By Josh Weiss
Formats and Prices
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 22, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
USA, 1958. President Joseph McCarthy sits in the White House, elected on a wave of populist xenophobia and barely‑concealed anti‑Semitism. The country is in the firm grip of McCarthy's Hueys, a secret police force evolved from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Hollywood's sparkling vision of the American dream has been suppressed; its remaining talents forced to turn out endless anti‑communist propaganda.
LAPD detective Morris Baker—a Holocaust survivor who drowns his fractured memories of the unspeakable in schnapps and work—is called to the scene of a horrific double‑homicide. The victims are John Huston, a once‑promising but now forgotten film director, and an up‑and‑coming young journalist named Walter Cronkite. Clutched in the hand of one of the dead men is a cryptic note containing the phrase “beat the devils” followed by a single name: Baker. Did the two men die in an attack fueled by better-dead-than-red sentiment, as the Hueys are quick to conclude, or were they murdered in a cover-up designed to protect—or even set in motion—a secret plot connected to Baker's past?
In a country where terror grows stronger by the day, and paranoia rises unchecked, Baker is determined to find justice for two men who raised their voices in a time when free speech comes at the ultimate cost. In the course of his investigation, Baker stumbles into a conspiracy that reaches deep into the halls of power and uncovers a secret that could destroy the City of Angels—and the American ideal itself.
Explore book giveaways, sneak peeks, deals, and more.
Tap here to learn more.
I have here, in my hand, a list of two hundred and five people that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.
—Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI)
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes…
—The Rolling Stones
My fellow citizens:
I stand before you today, humbled and extremely grateful that the American people saw fit to elect me as president of this great nation. I will do everything in my power to live up to the pedigree of this, the highest office in the land. To protect you from threats both foreign and domestic.
Today, if you'll allow me, I would like to touch upon the dangers facing us here at home. We are locked in a life-or-death struggle against a great evil. And what is that evil's name? Communism. I have witnessed its growing tendrils firsthand and know, just as you do, that something must be done.
The fact that I stand here today proves that. This is our day, our celebration.
The Democratic party, the party of Communism, has attempted to stymie my efforts toward making this country great by ridding it of Stalin's proxies. They tried to silence my necessary warnings through a combination of censure and mudslinging. They and their rag known as the Daily Worker have used my surname to birth a phrase that I shall not utter aloud here, so as not to evoke the tarnishing and insulting intimations it carries.
If getting a bit rough with Communists is un-American, then I must plead guilty to being un-American.
Needless to say, the Democrats, with their lynching bees and slander, have shown themselves to be under the complete domination of the Communistic Frankenstein, which they themselves have created. They shouldn't be called Democrats; they should be referred to properly as the "Commiecrat" party.
The true, democracy-loving people of this great land have woken up from the Commiecrat spell—a dangerous form of witchcraft known only to a select few who walk among us with names like Rosenberg, Sobell, and Greenglass. These foreign parties look like us—oh yes, make no mistake about that—but they do not share our ideals of democracy and capitalism. They are wolves masquerading as sheep, pilfering our scientific secrets and poisoning the minds of today's youth with the godless ideology of the USSR and its satellite states. They are a parasitic force upon our American way of life.
House committees and hearings have proved to be ineffective when it comes to weeding out the traitors. Those countermeasures do not go far enough! I can pick out anyone in this crowd gathered here today and ask them: "Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?" Whatever answer they might provide is beyond worthless because if that poor soul does worship at the altar of Joseph Stalin…well, you know what they say about the Devil being the father of all lies.
A Communist cannot change their ways any more than a leopard can change his spots. The momentum of their past acts, I believe, carries them onward. Macbeth put it best: "I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more."
Swift and thorough action must be taken to prevent a catastrophic decline of American society and its foundational principles. I promise, with every fiber of my being, to crush the vise of Communism and deviancy, and that begins with purging our government of any subversive agents that might wish to do us harm.
A man chosen by the American people to guard the watchtower of freedom is expected to fulfill certain responsibilities. Unless that man has the intelligence to recognize the traitors and—if I may use a word that we use in Wisconsin—unless he has the guts to name them, then he should be taken down from that watchtower and should not be representing the American people. I will always give up the names of traitors and Communists, no matter how important the positions in which they are discovered.
