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The Crook Factory
By Dan Simmons
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But when Hemingway uncovers a critical piece of intelligence that both threatens his life and endangers the political landscape, the fate of the free world and the life of one of its most preeminent writers lies in the hands of the FBI’s most ruthless agent.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
A Preview of The Abominable
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HE FINALLY DID IT on a Sunday, July 2, 1961, up in Idaho, in a new house which, I suspect, meant little to him, but which had a view up a valley to the high peaks, down the valley to the river, and across the valley to a cemetery where friends were buried.
I was in Cuba when I heard the news. There was some irony in this, because I had not been back to Cuba in the nineteen years since my time with Hemingway. There was more irony in the fact that July 2, 1961, was my forty-ninth birthday. I spent it following a greasy little man through greasy little bars, and then driving all night—still following him—as he drove three hundred and fifty kilometers out into the boondocks, out beyond where the armored train in Santa Clara marks the road to Remedios. I was out there in the cane fields and palm forests for another day and night before my business with the greasy little man was done, and I did not hear a radio until I stopped at the Hotel Perla in Santa Clara for a drink. The radio there was playing sad music—almost funereal—but I thought nothing of it and spoke to no one. I did not hear about Hemingway's death until I was back in Havana that evening, checking out of the hotel near where the U.S. embassy had been until Castro had kicked the Americans out just a few months before, in January.
"Did you hear, señor?" said the seventy-year-old bellman as he carried my bags out to the curb.
"What?" I said. The old man knew me only as a businessman from Colombia. If he had personal news for me, it could be very bad.
"The writer is dead," said the old man. His thin cheeks under the gray stubble were trembling.
"What writer?" I said, glancing at my watch. I had to make a plane at eight P.M.
"Señor Papa," said the old bellman.
I froze with my wrist still raised. For a brief moment, I found it hard to focus on the dial of my watch. "Hemingway?" I said.
"Yes," said the old man. His head kept bobbing up and down long after the single syllable was uttered.
"How?" I said.
"Gunshot," said the bellman. "In the head. By his own hand."
Of course, I thought. I said, "When?"
"Two days ago," said the old man. He sighed heavily. I could smell the rum. "In the United States," he added as if that explained everything.
"Sic transit hijo de puta," I said under my breath. A polite translation might be "There goes the son of a bitch."
The old bellman's head snapped back on his scrawny neck as if he had been slapped. His servile, usually rheumy eyes flashed a sudden anger bordering on hatred. He set my bags down on the floor of the lobby as if freeing his hands to fight. I realized that the old man might well have known Hemingway.
I raised my right hand, palm out. "It's all right," I said. "It's something the writer said. Something Hemingway said when they threw Batista out during the Glorious Revolution."
The bellman nodded, but his eyes were still angry. I gave him two pesos and walked out, leaving my bags near the door.
My first impulse was to find the car I had been using—and had left abandoned on a street just outside the Old Section—and drive out to the finca. It was only twelve miles away. But I realized that this was a bad idea. I had to get to the airport and get out of this country as soon as I could, not go wandering around like some goddamned tourist. Besides, the farm had been confiscated by the revolutionary government. There were soldiers standing guard out there right now.
Standing guard over what? I thought. Over his thousands of books that he hadn't been able to get out of the country? His dozens of cats? His rifles and shotguns and hunting trophies? His boat? Where was the Pilar? I wondered. Still berthed in Cojímar or pressed into service of the state?
At any rate, I knew for a fact that the Finca Vigía had been closed up for this past year with a battalion of former orphans and beggars receiving military instruction on the grounds. Word in Havana was that the ragtag militia was not allowed in the house—they slept in tents near the tennis courts—but that their commandante slept in the guest house, almost certainly in the same bed that had been mine when we ran the Crook Factory out of that same building. And I had film in the false lining of my suitcase that showed quite clearly that Fidel had stationed an antiaircraft unit on the patio of the Steinharts' home on the hilltop next to Hemingway's farm—sixteen 100-millimeter Soviet AA guns to defend Havana from the heights. There were eighty-seven Cuban gunners at the site and six Russian advisers.
