The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman
This novel combines two of my loves – detective stories and New York City history. Although it clocks in at over 400 pages (and does not need to) I finished it in a couple of days. It is the kind of book that leads me to plan on reading one chapter before turning out the light and then reading four.
In fact, an ocean liner, The Normandie, did burn in NY harbor while being converted into a troop transport ship in early 1942, adding to the already hysterical fear gripping the city after Pearl Harbor. The ensuing investigation showed that the fire was accidental, not sabotage, but led to a secret agreement between the US Navy and organized crime to keep the NYC docks free of both sabotage and labor disputes for the duration of the war. The history includes Albert Anastasio joining the army, Meyer Lansky getting into street brawls with German sympathizers in Yorkville and Lucky Luciano transferring to a prison closer to the city so he could better supervise his dockworkers.
To this history, Fesperman adds a varied cast of fictional characters and the expert plotting of a professional. Chief among the characters is Danziger, the letter writer of the title – an elderly Jew who makes a living writing letters in one of his 5 languages for fellow immigrants. The profession of letter writing allows Danziger access to any number of secret relationships at the same time it helps him hide his own past. Danziger gets mixed up with Woodrow Cain, an NYPD detective recently transplanted from North Carolina with baggage of his own. Detecting, both professional and amateur, ensues in complex and entertaining ways as Fesperman imagines both Murder Incorporated and the NYPD investigating the fire on The Normandie.
The weakness of the book is the detective. While a very sympathetic character, Woodrow Cain never seems fully fleshed out. He is a single father with a hostile father-in-law and a tragic past, but much of that comes across as information. Fesperman avoids any of the clichés that mark the rural-southerner-in-the-city trope – Cain is not slow of speech, not an unfashionable dresser, and he doesn’t have a font of homespun wisdom to draw on. But neither does he have any real feeling for his hometown: he remembers few people, longs for no particular food, misses nothing about the climate or the countryside and is rarely cowed by pace, size, music, economy or language of his new home. In short, he is not a clichéd southerner because he is not much of a southerner at all.
There is much about Cain’s background – his estranged wife, his struggles to find babysitting for his daughter, his new love-life in the big city, but most of that complicated his present as much as making him come alive. It is those details that seemed to push the novel past the 400 page mark unnecessarily,
However, I hope it also set up possible sequels. The war that has only just begun will be long and surely Woodrow Cain will have other cases worthy of Mr. Fesperman’s attention.