And the battle against the Marxists does not end at our borders. Even now, the conflict in Korea rages on with no end in sight. Even now, the Red Menace mocks the United States' inability to stem the flow of Communism at home and abroad. How many American men must die to satiate the bloodlust of the Soviet Union and its Bolshevik allies? Mothers who have lost sons are now wondering why we didn't follow General MacArthur's sensible theory of hitting back hard. Some say that if we hit back with excessive force, if we try to win this war, we might make the Chinese Communist mad. Now, why we should worry about making someone mad when they're blowing the heads off our boys, I don't know.
No more, my fellow citizens! No more! No more shall the hammer and sickle loom over this great nation like a threatening rain cloud. There are brighter days ahead. I promise this to you…or my name is not Joseph Raymond McCarthy.
—President Joseph McCarthy's inauguration remarks
(delivered January 20, 1953)
July 1, 1958
What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times…and you were there.
In the beginning, there was the shovel and then there was the darkness.
That's where the world ended for Morris Baker, but it's also where it began. It was the impenetrable darkness that roused him from a paralyzing abyss of memory. Well, the darkness, and the ringing of that damn telephone.
It was Tuesday. He knew it was Tuesday because an empty bottle of peach schnapps lay on his nightstand. He always drank peach schnapps on Monday nights, just like his father before him…except that his father hadn't been a vicious drinker.
Who was he kidding? Morris Baker drank peach schnapps every night and most of the day, for that matter.
He knew he had woken up on a Tuesday because the government-issued Norman Rockwell calendar sticking to his grease-stained refrigerator told him so. The picture for the month of July consisted of two "proud" Americans—a husband and wife—in conservative swimsuits lounging on a tropical beach, clinking their martini glasses together. In the distance, a sad-looking couple dressed in drab, gray uniforms were bound in chains that bore the hammer and sickle insignia of the Soviet Union. Set against the cloudless blue sky above the two couples in red, white, and blue lettering were the words THE FREEDOMS OF CAPITALISM! traced in a bold black outline.
Baker saw two identical versions of the calendar, thanks to the schnapps, but he was just able to make out that it was the first day of July and that…Shit!
The phone was still ringing. He rolled over and stretched his arm off the bed, blindly feeling around for the receiver as the naked woman lying next to him stirred faintly.
Baker fumbled with dirty socks, a crumpled chocolate bar wrapper, and a neglected guide called How to Recognize a Communist in Ten Easy Steps, published by the government's official newspaper: Counterattack. Since David Schine was a Jew, his once-prominent Definition of Communism had been rendered "incomplete, inaccurate, and in dire need of updating for the safety of the nation." Finally, Baker found the phone with his callused fingers.
"Yeah?" he grunted. His mouth was dry and sour from the schnapps, which also turned his head into a pounding drum of bad life decisions that paraded by with each beat. He looked up and squinted, sucking in a hiss of discomfort. Daylight exceeding the recommended dose for his hangover blasted his constricted pupils.
"Baker, hope I didn't wake you," said his partner, Brogan Connolly, from the other end. He didn't sound very apologetic.
"No, I was having an early brunch. Lucille Ball is here. I really am preoccupied at the moment. Please do call later." He'd lived in America for over ten years but still couldn't shake his Czechoslovakian accent, which turned words like was and the into vas and zee.
"Not interested in your lip, Baker," replied Connolly. "I need you in Echo Park, pronto. I can hear that slur in your voice, by the way. Put the damn schnapps bottle down and get over here."
"Vat—what—is it that couldn't wait for me to actually be on duty, Connolly?"
"Two stiffs, double homicide."
"So? Vee"—we—"get homicides all the time. It's our department for Christ's sake."
"First off, his name is Jesus. Secondly, don't take the Lord's name in vain or I'll be forced to teach you a lesson with the Dublin Twins. And yeah, we get murders all the time, but it's not every day that you come across a journalist for a big-time network and a washed-up motion picture director. Can't make heads or tails of it. Just thought you'd wanna know."
Suddenly Baker was no longer so focused on his schnapps-induced headache. The woman next to him turned over with a muffled grunt. The covers slipped down, revealing her pale breasts. For a moment, Baker considered hanging up the phone.
"You still there, Baker?"
"Yes, yes. Keep your head on." The idiom tasted foreign on his lips. "What's the address?"
"Nine Eighty-Four Altivo Way. Right off Echo Park Avenue."
"Okay. Anything else?"