No, not the Finca Vigía. Not this hot summer evening.
I walked the eleven blocks down Obispo Street to the Floridita. Already, just a year and a half after the revolution, the streets seemed empty compared with the traffic I remembered here during the early '40s. Four Russian army officers came out of a bar across the way, obviously drunk and singing very loudly. The Cubans on Obispo—the young men in white shirts, the pretty girls in short skirts—all looked away as if the Russians were urinating in public. None of the whores approached them.
The Floridita had also become property of the state, I knew, but it was open this Tuesday evening. I had heard that the bar had been air-conditioned in the '50s, but either my informant had been misinformed or the cost of cooling the place had become prohibitive after the revolution, for this evening the shutters were all up and the bar was open to the sidewalks, just as it had been when Hemingway and I drank there.
I did not go in, of course. I pulled my fedora lower and looked away for the most part, glancing in just once when I was sure my face was in shadow.
Hemingway's favorite bar stool—the one on the far left, next to the wall—was empty. This was not a surprise. The bar's current owner—the state—had ordered that no one could sit there. A goddamned shrine. On the wall above the empty stool was a bust of the writer looking dark, amorphous, and ridiculous. Hemingway's kiss-up friends had given that to him, I had heard, after the writer had won the Nobel Prize for that stupid fish story. A bartender—not Constante Ribailagua, the cantinero I had known, but a younger, middle-aged man in dark-rimmed glasses—was mopping the bar in front of Hemingway's stool as if expecting the writer to return from the baño any moment.
I turned back toward the hotel on narrow O'Reilly Street. "Jesus Christ," I whispered, mopping the sweat from under my hatband. They would probably turn Hemingway into some sort of pro-communist saint down here. I had seen it before in Catholic countries after a successful Marxist revolution. The faithful were kicked out of their churches, but they still needed their fucking santos. The socialist state always scrambled to provide them—busts of Marx, giant murals of Fidel, posters of Che Guevara. Hemingway as the patron saint of Havana. I smiled as I hurried across a connecting street so as not to be run down by a convoy of military trucks with Russian drivers.
"La tenía cogida la baja," I whispered, trying to pluck the phrase from half-forgotten bits of Havana slang. This city, above all others, should "know his weak points"—see the code under the surface.
I flew out of Havana that night, thinking more about the implications of my visit to the camouflaged camp south of Remedios than of the details of Hemingway's death, but in the weeks and months and years to come, it was those details, that solitary death, which grew to an obsession with me.
The first reports from the AP said that Hemingway had been cleaning one of his guns when it had accidentally discharged. I knew immediately that this was bullshit. Hemingway had cleaned his rifles and shotguns since he was a young boy and would never make such a mistake. He had—as the news reports soon confirmed—blown his own brains out. But how? What were the details? I remembered that the only fistfight Hemingway and I had ever had came as a result of his demonstration at the finca of how to kill oneself. He had placed the butt of his Mannlicher .256 on the rough rug of his living room, pulled the muzzle near his mouth, said "In the mouth, Joe; the palate is the softest part of the head," and then pressed the trigger down with his big toe. The hammer had dry-clicked and Hemingway had raised his head and smiled as if awaiting approval.
"That's fucking stupid," I had said.
Hemingway had propped the Mannlicher against the ugly floral chair, balanced on the balls of his bare feet, twitched his fingers, and said, "What did you say, Joe?"
"That was fucking stupid," I had repeated. "And even if it wasn't, putting the barrel of a firearm in your mouth is something only a maricón would do."
"Fag" or "queer" is too-polite a translation for maricón. We had gone outside by the pool and fought then—not boxed, but gone at each other with bare fists and teeth.
