The Crook Factory
by Dan Simmons
Cover Artist: Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Review by Verna Suit
Mulholland Books Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316213455
Date: 05 February 2013 List Price $15.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
It's 1942 and writer Ernest Hemingway is living in Cuba. Shortly after Pearl Harbor he takes it upon himself to set up his own counterespionage ring there, which he dubs 'The Crook Factory'. Unfortunately this private spy ring brings him to the unwanted attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
The story is told by fictional FBI special agent Joe Lucas, whom Hoover personally tasks with inserting himself in Hemingway's operation. Lucas' brief is to report back on Hemingway's activities in order to minimize the damage he might cause. Lucas has lots to report.
Hemingway invites Lucas to stay at a guest house at his farm, Finca Vigia, which gives him an ideal vantage point on the activities of the Crook Factory. The group is an odd collection of characters who have been drawn to the famous author or been taken under his wing. Hemingway keeps them busy. They follow politicians, policemen, and other suspicious characters, and report on the doings of a large yacht moored in Havana Harbor that is believed to be servicing German submarines. The murder of the yacht's radio operator provides Lucas and the Crook Factory with a concrete mystery that needs to be solved. But Hemingway's pet project that he personally directs and participates in, to his own and everyone else's peril, is chasing and trying to capture shadowy German subs.
Author Dan Simmons does an admirable job of bringing Hemingway to life. Most importantly, he sheds light on Hemingway's often overlooked time in Cuba. Simmons claims that 95% of The Crook Factory is true, and includes a useful appendix listing the factual details and events upon which the story is based.
The Crook Factory was first published in 1999 by Avon but now is out in a new edition from Mulholland Books. It can't be described as a tightly plotted mystery; rather, it seems more a collection of vignettes with a mystery element thrown in. What will strike a reader from the beginning is the huge amount of detail that is included. Granted, much of it is fascinating -- Hemingway's relationships with his sons, for instance, and with his third wife Martha Gellhorn. Hemingway's philosophy that life is all a game comes across clearly. And the celebrities that pass through the pages and the side stories of international affairs of the 30s and 40s are often captivating.
The author's approach in this piece of historical fiction is likely summed up near the end, where narrator Lucas explains the only way he knows to tell a story. It is as Hemingway once described to him: "...marshaling all the facts and details and marching them all through the book like prisoners of war through the capital, letting the reader sort out the important details from the dross."