"Just get your chopped-liver-loving ass down here, all right?" Connolly abruptly hung up.
"Connolly, you Irish bastard," Baker groaned, placing the receiver back into its cradle on the floor and rolling onto his back.
"What is it?" mumbled the woman.
"Work call," Baker said. "Go back to sleep, Liz."
She was snoring again in seconds. The shafts of light forcing their way through the uneven blinds were casting early-morning shadows that reminded Baker of a barbed-wire lattice. The errant thought invited an intense wave of nausea into his gut. He sat up quickly, not ready to start the day by cleaning up a puddle of regurgitated peach schnapps and pinto beans. He sat on the edge of the bed, mentally coaxing his stomach to relax and continue its regularly scheduled programming.
"Well, as long as I'm up," he said, stretching and opening his mouth in a satisfying yawn. Baker stood and started to get dressed. Before heading out, he grabbed his gun, which sat atop a stack of unopened letters from a West German court. The words DRINGEND! URGENT! were stamped across the envelopes, but Baker, who had received the messages over a period of several weeks between May and June, was in no hurry to open them.
The California sun seemed to be free of its cage as he made the drive out to Echo Park from his studio apartment in the heart of Chinatown. Nobody ever seemed to bother anybody in Chinatown. Well, that wasn't entirely true. Good, "patriotic" Americans hated the chinks just as much as they hated the kikes, and there were drunken raids on Chinese shopfronts from time to time. These domestic pogroms often resulted in someone losing more than just their livelihood.
Still, living among the Coolies could made a Yid somewhat invisible. And besides, living alongside the Chinamen just felt right; there was an unspoken form of kinship with the Jews, was there not? They were, after all, two peoples who, at points throughout their histories, had amounted to nothing more than expendable labor forces and were, at present, now despised for their shared association with Communism.
Truthfully, Morris Baker didn't fit the stereotypical Jewish look, no matter how many jokes Connolly made to the contrary. His nose was thin, but it wasn't a crooked beak like so many of his kinsmen were said to possess. His eyes were a murky dark brown and (not surprisingly) noticeably sunken since the end of the war. In fact, the only feature that hinted at his heritage was a head of curly brown hair so dark, it looked black in all but the most selective of lights.
The sky was nothing like the Rockwell illustration on Baker's refrigerator. It was a deep, unpleasant shade of orange as the sun mated with the Los Angeles smog. The intense morning rays caused amorphous shadows among the forest of palm trees in Echo Park. At this hour, they looked more like deformed monsters than the botanical landmarks of warm weather. Despite the fact that it wasn't even eight o'clock yet, Baker's white shirt was already soaked with a healthy layer of sweat. He cursed himself for stupidly forgetting to put on an undershirt and neglecting to shave the shallow stubble creeping up his neck. At least his hangover was abating…sort of.
Looking out the open window of his pale-green Continental Mark II—whose noisy Y-block V-8 engine never shut the hell up—Baker saw a cluster of lotus plants shooting out of the Echo Park lake. The mottled growths resembled the periscopes of a bright-green submarine armada. The gibberish of Huey "Piano" Smith's "Don't You Just Know It" was coming out of the radio. Just like the country he now lived in, the lyrics made no sense to Baker.
"Aw yeaaah, baby!" said the disc jockey once the song had ended, letting out a wolfish howl. His voice sounded as though he had the unusual habit of gargling gravel most mornings. "Don't ya just love that one, folks? Even the Reds can't resist a tune that good! This is KPXM Los Angeles, where we're playin' all the jiviest jams of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, baby! Aww yeaahhh…!"
A new song began to play, but barely made it to the chorus before it was replaced by a garbled Shakespeare reading somewhere out of range. "The fault…Brutus…not in our stars…in ourselves…resist…"
"Piece of junk," said Baker, turning off the radio with a flick of the wrist.
Soon, the erstwhile Echo Park branch of the LA Public Library system came into view. The building resembled a multilayered cake, assembled from an appealing combination of white and orange bricks. Big black letters sat atop the entrance like blight on a potato farm: HOUSE UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE OFFICES: LOS ANGELES DIVISION. Cleared of its books and shelves, the library was now a place where suspected Communists and deviants were taken to be processed, interrogated, and, in some cases, unofficially disposed of. People could still make it out alive, of course, but their psyches and fingernails were never the same.