Hemingway would not have needed the barrel in his mouth in Idaho that July day in 1961. Within days of his last wife's report of death by accident, it became clear that he had used a shotgun to kill himself; a double-barreled twelve-gauge Richardson. His first biographer reported that it was the double-barreled Boss twelve-gauge with the slow choke, Hemingway's favorite gun for pigeon shooting. I think it was the Boss. The Richardson with its gleaming barrels was a beautiful show gun, but too flashy for such work as blowing the top of one's head off. I remember once on the Pilar, Hemingway reading a piece in a two-week-old New York Times about the twin pearl-handled pistols which General George Patton carried. Hemingway had laughed: "Patton will be pissed off. He's always correcting these shit-stupid journalists. They're ivory-handled pistols. He says that only a pimp would carry pearl-handled revolvers, and I agree." The silver-barreled Richardson would come too close to that for serious work, I think.
But as the weeks and months and years passed, I realized that it had not mattered so much which gun he had used that morning as did the other details.
In the months before his death, Hemingway had become convinced that the FBI was bugging his phones, following him, and preparing a tax case against him in collusion with the IRS which would ruin him financially. It was this delusion of FBI persecution, above all others, which had prompted his fourth wife to decide that he'd become paranoid and delusional. It was then that his wife and friends had taken him to the Mayo Clinic for a series of electroshock treatments.
The treatments destroyed his memory, his sex drive, and his writing ability, but they did not free him from his paranoia. On the night before he killed himself, Hemingway's wife and friends took him out to dinner at the Christiana Restaurant in Ketchum. Hemingway insisted on sitting with his back to the wall and became suspicious of two men at a nearby table. When his wife and a friend, George Brown, called over the waitress, named Suzie, and asked her to confirm who the strangers were, Suzie said, "They're probably salesmen from Twin Falls."
"No," said Hemingway. "They're FBI."
Hemingway's sometime friend A. E. Hotchner wrote about an almost identical incident in the same restaurant, but eight months earlier, in November 1960. Hemingway had previously explained to Hotchner that he was being following by the FBI and that his phone was tapped and his house and car were bugged. Hotchner and Hemingway's wife, Mary, had taken the writer out to dinner at the same Christiana Restaurant. Hemingway was in the middle of an amusing story about the days when Ketchum was a wide-open gold rush town when he suddenly stopped in midsentence and said that they all had to leave. Their meals were unfinished. When Hemingway's wife asked what was wrong, he said, "Those two FBI men at the bar."
Hotchner had gone over to a nearby table where an acquaintance—Chuck Atkinson—and his wife were having dinner and asked if Atkinson knew the two men. "Sure," said the Ketchum native. "They're salesmen. Been coming here once a month for the last five years. Don't tell me Ernest is worried about them."
I know now that the two men had been coming to Ketchum for the five years previous to that day, where they went door to door in the area, offering encyclopedias for sale. They were FBI men, special agents out of the Billings office. As were the two other men on that Saturday evening in Christiana's on July 1, 1961. They were following Hemingway. They had tapped his phone. His house was bugged, but not his car. Earlier that winter and again in the spring, other FBI agents had followed Hemingway as he was flown in a private plane to Rochester, Minnesota, where the writer was to receive his electroshock treatments. On that first trip, in November 1960, just two weeks after Hemingway's "paranoid delusions" in the restaurant, the FBI men landed in a private plane just minutes after the Piper Commanche carrying Hemingway and his doctor had set down. But four agents from the Rochester office had already followed the Hemingway party into town, using two unmarked Chevrolets—one ahead of and one behind the car transporting the writer and Dr. Saviers.
On that first trip in November 1960, according to the "unfiled" FBI report—one of the thousands of J. Edgar Hoover's Personal OC Files ("OC" for "Official/Confidential") "lost" in the month after the death of the FBI director in May 1972—the FBI men tailing Hemingway had followed the writer into St. Mary's Hospital, where he was admitted under the alias of George Saviers, but they had stopped at the door of the Mayo Clinic when Hemingway was transferred there. They did not stay outside for long. Later files show that the FBI had interviewed Dr. Howard P. Rome, the senior consultant in the Section of Psychiatry who was in charge of Hemingway's "psycho-therapeutic program." Those same files show that Dr. Rome and the FBI men had discussed the advisability of Hemingway's electroshock treatment even before the writer or his wife was presented with the option.
