The citizens of Black River Falls are polite, understanding, and respectful—except when it comes to communism. Joe McCarthy has been dead for two years, but men like Richard Conners are still fighting to clear themselves of his accusations. A liberal who served faithfully under Roosevelt and Truman, only to be slandered as a red during McCarthy’s witch hunts, Conners has begun getting death threats written in blood. He hires private investigator Sam McCain to protect him, but no sooner has Sam taken the case than Conners turns up dead.
The local sheriff gives McCain twenty-four hours to find his client’s killer. Although the obvious suspect is one of the local red haters, McCain isn’t positive that politics is the motive. In Black River Falls, murder is never cut and dried.
About the Author
Gorman’s other series characters include Robert Payne, a psychological profiler, and Leo Guild, a bounty hunter of the Old West, but his best-known character is probably Sam McCain, a gentle young sleuth of the 1950s, who first appeared in The Day the Music Died (1998). Besides writing novels, Gorman is a cofounder of Mystery Scene magazine.
Read an Excerpt
Gee," the beautiful Pamela Forrest said. "He actually looks kinda dopey."
And he did.
Here he was, the world's first nuclear-powered bogeyman, and he looked like the uncle everybody feels sorry for because he's fat and sloppy.
Nikita Khrushchev. Premier of the Soviet Union. The world's number-one Russian. Not to mention Communist.
On this warm sunny twenty-first day of September, 1959, "Nikki," as some of the press had taken to calling him, had come to a large Iowa farm as part of his trip to the United States. A farmer-businessman named Roswell Garst had invited him here. Garst had quite the spread.
"And his suit looks so cheap," the beautiful Pamela went on. "And he sweats so much."
I smiled. "Too bad he doesn't look more like Frankie Avalon, huh?"
She smiled back. "Yes. Or Rock Hudson."
Just then there was a small ruckus toward the back of the crowd. Protesters with signs that read DEATH TO THE COMMIES and BETTER DEAD THAN RED jeered old Nikki. While most Iowans despised communism, they believed in being polite to visitors. And they were curious about Khrushchev and were tired of the Cold War. Recently, a company had been going door-to-door selling bomb shelter kits for $2,500. That was the price of a new Chevrolet. Nothing is more admirable than turning a buck on the terrors of nuclear holocaust. The last ten years, grade school counselors had seen an increasing number of little ones who had nightmares about nuclear war. It was the age of theatom, all right. Just about every commercial you saw on TV had something atomic in it. Atomic-powered cars, refrigerators, toothpaste. Personally, I never went anywhere without my atomic-powered jockey shorts.
The crowdfarmers, businessmen, teachers, school kidswere shouting for the protesters to be quiet. Roswell Garst, the farm's owner and a very wealthy hybrid seed corn pioneer, had set up a press conference in his front yard. Reporters were asking Khrushchev questions about Russian farming. He would good-naturedly turn such inquiries aside (Russian agriculture was a sad joke) by poking the bellies of two plump farmers. Capitalism, he said, feeds it workers very well. Then he grinned his baby-faced grin and poked himself in his porky belly. And so does communism feed its workers well, he said.
Everybody loved it. He might have his plump finger on the trigger of the nuclear bomb, but he was as hammy as Jerry Lewis.
"Boy," Pamela said, "could I use a drink. And a smoke."
Pamela is the girl I've loved since fourth grade. Being that we're both in our mid-twenties now, that's a long time. One other thing I should mention is that Pamela has been in love with Stu Grant since ninth grade. Stu is a rich handsome attorney-at-law who was a golden boy halfback for the Iowa Hawkeyes and whose assets include an inheritance valued at slightly over a million dollars. That he's married now hasn't quelled her ardor much at all.
Two generations ago her people had a lot of money. The money they lost in the Depression. But they kept their pride and pretensions. Pamela doesn't believe that good girls ever smoke outdoors. Your guess is as good as mine as to why good girls don't smoke outdoors. But then your guess is probably also as good as mine as to why Pamela wears a pair of sweet little white gloves just about every time she leaves the house. She wore them today with the blue silk dress with the built-in petticoat and the dark blue leather clutch purse. She was the prototype of all upper-class blond heartbreakers.
"Sounds like a good idea," I said. It'd been a long day. We'd had to get up early for the drive from Black River Falls, and now, with vermilion shadows stretching across the meadows, it was time to go. We'd seen him. I just wish he'd looked more like George Raft, was all.
We left the crowd, passed through the protesters"Joe McCarthy was right!" one of them shouted, over and over againand that's when we came upon the bold new black Lincoln of Richard Conners. We were just in time to see his wife Danahis fifth wife, in case you're counting, and a woman thirty years younger than heshove Chris Tomlin, and I do mean shove, toward the Lincoln. Chris was an ethereal redhead, very pale, slight and sexual in a quiet but powerful way. She was the wife of Bill Tomlin, the Harvard roommate of Richard Conners. Bill Tomlin had been one of the best political speechwriters in D.C. before going to work for Conners. He'd been along for all of Richard's adventures and was now in charge of organizing his papers for the Conners biography that Bill himself might write. Both Conners and Tomlin were there and they got between the women immediately. They were all wealthy and attractive people. You didn't expect scenes from them.
