THE CROOK FACTORY
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Crook Factory is not necessarily the type of book generally associated with Dan Simmons. Best known for horror novels such as Song of Kali or Carrion Comfort, Simmons has also made a name from himself with the richly poem-based novels Hyperion and Endymion. The Crook Factory, on the other hand, is an historical novel based on the life of Ernest Hemingway between 1942 and his suicide in 1961.
Simmons opens the novel with a brief tour of Washington, D.C., which manages to effectively convey a more innocent period in US history. With a few brief comments, Simmons shows how different the country was at the start of World War II when fences had only recently appeared around the White House. At the same time, Simmons reminds the reader that the world of 1942 was not Utopian. Simmonss protagonist, Lucas, has Irish-Hispanic ancestry and must deal with the effects of open racism, even from his friends.
The story really gets under way when Lucas is assigned to keep surveillance on Ernest Hemingway in Cuba and the band of amateur spies he is putting together. Simmons portrays Hemingway as a larger than life figure, buying into the public persona which Hemingway cultivated throughout his entire life. Besides Hemingway and Lucas, however, none of the characters really come to life, although many are memorable, painted by Simmons with a few quick, descriptive strokes.
The Crook Factory is at its best when Simmons turns away from Hemingway's exploits and provides the reader with gossipy tidbits of intelligence about the FBI and other intelligence organizations in the 1940s. At times, Simmons's plot seems to interrupt these data dumps which are often more interesting. Early in the novel, when J. Edgar Hoover asks whether Lucas had read Sherlock Holmes, Lucas replies, "I don't read make-believe books." Unfortunately, The Crook Factory comes across as one of those make-believe books, most interesting when it delves into the world of real-life espionage.
Of course, The Crook Factory being fiction, Hemingway's entourage does manage to uncover incidents of Nazi spying in Cuba and must do their part to see that the American way of life is preserved. Unfortunately, the plots (both the novel's and the Nazi's) aren't really enough to ever fully engage the reader or to eclipse the factual information which Simmons provides.
The Crook Factory shows Simmons has done his research, and probably manages to pass his information along to the reader in a much more interesting way than a more conventional non-fiction book about espionage would do. However, in a reversal from most fiction, Simmons's data dumps are more interesting than the material they are supposed to support.
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