As I mentioned earlier, J. Edgar Hoover's Personal File sections of the OC files—all twenty-three file cabinets' worth of them—were "lost" in the days and weeks after the director's death, at age seventy-seven, on May 2, 1972. That morning, less than an hour after the discovery of the director's death, Attorney General of the United States Richard Kleindienst, after conferring with President Nixon, summoned Assistant to the Director of the FBI John Mohr to the attorney general's office, where Kleindienst ordered the assistant director to seal Hoover's office and to keep all files there intact. A little after noon on the same day, Mohr sent the attorney general the following memo:
"In accordance with your instructions, Mr. Hoover's private, personal office was secured at 11:40 A.M. today. It was necessary to change the lock on one door in order to accomplish this.
"To my knowledge, the contents of the office are exactly as they would have been had Mr. Hoover reported to the office this morning. I have in my possession the only key to the office."
Within the hour, Kleindienst reported to President Nixon that "the files were safe"—meaning the "secret files" that everyone in official Washington presumed must exist in Hoover's office.
What John Mohr had not told Attorney General Kleindienst, however, was that Hoover kept no files in his office. All of the FBI's most secret files were kept in the office of Hoover's secretary of fifty-four years, Miss Helen Gandy. And even by the time Hoover's office was being sealed that morning, Miss Gandy had begun reviewing the director's Personal OC Files, separating them, culling them, shredding many, and placing the others in cardboard boxes to be hidden in the basement of Hoover's home at Thirtieth Place NW.
With six weeks, those secret files would be moved again, never to be seen again by anyone within the FBI or in official Washington.
But I am ahead of myself. What matters at this point are the events on the morning of July 2, 1961, my forty-ninth birthday and Ernest Hemingway's last moments on the planet. Those events made me vow to do two things before I died. The first of those—to track down and liberate the FBI's secret files on Hemingway and his counterespionage ring in Cuba—would take me more than a decade of effort and would entail danger to my life and liberty. But the second promise I made in July 1961 would be, I knew even then, infinitely harder to keep. That was to write this narrative. In spite of the thousands of case reports I had written over the decades, nothing prepared me to tell this story, in this manner. Hemingway the writer could have helped me—indeed, he would have been wryly amused that I was finally forced to try to tell a story using all of the sneaky tricks in a fiction writer's repertoire. "Fiction is a way of trying to tell things in a way that is truer than truth," he said to me that night along the coast as we waited for the German U-boat to appear. "No," I had said then. "Truth is truth. Fiction is a pack of lies masquerading as truth."
We shall see.
The events of the morning of July 2, 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho… Only Ernest Hemingway knew the truth of those few moments, but the results seemed obvious enough.
According to the testimony of his fourth wife and many friends, Hemingway had made several clumsy efforts at suicide in the months before and after his second series of electroshock treatments in May and June. Once, as he was returning to the Mayo Clinic, he had tried to walk into the spinning propeller of a small plane warming up on the tarmac. Another time, a friend had to wrestle a loaded shotgun away from Hemingway at his home.
Despite all this, Mary Hemingway had locked the writer's guns in the basement storage room but had left the keys to the room in plain view on the kitchen windowsill because "no one had a right to deny a man access to his possessions." I thought about this for years. They—Miss Mary and friends—had felt that they had the right to authorize a series of electroshock treatments which all but destroyed Ernest Hemingway's brain and personality, but she decided that she could not keep his guns locked away from him when he was depressed to the point of suicide.