The deafening roar of a supersonic jet overhead brought Baker back to his senses. For a moment, the thunderclap blurred out the Continental's overworked engine as the jet hit Mach 1. Baker snapped his head up just in time to see a white cloud bloom from the tail end of the aircraft as it sped off into the morning sky. Its scream became more and more muted by the second. For ten years, man had been able to break the sound barrier, and for ten years, he wouldn't let anyone on the ground forget it.
"Oy, we get it already," Baker shouted at the jet, his brain threatening to roll over like a dying dog.
It was only a five-minute drive from his apartment on North Hill Street to the former library and then another nine to the address Connolly had provided via Glendale Boulevard, which took him through Effie Street and then to Echo Park Avenue.
Altivo Way was a small street right off the avenue, boxed off by palm trees and bushes, and lined with bungalows. It gave the impression of an exclusive, colonized jungle that was both comfortable and expensive. The city proper was slightly visible between all the scrub, and Baker wryly warned himself to look out for hungry tigers waiting to pounce from the trees.
The house at 984 was curious in that it resembled a ranch. Upon further inspection, however, Baker could make out several lower levels that reminded him of the wooden puzzle boxes sold in the various shops and stalls across Chinatown.
He pulled up next to the house, noting that several sleek black-and-white Chevy Delrays were already parked outside. The circular crest on their bodies read CITY OF LOS ANGELES, FOUNDED 1891 and featured the state and American flags. A uniformed officer (a newbie named Thomas or Travis, Baker couldn't recall) was leaning against one of the squad cars, keeping an eye out for any nosy neighbors trying to catch a morbid glimpse of the crime scene. For added measure, a spiderweb of yellow police tape crisscrossed the entire lawn, and for the second time that morning Baker thought of barbed wire, a whole fence of the stuff running off into the horizon in either direction. Once again, he repressed the image.
Some Altivo Way residents, still in fluffy bathrobes and satin pajamas, were standing curiously on their lawns and driveways, craning their necks to see what all the fuss was about. Thomas/Travis acknowledged Baker in the way that nearly everyone on the force acknowledged him: by spitting on the ground. He was used to it by now. Any qualms he may have had about forgetting the little shit's name were forgotten.
"Top of the morning to you as well," said Baker sardonically.
Strolling up the stone walkway to the door of handsomely carved driftwood, Baker noted the gold calligraphed H on the house's mailbox. The brass doorknob was gleaming with indelicate smudges, no doubt a present from the uniformed officers who first arrived on the scene. Their hastiness and stupidity had probably destroyed any evidence of fingerprints. Baker turned the warm knob and walked inside.
The slight Irish lilt of Brogan Connolly boomed out of the darkness: "About time, you Hebe son of a bitch! Now we can finally get started!"
Nice to see you too, Brogan," said Baker with a smile.
Brogan Abraham Connolly was a large, loud, and foulmouthed—but (mostly) good-natured—Irishman with flaming red hair and muttonchops that had gone out of style sometime after the First World War. His bright-green eyes took prominence over his hair, but it was usually his mouth that was most recognizable.
Baker would have pegged Connolly as an anti-Semitic bigot long ago if he hadn't seen firsthand proof that Connolly hated everyone the same—regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. Hell, Connolly sometimes hated a person if they looked at him funny. Between them, Baker and Connolly had closed more cases than anyone else in the department and, therefore, bonded over this common ground more than anything else.
Their very first case together involved tracking down Raymond Neff, a particularly sick individual who had been abducting the youth of Los Angeles, molesting them, killing them, and burying their corpses in Death Valley National Park. Baker, who had seen children murdered countless ways during the war, was fed up with Connolly discounting his theories about the killer as "Hebrew hogwash" and even requested to be paired with another detective.
It was a stroke of luck that the two of them, leaving a nine-hour stakeout of a play park in Los Feliz, stumbled upon Neff trying to squash a particularly fat child into the trunk of his car. Baker left Neff with a broken arm and an eye so swollen, it had to be surgically removed before the man's state execution in the gas chamber. The violence against Neff earned Baker a month's suspension and docked pay, but it also earned him Connolly's respect and friendship, even if the latter did sometimes take umbrage at Baker's excessive drinking. Since that time, they'd worked as a seamless unit, constantly teasing each other like immature schoolboys. No other plainclothes detective would dare touch a case when the dynamic duo of Connolly and Baker was already on it, not unless they wanted to duke it out with the former.
