Alternate history typically answers a what-if question about a single pivotal event or decision. What if Nazi Germany won World War II. What if Japan hadn’t surrendered. And so forth. But Josh Weiss’ unconventional alternate history thriller, Beat the Devils, hinges on a much broader assumption. The hysterical “anti-Communist” movement after World War II has gained the ascendancy. Joe McCarthy is now in his second term as President, and agents of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), known as Hueys, are hunting “Communists” and homosexuals all across the country. An American Expeditionary Force has crushed Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba. In the absence of US support, Israel is about to surrender to the Arabs. And except for Disney, the government runs all of Hollywood’s movie studios merged into one. And it’s there, in Hollywood, that the action unfolds.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Somebody murdered John Huston and Walter Cronkite
July 1, 1958. Homicide detective Morris Baker is an odd man out at the LAPD. A Jew who retains the Czech accent of his homeland, he turns far too often to peach schnapps for peace in the face of the near-universal anti-Semitism confronting him. But he’s a great detective. And when he and his partner show up at the site of a double murder, he demonstrates his skill all over again.
A now-unemployed film director named John Huston and Walter Cronkite, a rising young CBS reporter, lie dead in Huston’s palatial home. And the Hueys who take over the case insist on treating it as a homosexual murder-suicide. But Morris knows better, and he’s determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. He will pursue the case despite repeated orders not to do so. And more and more bodies will fall as he gets ever closer to the shattering truth.
Beat the Devils by Josh Weiss (2022) 368 pages ★★★★★
Hollywood royalty costars in this alternate history thriller
Humphrey Bogart and Dalton Trumbo join John Huston among many then-famous Hollywood personalities in the story. Both play costarring roles. So do Edward R. Murrow and Wernher von Braun. Other luminaries make cameo appearances or appear in the background. After all, what’s a story set in Hollywood’s Golden Age without a full complement of the on-screen personalities that captivated the world for decades?
So, here’s what’s going on
In 1951, an English leftist writer named Claud Cockburn published a thriller with the title Beat the Devil under the pseudonym James Helvick. The book did poorly, but for some reason the award-winning Hollywood director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) bought the rights. He debuted a film of the same name in 1953, with Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollabrigida, and Jennifer Jones in the starring roles. It’s a story about a gang of shady characters who travel to Africa to pull off the biggest fraud in the world. Josh Weiss incorporates that African trip into his novel but dramatically changes the crooks’ identity and the nature of the fraud. I haven’t read Cockburn’s book or seen Huston’s film, but it’s clear that Beat the Devils bears little resemblance to either one. Neither was an alternate history thriller.
About the author
Josh Weiss writes about himself on his author website as follows: “Josh Weiss is an author from South Jersey. Raised in a proud Jewish home, he was instilled with an appreciation for his cultural heritage from a very young age. Today, Josh is utterly fascinated with the convergence of Judaism and popular culture in film, television, comics, literature, and other media. After college, he became a freelance entertainment journalist, writing stories for SYFY WIRE, The Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, and Marvel Entertainment. He currently resides in Philadelphia with his incredible wife, Leora; their adorable Cavapoo, Archie; as well as an extensive collection of graphic T-shirts, movie posters, vinyl records, and a few books, of course.” Beat the Devils is his first novel.
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