That Sunday morning of July 2, 1961, Hemingway awoke early, as he always did. This morning was beautiful, sunny and cloudless. Miss Mary was the only other occupant of the Ketchum house, sleeping in a separate bedroom. She did not awaken as Hemingway tiptoed down the carpeted stairs, took the keys from the windowsill, went down to the storage room, and chose—I believe—his faithful Boss twelve-gauge. Then he went back upstairs, crossed the living room to the tiled foyer at the foot of the stairs, loaded both barrels, set the butt of the shotgun on the tiled floor, set the muzzles of both barrels against his forehead, I think—not in his mouth—and tripped both triggers.
I emphasize the details because I think it is important that he did not simply load the gun in the storage room and do the deed there, in the basement, where even the sound might have been swallowed by the intervening doors and carpeted floors and cinder-block walls. He carried the gun to the foyer, to the base of the stairs, to the one place in the house where it was guaranteed that Miss Mary could not get to the phone or the front door without stepping over his body and the pool of blood, splintered skull, and blasted brain tissue that had been the source for all those novels, all those stories, all the lies he once tried to convince me were truer than truth.
Some months earlier, Hemingway had been asked to write a simple sentence or two for a book commemorating JFK's inauguration. After hours of futile effort, Hemingway had broken down and sobbed in front of his doctor: the great writer could not complete a simple sentence.
But he could still communicate, and I think that the place and manner of his death were a last message. It was addressed to Miss Mary, of course, but also to J. Edgar Hoover, to the FBI, to the OSS… or the CIA, as it was now called… to the memories of those who were there that year between late April and mid-September 1942 when the writer played spy and became entangled with Nazi agents, FBI snoops, British spooks, Cuban politicians and policemen. Spanish priests and noblemen, ten-year-old secret agents and German U-boats. I do not flatter myself that Hemingway was thinking of me that last morning, but if his message was what I think it was—a last, violent move to declare stalemate to a decades-old game rather than suffer checkmate at the hands of a patient but relentless enemy—then perhaps I was woven into the tapestry of his thoughts that morning, a minor figure in a baroque pattern.
I hope that on the morning of my forty-ninth birthday, in Hemingway's last moments, he might have been thinking, if his sorrow and depression allowed him such a luxury as coherent thought, not only of his final, decisive, twelve-gauge gesture of ultimate defiance but also of any victories he had won in his long-running war against invisible enemies.
I wonder if he was thinking of the Crook Factory.
MR. HOOVER SUMMONED ME to Washington in late April 1942. The cable caught up to me in Mexico City and ordered me to report to the director "by the fastest possible means." This gave me pause for a moment, since everyone in the Bureau knew how penny-pinching Mr. Hoover could be. Normally, a summons back to Washington, even from Mexico City or Bogotá, would entail travel by burro, car, boat, and train, while requiring a careful eye on the expense account.
On the morning of my appointment with Mr. Hoover, after hops through Texas, Missouri, and Ohio, I landed at Washington's National Airport. I looked out the window of my silver DC-3 with some interest. Not only was it a beautiful spring morning with the dome of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument gleaming cleanly in the rich April light, but the airport itself was new. In previous flights into Washington I had landed at the city's old airport, Hoover Field, across the Potomac River in Virginia, near Arlington National Cemetery. I had been out of the country since the previous summer, but I had heard about how—even before Pearl Harbor and without presidential authorization—the army had started work on a huge, new, five-sided headquarters where the old airport had been.
As we circled once before landing, I could see that the new National Airport was much more conveniently located near the downtown. It was obvious that the modern airport was not yet finished: the brand-new terminal still had construction equipment and workers swarming around it like ants. I also caught a glimpse of the new army headquarters going up. The press had already started calling it "the Pentagon," and the name seemed appropriate from my vantage point three thousand feet up, for although only about half of the monstrosity had been completed, the foundation and rising walls clearly showed the five-sided shape. The parking lots alone covered all of what had been Hoover Field and its next-door amusement park, and I could see lines of army trucks rolling in toward the completed part of the building, presumably delivering all the desks and typewriters and other bureaucratic detritus of the new, expanded army.
