Courtesy of CRIME TIME UK

A Net of Good and Evil by Michael Scott Cain

The post-war communist witch-hunt which underpins this murder mystery is pretty dark and that’s the way most novelists spin it. Cain takes an original approach drawing on the farce and absurdity of the times to create a blackly comic tale. He captures the prevailing gloom but is always playful, not labouring any points about the rabid obsessions of the times. Consequently A Net of Good and Evil is light and wickedly entertaining. Like a lot of fiction, the stuff you imagine to be real is probably made up and vice versa.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) was set up in 1938 to look at threats to American democracy: Nazis? After WWII the focus was on the Communist Party of America, even though that was a legal organisation. Paranoia ramped up, anyone with a red tie or a pink skirt was suspect. So, paradoxically, the HCUA, the FBI and Sen. Joe McCarthy managed to create the biggest threat to the American way of life since the Salem Witch Trials.

A Net of Good and Evil is set in New York in 1949, pre-McCarthy’s list of ‘enemies within’, business and government organisations are just joining the red hunt bandwagon, getting organised for the coming purge… [Disclaimer: some people actually we’re Communists! Including a couple referred to here].

Damon Taylor, Crime Scene Magazine, is not happy, the other guys in the newsroom seem to be banging away at their typewriters on some story or other and all he’s got is a weasel faced guy standing in front of his desk bugging him about his neighbour. Russell Wallace may be a creep but he’s used to being taken seriously, Taylor could care less. Wallace gets to the point, he’s a “journalist” for Counterattack, as soon as he says it Taylor’s hackles rise. Counterattack is a reds-under-the-bed rag that smears and insinuates anyone it can’t actually pin evidence of communist affiliation on – nothing like Crime Scene. Taylor makes it clear Bob O’Bradovich, the neighbour, is a friend.

“Mr. Taylor, I’m afraid we may have gotten off to a bad start here.”

“It’s not going to get any better,” Taylor said, “so maybe you leave before it actually gets worse.”

The man scurries off with his tail between his legs, it won’t be the last time he gets short shrift in the remaining hours of his life.

This little contretemps in the office gives Crime Scene managing editor Lou Marsczyk an idea. John Rankin, Mississippi congressman, is on the HCUA, he blocked any attempt to investigate the KKK. He’s the reason people like Wallace are crawling out of the woodwork. Somebody powerful is behind Wallace and Counterattack, someone with money and influence. Taylor’s new assignment is to find out who. Crime Scene will be ready if these guys come for them.

Taylor goes to see buddy Bob at the NBC studios, (he works in TV), he warns him about Wallace, there’s probably nothing to worry about but just in case. Zero Mostel overhears, he knows Wallace, he knows these people are dangerous, it’s not over. Everybody supported Russia during the war but now that’s stick to beat people with.

Anthony Hayden owns one of the biggest ad agencies in America, he also owns Counterattack but he’s not ready for a face off with Crime Scene Magazine just yet so he carpets Wallace for drawing attention to the cause, shutting his investigation down. Wallace gets a new target an organisation called People’s Songs in Times Square, that’s where Russell Wallace gets his third roasting of the day. The door to People’s Songs is opened by a small wiry angry looking man who only gets more angry when he finds out who Wallace is. Meet Woody ‘This machine kills fascists’ Guthrie. This land is his land and no gutter press creep like Wallace is going to change that. When Guthrie threatens Wallace he runs off again, he heads home for the safety of his own bedroom. Which is when the gorgeous red head turns up demanding Wallace hand “it” over. She’s not buying when he says he hasn’t got it anymore. There are plenty of people who don’t like Wallace but Taylor, Guthrie and the mysterious red head are the main suspects when he turns up dead, (tortured and murdered).

Homicide cop Danny Murphy would like it to be Taylor, that would be nice and easy, but Taylor has an alibi, next best bet Guthrie. Taylor’s own investigation and Murphy’s don’t have a lot in common, (guess which one is more thorough). This is a story of folk music, blackmail, red bashing, police corruption, political conspiracy, a dangerous red headed femme fatale, money and murder. The pastiche of noir/hardboiled is a lot of fun, there’s enough mystery for it to be intriguing and enough humour for a breezy entraining read. This novel makes a serious point about tough times without being too serious. Cain has fun with tropes and pays respectful homage to the age of pulp. There’s more than a nod to Damon Runyon, his journalism and his New York stories, which adds to the fun.

Cain’s own hinterland infuses and enriches the novel, it’s clear he had a deep love of American music’s rebellious soul; jazz, blues, country. Cain sadly died in 2018, in his long literary career he was a poet, academic and journalist. This is the second Damon Taylor novel following Damon Runyon’s Boys.

Stark House Press, paperback, ISBN 9781951473082, 21/9/20

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