(36. – 966.) The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman – “Little Deutuschland” in New York City in the spring of 1942 is adjusting to America being at war with Nazi Germany. A few months earlier the Bund, supporters of Hitler, were proudly marching the streets in support of the Fuehrer. Now the swastikas have disappeared and fascist supporters are no longer public.
Aiding the illiterate of the area is Maximilian Danziger:
Customers come to my place of business, say what they wish to say, and then wait while I polish their words into more serviceable syntax, writing it down for them either in English or in their native tongue, depending on their needs. For those who have received mail, in whatever language, I read back to them, translating when necessary.
Fluent in five languages he charges 50 cents to read or write a concise letter. Longer letters cost more. Love letters are avoided. He averages “ten correspondences” a day. He has four different typewriters for the various alphabets needed.
He goes through life with a curious formality in speech, clothing and relationships. He is the opposite of the loud brash New Yorker.
Woodrow Cain, a former police officer in the American South, has come north to join the New York City Police Department as a Sergeant. His past is murky. There was infidelity by his wife, Clovis, that involved deaths and Cain being wounded. Clovis has gone away and Cain is parenting their daughter, Olivia. He has gained the position in New York through the assistance of his father-in-law, Harris Euston, a lawyer and financier. Euston had sought to turn Clovis away from the bright lights and the hard partying young men of New York City by sending her to college in the South. She surprised him by marrying a Southerner.
Cain’s life had been forever altered in an instant:
Three damn shots, maybe two seconds in all, and that’s how long it took to lose my best friend, my wife, my career, my reputation.
On Cain’s first day of work he is called to investigate the murder of an unidentified man found floating along the docks.
His second day of work the Police Commissioner, Lewis Valentine, secretly assigns him a 3 month assignment to ferret out corruption within Cain’s police station.
His third day of work he meets Danziger. From information in the papers Danziger thinks he knows the “floater”. He physically identifies the deceased as Werner Hansch, a German immigrant, for whom he had written and read letters from Germany. Hansch was a member of the Silver Shirts, a secretive group of Nazi supporters.
Being neither large nor loud nor aggressive nor crude Cain is an uneasy fit with his fellow officers.
Both Cain and Danziger are protective of their privacy, more accurately secretive. We gradually learn what drove Cain up to Yankee land and Danziger’s life before writing letters.
Olivia’s arrival in New York City adds a personal dimension to the book. At 13 she is adjusting to her mother gone from her life indefinitely and now living in a huge new city.
Cain’s love for Olivia and her vulnerability add tension to the book. Cain, a stubborn persistent investigator, finds himself forced to consider the personal consequences of his investigation threatening his safety as he would never want to leave Olivia alone.
The hustle and bustle of New York City are initially overwhelming for Cain and Olivia.
The war effort is a tremendous boost to New York. Money is flowing freely. Organized crime is equally benefiting. It is a great time to be a crook.
Cain is the classic incorruptible American lawman refusing to be deflected by threats and officialdom. He is interesting. Danziger is a great character. A man of great learning and mystery he acts as Cain’s guide through the turbulent underworld of New York City.
The links between government and the criminal underworld are stronger than Cain could have anticipated. As the investigation progresses the unsavory WW II relationship between organized crime and the federal government, under the guise of national security, becomes ever more important.
The Letter Writer is an excellent book. My son recommended it and left the book with me after a recent visit. Thank you Michael.