This was along the gravel road, where cars were backed up for miles. We'd seen the Lincoln on the highway and ended up parking two cars behind.
"You two get in the car and shut up," Conners snapped. "I'm sick of your damned arguing. You're like a couple of little kids."
He opened up the back door of the Lincoln and practically stuffed Chris inside. Dana went around and got in the front passenger seat.
He had started to get inside the car himself when he saw us approaching. He climbed back out, slammed the door behind him, and said, in a voice comfortable with command, "Tell your girlfriend to go for a walk. I need to talk to you."
"About what?" I resented his tone.
He had one of those profiles made to be chiseled in stone. Better than handsome, he was mythic, especially with his graying locks and his angry blue eyes and his high-rhetoric voice.
"About what?" he said. "About somebody trying to kill me, that's about what. Now can we talk in private or not?"
"I'll go say hi to Dana," Pamela said nervously, and flitted away.
Richard Conners left Black River Falls in 1931. He went to Harvard, where he completed a master's in political science. Right before the war broke out, he went to work for the State Department. He was soon one of FDR's favorite advisers. He was also brilliant, driven, and contemptuous of just about everything and everybody he encountered. He was, as far as I could gather after slogging through two of his five best-selling books, more of a utopianist than a communist or even socialist. In the meantime, though, his wide circle of friends included many prominent communists and socialists. He even had a very public affair with a Soviet consul's beautiful wife, who killed herself in Anna Karenina fashion after Conners refused to marry her. By that time, he was on his third wife and the divorces were getting expensive.
After the war, Conners worked for Truman, though old Harry never did like or trust him. Conners did a lot of the radio talk shows of the day. His version of things was that he pretty much ran foreign policy and Truman had to get permission before he made any serious foreign policy announcement. All the while he was publishing best-selling books that extolled the virtues of the massesthe kind of thing you'd have if John Steinbeck had written copy to accompany Walker Evans's famous photographs of the Depressionthe trouble being that Steinbeck was not only of the masses (like Conners), he genuinely loved the masses (unlike Conners). Conners spent his public life banging on tables on behalf of the masses, but he spent his private hours in limousines, attending ballet, opera, and movie premieres, and sleeping with the wives of the powerful and famous. His motive seemed to be revenge. By God, I didn't have a silver spoon shoved up my ass the way you did, but I'll get even by turning your spoiled wives into instruments of betrayal.
He was able to sustain his power until another man of the masses came along. For Senator Joseph McCarthy, Richard Conners was an obvious and easy target. All he had to do was remind his ever-growing TV and radio audience that not only did Richard Conners's personal life demonstrate his contempt for American virtues, so did his professional life. He quoted many passages from Conners's books back to him, while Conners sat there looking like a slightly bored duke as played by Charles Boyer. Two or three times on that first afternoon (you can bet everybody in Black River Falls was watching, McCarthy having convinced the networks to televise his hearings live), Conners corrected McCarthy's grammar and attire ("That suit of yours could stand a cleaning, Senator"). Conners was a strapping, physically powerful man so he never came across as effete, but he did seem arrogant and icy. The last quote McCarthy read was the most devastating. Conners contended that the American press had consciously vilified Stalin, who was, according to Conners, a decent man who only dealt harshly with his political enemies when necessary. "The American press is afraid to portray Joseph Stalin for what he really isa true man of the people." It was after this that McCarthy hinted he'd given secrets to the Russians.
I still remember that quote and how stupid and infuriating it was. But a good deal of the left was caught up in maintaining Joe Stalin's image as that of a beloved and temperate uncle. Stalin was a butcher on par with Hitler. While I hated the Cold War, I wasn't naïve about Russia or the merciless Soviet regime that ran it, or the proliferation of Russian spies in the United States following the war. The conservatives were paranoid and hysterical about spies; the liberals refused to do anything about them or to even acknowledge their presence.
That was the end for Richard Conners. His State Department tenure ceased with Ike's election, it being unlikely that Conners and John Foster Dulles would become fast friends; Harvard, where he'd been lecturing part-time, declined to invite him back; and his publisher suddenly felt that there was no longer an audience for his books. Such was life during the time of Joe McCarthy. Spying on your fellow American citizens got so bad that the Hearst newspapers started supplying "facts" about local "subversives" in their respective communities.
Conners took to writing mysteries (some good ones) under a pen name and he returned to Black River Falls, where he bought the old Grotte mansion. It was a huge place of native stone, an aerie really, perched above the Iowa River on a red clay mountaintop. He'd been here a year when Trawler College asked him to lecture on political science. He was such a seductive speaker that the college decided to risk the ire of the local political right and make him writer-in-residence.
"C'mon," he said now. "Let's walk."
