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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hilarious Spy, Laugh-out-loud Dialog and Sharp Characterizations Put World War Two Yarn at the Top of the "To Read" Stack

By Jerry Jay Carroll
(Published by the author)
362 pages
ISBN-10: 0989826902
ISBN-13: 978-0989826907
(Also available in Kindle format through Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)

Lowell Brady, Jerry Jay Carroll's fictional whistle-blower in The Great Liars, is the damnedest spy in contemporary literature.

Brady lacks even rudimentary tradecraft, has no particular expertise with weapons, and operates under a cover that is anything but glamorous, passing himself off as a southern "hog grower." In fact, Brady resembles James Bond, the gold standard for fictional undercover operatives, only in his overactive libido and seemingly insatiable desire for fine wine, four-star dining and expensive clothes.

All of which is to say he is a splendid antidote to the Jack Ryans, Jack Bauers and Jason Bournes that currently clog spy fiction, a trio of supermen who always manage to stay mentally at least one step ahead of their enemies, can knock an ant's eye out with a nine millimeter from 100 feet and know every type of martial art practiced in the mysterious East.

If you are looking for a protagonist who tries to avoid danger (or even hard work), constantly pursues his own self-interest and still makes out like a bandit, Brady's your huckleberry: in the entire 362-page yarn former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carroll has written about Brady and his misadventures immediately before, during and after World War Two, the only time Brady gets into trouble is when he succumbs to a momentary urge to do the right thing.

Author and former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jerry Jay Carroll

It is just such an altruistic error that makes him a target of the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI.

Here's the set-up: Brady is a spoiled only child who oils his way through life on personal charm and a deft wit. He uses his family connection to a powerful U.S. Senator to win appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and, despite his mediocre performance at that institution, he gloms an assignment to the White House after graduation and becomes a pipeline for intelligence between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

From this vantage point he is privy to some of the most closely guarded secrets of World War Two, and shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he learns that the U.S. has broken the Japanese diplomatic codes and is reading messages that presage the attack on the Army aircraft and U.S. Navy vessels that are there.

The attack will give the U.S. the excuse it needs to enter World War Two, just as Roosevelt wishes. The president has been manipulating the fleet to put dozens of ships and thousands of men at risk solely for this purpose -- to inject the country into the conflict before England and Russia are defeated.

Senior officers who have ferreted out Roosevelt's plan persuade Brady to warn the admiral in charge of the Pacific fleet that the attack is coming. He reluctantly agrees, but the Japanese attack wipes out most of the fleet despite his warning. The U.S. is able to enter the war as Roosevelt planned, but the moves taken by the fleet prior to the attack make it clear that somebody in Roosevelt's inner circle has blown the whistle. The White House quickly settles on Brady as the backstabber responsible.

Afraid to have Brady eliminated outright for fear his death might give J. Edgar Hoover material to blackmail the White House, Roosevelt and his aides have the captain dispatched to the Pacific where they hope the Japanese will do the job for them. Brady survives, however, and winds up fleeing agents of the CIA and the FBI after the war.

To find out how everything sorts out, you will simply have to read the book. Don't worry: you will enjoy yourself thoroughly.

Carroll unfolds Brady's story by shifting the novel's point of view back and forth from the first-person recollections of the protagonist, a patient enrolled in a veterans' medical facility under the pseudonym Kermit Crockett, to those of Harriet Gallatin, a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution who is interviewing him as part of an oral history project.  Later in the narrative, he kicks the plot along by including confidential memoranda commenting on the action from Hoover to Clyde Tolson, his paramour and top deputy.

To a large degree, the plot follows fact in Carroll's book. The U.S. did break the Japanese codes and had advance notice that ships were being deployed for a massive attack against the U.S. And there is no question that information was withheld from the fleet units at Pearl; the only debate is whether this occurred deliberately or through ineptitude. The evidence, best summarized in Day of Deceit by Robert Stinnett, suggests it was deliberate.

But whether the White House conspired to lure the Japanese into sinking of much of the U.S. fleet and killing more than 2,000 people is really secondary in Carroll's book; the real subject of the novel is Lowell Brady, one of the most memorable protagonists in recent memory.

Carroll grabs the reader from the first paragraph when he has Brady tell Harriet, "What I told you about not knowing Franklin or any of the other big shots back then was a crock. I knew him, but not well -- a mile from it. I don't think people even close to him knew the man, not even Eleanor."

This immediately identifies Brady as an eyewitness to important events in U.S. history and also has the effect of forcing readers to engage with Brady's story by forcing them to fill in the blanks -- namely that the Franklin and Eleanor whose names are being dropped are the Roosevelts, critical figures in Twentieth Century America.

What follows is a wild ride in which Brady is a veritable Leonard Zelig, who not only spends time with the Roosevelts and Winston Churchill, but also Harry Hopkins, Wallis Simpson, Charlie Chaplin, Lord Mountbatten, Dylan Thomas, Joseph Stalin, Clare Booth Luce, Douglas MacArthur and many more.

It doesn't hurt that the reader spends most of the book smirking at Brady and the jams he finds himself in; The Great Liars is filled with hilarious dialogue that makes most of it flat-out hysterical.

There are generally two ways to write a funny thriller: have the characters find themselves in humorous situations or have the characters say witty things. Carl Hiaasen (Tourist Season, Bad Monkey, Skinny Dip) generally uses the first, putting his characters in the middle of events so ludicrous that the reader can't help but guffaw. Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The Lady in the Lake) uses the second, filling his detective Philip Marlowe's mouth with wisecracks and witticisms, often during tense moments in his plots.

While Carroll exploits the former he tends toward the latter. Thus, when Brady tells his young interrogator of an assignation he had with Luce, the playwright and politician whose husband, Henry, was the founder of Time Magazine, Carroll writes:

"She was a woman of 'robust appetites,' she said over a cocktail in the hotel lounge. Fifteen minutes later she was proving it. I never saw a woman get out of her clothes so fast."

"'A brainless fuck; just what I needed,' she said afterward....'I was desperate enough to pick up a stevedore at the loading docks.'"

The novel is liberally strewn with these little pearls. Of a steersman aboard a Naval vessel Brady says: "If dumb was dirt, he'd cover an acre." On transferring to a Navy base in Rhode Island, he says "We arrived back at Newport after the bars closed. It was so quiet the crack of billy clubs on heads carried across the water." Of his own courage during combat, he comments "When bullets fly, give me a job shuffling papers behind the lines and you have a friend for life."

Similar bon mots reward the reader on almost every page, and their quality remains consistently high. For example, toward the end of the book, Brady describes the Marines who were assigned to take and hold Guadalcanal thusly:

"Rough as tree bark, those men. They had brawled with soldiers and sailors in bars from Manila to Peking. They preferred hair tonic to post-exchange beer and could live on goat jerky. But they were crack shots with rifles and pistols and had expert badges for machine guns, grenades,         mortars and bayonets and just about every other weapon you could name. You didn't want to mess with those ol' boys."

The frequent laugh lines will leave readers wearing silly grins that will last for hours -- and don't be surprised if you find yourself trying to work them into your conversations with others.

Despite the book being advertised as a thriller of sorts ("Lt. Lowell Brady knew the government's secret. So he had to die," its jacket says, ominously), there are only a few moments of actual suspense scattered throughout its 362 pages. But this is one of those novels in which thrills are really of negligible importance. The laughs and sharp characterizations that The Great Liars contains more than make up for any nail biting moments it skips, and the humor, alone, is well worth the price of admission.

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