When we first considered writing a series of World War II-era mystery novels set in New York City, we wondered if even the largest city on America’s homefront experienced enough action, conflict, suspense and terror to make for compelling wartime stories. When it comes to WWII narrative, the great European cities—Berlin, Paris, Prague—had terror in spades. Nazi evil threatened personal safety and human decency at every turn, and no one knew whom to trust. In London, during the Blitz, bombs rained indiscriminately down from Luftwaffe planes, destroying homes, churches, schools, and killing men, women, and children. Life was precarious, tense, dangerous. The days were shadowed with fear, the nights, with dread.
Over there, people were desperate—scant food, no heat, homes destroyed. Nothing was certain; either their country had already been invaded, or could be at any moment. Treachery, betrayal, and disaster lurked around every corner. What more could a mystery novelist ask for? Conflict, danger, and uncertainty built right into the shared set of historical images that makes up our common story of the past. Popular history is a powerful thing, providing us with highly colored lenses through which we know the past—and through which readers read, supplying mood and image to supplement what might not appear on the page.
But, when we think of New York City during WWII, what springs to mind? The Stage Door Canteen, Liberty bonds, scrap drives, the Coney Island dim-out, rationing of sugar, coffee, cigarettes, and gasoline. The Greatest Generation: war bringing out the best in everyone. GI Joe and Rosie the Riveter. Brave men, resourceful women, and spunky girls drawing seams up the back of their legs once nylons became impossible to find.
In the current popular imagination, New York, safe on the far side of the vast Atlantic and thousands of miles from the Pacific theater, simply does not offer the same dramatic narrative opportunities as do other settings. What endures is the inspirational story Americans needed to hear during wartime: we were strong, we were brave, we were ingenious, we were moral. We could fight this war, and we could handle deprivation on the homefront. We were all those things. But what we weren’t—at least in New York, and, I suspect, in many other places in the nation—was safe and predictable and boring. Historical memory is a tricky thing.
In actuality, WWII New York City was bursting with the stuff of narrative drama. The city was overrun with imperiled European refugees desperate for safety—royals, intellectuals, artists, scientists. U-boats lurked just offshore, even infiltrated New York harbor, attacking merchant ships and troop carriers, landing enemy saboteurs on Long Island. Profiteers and black marketers made fortunes exploiting wartime necessities, while neighbors scrutinized each other for signs of hoarding. Scientists worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project at Columbia University uptown and in office buildings downtown. The OSS recruited the city’s young men and women for training as spies and code breakers. G-men and the New York City police battled over jurisdiction in criminal cases. Even the Mafia got involved; with the U.S. Navy decimated, mob boats agreed to patrol the city’s waterfront against sabotage or possible U-boat attack.
Perhaps provoking the most dread was the possibility of aerial bombardment. Early on, our government announced that Hitler’s engineers were developing a long-range bomber that could possibly reach America’s East Coast—and that New York City would be the primary target. We know that the city was never bombed during the war, but they didn’t know it wouldn’t happen. In short, the stuff of narrative energy—anxiety, conflict, mystery, suspense, betrayal, and dread—abounded on this side of the Atlantic, as it did in Europe and elsewhere. New York had different stories than London or Paris or Manila, but, boy, did it have stories!
Did you know that on the night of December 7, 1941 and on into the next morning, the FBI pulled out the secret dossiers they’d been keeping on prominent New York residents of Japanese origin? In company with New York City police detectives, G-men prowled from household to household snatching up influential residents and taking them to detention on Ellis Island. This incident provided the background for FACE OF THE ENEMY (Poisoned Pen Press, September 2012), the first book in the New York in Wartime series. We created the character of Masako Fumi Oakley, celebrated avant garde artist and extremely convenient suspect, who is suspected both of espionage and murder. Was Masako guilty? Or was she a victim of racial hysteria and paranoia?
And FACE is only the first of the compelling mysteries New York City has offered for our series. Next, we tackle the re-e-e-al story behind the inferno that destroyed the French luxury liner, the Normandie, as it was being converted into an American troopship in its Hudson River pier at West 48th Street. Oh, yes. New York has plenty of tales to tell.