Book Review: Thomas Mullen’s portrayal of a divided nation in 1943 draws parallels to today


It’s 1943, a quarter century after the armistice that ended the so-called Great War, and Americans are once again fighting in foreign lands, battling the ascendant Empire of Japan in the Pacific and confronting Germany’s Afrika Corp along the southern rim of the Mediterranean Sea.

The country had been divided over whether to enter the war. Isolationists opposed sacrificing American lives to save the democracies of Western Europe. And thousands of Nazi sympathizers openly trumpeted support for Adolf Hitler. Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 unleashed a patriotic fervor that seemed to settle the question, but in some quarters, opposition to the war still ran deep.

In Boston, a city long torn by ethnic and religious hatreds, antisemitism, racism and xenophobia ran rampant. Yankee Protestants despised the city’s teeming population of Irish immigrants. And the Irish saw no reason why their adopted country should come to the aid of England, which had long oppressed their ancestral land.

Such is the setting for Thomas Mullen’s “The Rumor Game,” a disturbing yarn about a divided, rumor-riddled nation that offers apt but unstated parallels to present-day America.

The plot is driven by Anne Lemire, a young reporter for the Boston Star, and Devon Mulvey, an FBI agent assigned to protect war production from infiltration and sabotage.

Lemire writes the Rumor Clinic, a column debunking the flood of Nazi propaganda and other destructive rumors flooding the city. Among them, a rumor that Jews had manipulated America into the war, spawns violent attacks in Jewish neighborhoods by Irish gangs.

Meanwhile, Mulvey struggles to unravel a mystery that includes a murder and the theft of military rifles from a Boston munitions plant.

Both are obstructed by the Irish-dominated Boston police, the pro-Nazi Christian League and federal officials who think left-wing agitators pose a greater threat. Eventually, Mulvey, an Irish Catholic, and Lemire, raised Catholic but born Jewish, join forces as their investigations merge. To their dismay, both discover evidence of venality and violence in their own families.

Mullen’s novel, his eighth, draws heavily on research, as evident by the historical sources cited in an author’s note. The tale begins as a slow burn and then races at a breakneck pace to a dramatic conclusion.

The Boston settings, from its docks and factories to its ethnic neighborhoods, are vivid. The writing is tight, and most characters are well-drawn. The lone misstep is a doomed romance between Lemire and Mulvey, which lacks credibility and adds little to the plot.

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Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including “The Dread Line.”

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