Despite their political differenceswhich were vastmy boss, Judge Esme Anne Whitney, who carries a photo of Ayn Rand in her wallet (just kidding), is a friend of Richard Conners. He's a frequent guest at her parties. She considers him something of a social equal, given all his connections. He'd been in her chambers many times when I came in but had never deigned to acknowledge me. I mentioned this to the Judge one day, and she said, "He's a perfect liberal, McCain. He loves the masses but hates people. He figures his love for the downtrodden gives him the right to be a snob and a shit. I, on the other hand, hate the masses but love people." Which was a crock, but I hadn't said anything.
All these people, all these cars, you'd think there was a county fair going on. Nice warm September afternoon and all. That tender smoky autumn scent in the piney hills. Hawks swooping down their glide paths. Corn so ripe it's like spilled gold in the fields. Auburn-colored colts running in the high meadows.
Not the afternoon to be talking about murder.
* * *
"I started getting letters a few weeks ago," Conners said. "Well, not letters exactly; hammers and sickles drawn in blood. Human blood. I had a chemist friend at the college analyze them. Then flat tires and a mysterious fire in my office at the school. And then late-night phone calls, you know the kind. They just hang up. Don't say a word. Last week my dog was poisoned. And last night somebody took a shot at me when I was bringing my horse back from my early evening ride.
"My suspicion is that it's Jeff and that crowd."
Jeff Cronin had been a likable guy when I was growing up. He was several years older but, despite his heroics on the football field, was always decent to us younger kids. The Korean War changed him. (I know we're supposed to call it a police action and all, but around here we call it a war.) Six of our own died over there in the first year. Anyway, Jeff's brother got captured and brainwashed, and Jeff couldn't seem to get past it. The communists had destroyed his brother and they destroyed Jeff, too. Hating communists had become the most important thing in his life.
Conners went on. "They graduated from Trawler and are very prominent alumni and they keep trying to get me fired. That hasn't workedthanks to Dean Wyman's courageso maybe now they're trying the more direct approach. I think this has to do with that magazine article, 'The Red Who Got Away.' Walter Winchell gave it a lot of play. They imply I turned state secrets over to the Russians but the State Department covered it up to save embarrassment with that sonofabitch McCarthy coming after them. That article sure didn't do me any good. I mean, back east they know I'm not a communist. But out herewell, you know how people are."
"Hell, yes, I do. We're a bunch of bumpkins and we wouldn't recognize a smear job if you put it up our most delicate orifice."
He looked hard at me. "What the hell are you, a member of the Chamber of Commerce?"
"No, just somebody who likes most of the people in Black River Falls and thinks they're a lot smarter and nicer than you do. Very few people hassled you when you came back here. They took you back as a lost son. The library gave your daughter a job and the women went out of their way to try and make your wife feel comfortable. So don't tell me what a bunch of bigots we are, because it's not true. For every asshole like Jeff Cronin, there are ten very nice people."
"Boy, McCain, are you a hothead."
I shook my head. "I'm not a hothead. I just don't like snobs. And Conners, you're a snob."
He laughed. "You little guys sure have tempers."
"You big guys sure have egos."
He stopped walking. "Now that we've decided not to like each other, how about going to work for me? Esme is quite taken with you."
I'd cooled some. I smiled. "She hides it well."
"Oh, Esme's all right. A bit of a lush, a bit of a poseurI mean, God, her extended family is riddled with white-collar crooks if you look back far enough; that's where their fortune comes frombut she has a decent heart and a very good mind."
"Which she wastes on Ayn Rand and William F. Buckley."
His laugh was mythic too. He was one of those giant menlike Orson Welleswho should be given to opera capes and top hats. "Now there's something we can finally agree on."
"I'm not sure what I could do for you."
"Try and find out who's after me. This thing is escalating. I'm not a physical coward. But I sure as hell don't like people setting fire to my office and taking shots at me. And then there's something else that happened. It requires more of an explanation than we've got time for now, but"
I was thinking about telling him I'd make the time when Bill Tomlin approached. Bill and Chris Tomlin lived in a house next to the faux-mansion Conners had bought. Tomlin was, and would always be, the class brain. There was a sad earnestness about the crude haircut, the expensive but wrinkled suit. You never saw him without his briefcase. He had it now, in fact. He also had an occasional tic that jerked his entire head a quarter inch to the right, made more obvious than it had to be by a blue walleye.
"We'd better get going, Richard. You've got that radio interview at nine."
"Oh, thanks for reminding me." He reached out a massive arm and gave Bill a brotherly hug. "I wish the girls got along as well as we did." Then, to me: "What I told you is between us. Not even Esme should know. I don't want that dunce Cliffie Sykes Junior hearing about this."
"Like it or not, he's the law in Black River Falls."
"Yes, and he's also an idiot."
"No argument here."
"And he supports Jeff wholeheartedly. I doubt he'd put much effort into an investigation. Hell, he may be involved himself. Wouldn't surprise me." He turned toward his car. "Gotta go. There's a dinner thing at the school tonight." He looked at me. "I want to give you something tomorrow. Want you to keep it for me."
Then he and Bill Tomlin, big striding brother and shambling little one, headed back toward their fancy car.