Nostalgia is a dish best served warm, but it doesn't hurt one bit if the source of the heat is a mystery that brings to mind gorgeous spies and odious moles who watched the first light of peacetime bleed into the twilight of the Cold War.
Jimmy Breslin meets John LeCarre in Herald Square: A Novel of the Cold War, by Jefferson Flanders, a historical novel that paints an artful, darkening picture of New York City and its newspapers in the parlous years after World War II. It was a time when Gotham had three baseball teams--Flanders lavishes attention on the pennant race--but his hero, a newspaper columnist named Dennis Collins with a hot Irish temper and a brother for a New York cop, is drawn inexorably into a world of Russian spies and duplicitous CIA agents that he can't really hope to understand until it's too late.
Like it or not, Collins is drawn into the American version of Smiley's world by his friend Morris Rose, a U.S. State Department operative who asks Collins to keep safe a mysterious canister of film for what turns out to be the longest week of the columnist's life. Complicating matters are the attentions of two women: the exotic Cold War refugee Karina, and the very social Virginia Allen "Penny" Bradford, his fiancée until the War in the Pacific blew their plans for a life together to smithereens. Neither turn out to be what they seem, to the eternal regret of the pugilistic columnist.
"The internal security people at State seem to have questions about my loyalty," Morris tells Collins. "It's because of the [Alger] Hiss mess. Anyone who doesn't think like Karl Mundt or the other reactionaries in Congress is suspect. They've been sniffing around me for a few months now. I'm afraid we're at the start of another Red Scare in Washington, just like what happened in 1919."
Yes: the second great Red Scare had begun and darkness would fall over the land.
With great assurance and real affection, Flanders serves up the dish that was postwar New York, with trips to the fights at the old Madison Square Garden and restaurants, like the Stork Club, that still whisper of a more glamorous time in the final moments before television took hold, when a newspaperman like Collins could still believe he had the center of the universe as his beat.
It is a time I'm particularly fond of because my father, Frank Conniff, was a columnist at the New York Journal-American, not unlike Dennis Collins at the fictional New York Sentinel. Jefferson Flanders's own father and mother were part of that newspaper world as well--they first met at the New York Herald-Tribune--and the novelist has profited mightily from tales told about the texture of that time at the feet of his parents.
What comes across in the writer's lean and clean prose is an unforgettable portrait of the time when there was every reason for the innocent to be scared--to be very scared.
The story line in Herald Square is based on the Venona program, a top-secret breakthrough that came when U.S. cryptographers cracked the Soviet Union's diplomatic code. Thanks to the novelistic skill of Jefferson Flanders as a Cold War storyteller par excellence, there is never a doubt that the events of Herald Square could have happened here.
Follow Michael Conniff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/michaelconniff