I sat back as the drone of the two engines changed pitch for landing. I had liked old Hoover Field, although it had been nothing more than a grass strip between an amusement park on one side and a dump on the other. A county highway, Military Road, had run across the landing strip—not parallel to it, but across it—and I had read a few years earlier that the airport manager had been arrested and convicted for trying to put up a stoplight there to halt traffic while commercial aircraft landed. The county highway department had torn the illegal stoplight out. It had not seemed to matter; the times I had flown in, the pilots seemed adept enough at gauging their landings between the crossing cars and trucks. I recalled that there had been no control tower as such and that the windsock had flown from the highest point on the roller coaster next to the field.
We landed, taxied, and I was the third person out, rearranging the .38 on my belt as I moved quickly down the stairway to the warm tarmac. I carried a bag with a change of underwear, a clean shirt, and my other dark suit, but I did not know if I would have time to find a hotel, check in, shower, shave, and change before my meeting with Mr. Hoover. The thought worried me. Mr. Hoover had no patience with special agents who showed up in less than their Sunday best, even if those agents had spent a day and a night catching planes across Mexico and the United States.
Passing through the new terminal that still smelled of paint and fresh plaster, I paused to look at the papers on the newsstand. One headline of The Washington Daily News read ENOUGH VD CASES IN D.C. TO OVERFLOW THE STADIUM. I tried to remember how many people could fit into old Griffith Stadium. Thirty thousand, at least. Glancing around at the mobs of crisp new uniforms—Army, Navy, MP's, SP's, Marines, Coast Guard, most of them kissing at least one girl goodbye—I was surprised that the VD problem since the beginning of the war was that small.
Passing through the new terminal, I headed for the telephone booths near the exit doors. My one chance to get a shower and a change of clothes would be to get in touch with Tom Dillon, a friend who had gone through Quantico with me and shared a bit of Camp X training before he had been transferred to Washington and me to the SIS. Tom was still a bachelor—or had been when I had talked to him ten months earlier—and his apartment was not far from the Justice Department. I plugged in my nickel, asked the operator to connect me with his home number, hoping that this was his day off, knowing that as a field agent Tom was probably not in the office if this was a workday for him. I listened to the phone ring. Dispirited, I was fumbling for another nickel when a hairy hand came over my shoulder, took the receiver out of my hand, and hung it up.
I spun around, ready to deck the soldier or sailor who had made the mistake of fooling with me, only to be confronted by Tom Dillon's smiling face a few inches from my own.
"I heard you ask for my number, Joe," said Dillon. "I'm not home."
"You never were," I said with a grin. We shook hands. "What are you doing here, Tom?" I did not believe in coincidence.
"Mr. Ladd sent me. He said that you had an appointment at the Department at eleven-thirty and that I should give you a ride. Give you time to clean up at my place if you want."
"Great," I said. Mr. Ladd was D. M. Ladd—"Mickey" to his friends in the Bureau—one of the director's assistants and now head of the Domestic Intelligence Division, in which Tom worked. Dillon had not said that I had an appointment with the director and probably did not know that bit of information. It was not my place to tell him.
"Your plane was early," said Tom as if in apology for not meeting me at the gate.
"Didn't have to wait for traffic to cross the landing strip," I said. "Let's get out of here."
"Gutsy [and] vividly depicted ... the web of conspiracy Simmons spins, the zesty characters it entangles and its intricate cross-weave of fact and fiction distinguish this celebration of the Hemingway centenary."
- "Delightfully spry. The plot quickly evolves into a real page-turning espionage story, complete with corrupt police officials, double agents, secret codes, and multiple murders. Fun reading for both Hemingway aficionados and spy novel enthusiasts."—Library Journal
- "Filled with crackerjack writing, a page-turning plot,and characters who will haunt the reader long after the book is finished...Terrific."—San Antonio Express-News
- "A remarkable book...The stand-out thriller of the year."—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
- On Sale
- Feb 5, 2013
- Page Count
- 560 pages
- Mulholland Books