-driven rain, cupped his hands and yelled, "Hey, Sheriff, you got a reporter here. Henry something."

"Joe Henry."

"What?"

"Joe. Joe Henry."

"Yeah." The officer turned his back on Joe and walked away, cupping his hands around a cigarette to light it but the rain kept drowning the match. He unrolled the paper and dropped the tobacco between his lower lip and gum.

Joe looked in at the wreck. The car had come to rest on its side after rolling once, the top tilted like a man's hat tilted over one eye, and a couple of bodies on the ground with a gaggle of people walking around the scene. Wet snow had accumulated in patches on bushes, but everywhere else, where the car had rolled and where the sheriff 's people had walked was a muddy mire.

A short man made even shorter by his heavy yellow slicker approached Joe on the shoulder of the road. The man wiped his face with his wet hands and spat fully on the ground. He worked a chew over in his mouth like a masticating bull, spat again, then said, "Hello, Joe. What brings you out here? Can't be this. We ain't had time to report it yet, so's nobody could have told you."

"I was driving out to see Wynton Gresham."

Sheriff Jackson stepped one pace closer and looked over Joe's shoulder, down the long dark road in the direction of the turn off to Gresham's home that Joe had driven past.

Joe read his mind. "Missed the road," he said. "I was looking for a place to turn around. What happened here?"

The sheriff looked over his shoulder at the yellow-lit scene. "Accident," he said. Turning back to Joe, he asked, "Why do you smell like whiskey?"

Joe shrugged. "Throat lozenge."

"Throat lozenge." Sheriff Jackson nodded.

Joe nodded toward the wreck spread along the borrow ditch. "What's the story?"

"The story is just what I told you, an accident. People driving like bats out of hell on slick road top."

"That's it? No names?"

The sheriff smiled and spat again. He rubbed the brown spittle into the rain soaked dirt with the sole of his boot. "A couple of Frogs couldn't keep to the road and killed themselves in a car accident."

"Frogs?"

"Frenchies. Frenchmen. Hell, Joe, didn't you learn nothing when you were over there?" He paused to scratch the back of his neck. "Don't know why they'd be driving around here in the middle of the night though."

"You sure they're French?"

"Wee-wee, moan amee. French as fries. They have papers and boat tickets and letters, all in French, and they have French passports. I haven't checked all their pockets, but I'd say that about makes them Frenchmen, wouldn't you?"

Through a curtain of water dripping off the lip of his hat, Joe looked at the sheriff who looked back at Joe through dark and thin eyeslits that showed Joe just how displeased the sheriff was at having to venture out that night from the comfort of his home. He'd probably already kicked off his boots and had sat in front of his fireplace, sleepy from dinner and holding a glass of confiscated hooch in his hand, when the call had come in about a road accident. He had to leave that hearthstone, don his slicker and overboots, and return to the slush and rain of the night.

Joe retrieved his notebook and fountain pen from his shirt pocket and wrote down the specifics of the accident. He huddled over the notebook like a hunchback as he wrote, asking a question and writing the sheriff 's answer before asking another. The sheriff waited patiently between questions, sometimes watching his men clear the accident area and sometimes spitting and watching Joe write.

At night, Joe dreamed too much for restful sleep. And the images he dreamed, the memories conjured, were as etched by acid to the point where he sometimes woke wondering whether the world was his. Writing this story would give him purpose while he held off sleep. Better than walking the walls.

After visiting Gresham he would drive home and spend a while with his bottle of bathtub as he drafted the story. In the morning he could call in about the accident, tell Fleming, his city editor, that he would write the story before coming in to the office. Then he could relax for an extra hour over another cup of coffee. Around noon, he'd just waltz into the day room with the completed copy. Simple stuff, he thought, like living life as though it were mapped — fill a white page with black letters, tell the facts. Like watching the world go by from an upstairs window.

He scribbled what he learned from the sheriff —who the victims were, the approximate time of day, the make of the vehicle. He added a few quick notes from what he could see in the dark and hollow night. He considered walking through the mud and wet grass to where the dead men lay but he knew enough of how men looked when they died violently that he could write that himself. It was a memory that visited him with the regularity of a wound clock.

The ambulance drivers hauled two filled gurneys to the road, humped and swaddled bodies of the dead. Under those rainwet blankets, they no longer looked like the shapes of men. Covered with gray blankets, they became something else, bags of sand. He would not write that in his story, he thought as he turned to leave.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Death of a Century by Daniel Robinson. Copyright © 2015 Daniel Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Death of a Century: A Novel of the Lost Generation 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed this novel of post WWI . Good plot and interesting.