"I was just telling Mickey here that if you hadn't shown up within the next five minutes, we'd send out an APB on a big-nosed Sheenie drunk fitting your description," said Connolly, chuckling.
Also present in the dimly lit hall were uniformed officers Mickey Sheehan and Kelvin Bletchley, both of whom were giving Baker nasty looks.
"I was asleep when you rang. You have," Baker said, his accent turning the word into half, "to give me time to get dressed, or I'd show up with my shirt on backward and my, how you Americans like to say? Yes, my pecker out," replied Baker, his eyes finally adjusting to the house's weak lighting. He now realized he was standing in a wide hallway painted canary yellow and adorned with film posters housed in thick frames: The Maltese Falcon, In This Our Life, Across the Pacific.
The beautiful, toughened, and pudgy faces of Bogart, Astor, de Havilland, and Greenstreet all stared back at him with sharp glances, while dramatic tag lines declared: EXPLOSIVE! BLAZING! and BOY, WHEN BOGART BOFFS THOSE JAPS…YOU CAN FEEL IT!
Although he wasn't a frequent attendee of the movie houses, Baker knew who Bogart was. Everyone in this town (and the world, for that matter) knew who he was: McCarthy's key propaganda tool in fighting Communism. He was still the iconic and manly symbol of American grit, especially after surviving a nasty battle with throat cancer a few years back.
Most recently, he'd played a key army general in the exemplar of sci-fi horror schlock: It Came from Planet Communist! In head-turning 3-D! While not a big fan of the drivel they played on screens these days, Baker killed an afternoon watching the picture and found the blue-and-red paper glasses far from head-turning. Headache-inducing was more like it.
Baker didn't recognize any of the films on display in these posters. Granted, he had arrived in America after the war and perhaps some of these had been made before his emigration, but he surely would have heard of them if they involved Bogart.
Most of the films these days (under the supervision of the government's Department of Motion Pictures) were basically the same: An unsmiling Communist, be it spy or alien, tries to ruin the American way of life and the brave Republican, capitalist, and democracy-loving hero stops them cold in their tracks.
Baker's slight confusion must have played on his face. Connolly piped up again in his gruff voice.
"I was confused for a second there too, Baker. Haven't seen these films in over ten years. In fact, no one has! Hueys banned them in '53, shortly after McCarthy took office. Didn't want people watching stuff that didn't keep them on their toes. You know how the story goes."
Baker straightened. "I assume the maker of these pictures is around here somewhere without a pulse?"
"Right down here, as a matter of fact," said Connolly, pointing to a brighter room off the darkened hallway. Baker headed in that direction, briefly noticing a kitchen at the far end and a set of stairs that led to the house's lower levels.
"By the way," he began. "What schmuck touched the doorknob with his bare hand?"
"That was Tommy outside. Kid doesn't know his gun from his dick yet," Connolly responded. "I've done some light dusting myself, but it's been goose egg so far. Whoever did this, they knew what they were doing. Right through here."
Baker walked through the slightly arched opening of the room toward which Connolly had directed him. A sudden flash exploded before his eyes, partially blinding him. Tiny lights popped and subsided, giving way to the blurry form of a man holding a large camera.
"Christ!" growled Baker, prompting an indignant squawk from Connolly. "You could warn a man!" He rubbed his eyeballs with knuckles that felt like sandpaper.
"Sorry, Morris," said crime scene photographer Philip Lathrop, already unscrewing the flashbulb from his cumbersome Graflex Speed Graphic camera and replacing it with a new one. "Didn't see you there. You check the lighting in here? It's absolutely perfect!"
Baker let out a small sigh. Of all the photographers the station had to send, it was the one who fancied himself an "art-eest." To call Philip H. Lathrop a perfectionist was an understatement. He sometimes forgot he was taking pictures of corpses—not actors and models. He'd have made one hell of a cameraman for the motion pictures if the background checks weren't so stringent and the president's cronies (along with their snot-nosed kids) didn't get first priority.
"I hadn't noticed," replied Baker, his vision returning. Lathrop was right, the lighting in here was pleasant and easy on the eyes. It lazily funneled into the space through high glass windows situated on both sides of the wood-paneled room.
- "Reading Josh Weiss’s debut novel feels like riding shotgun with a friend who’s driving expertly through a winter storm... Weiss creates palpable emotional depth, particularly for Baker, whose yearslong tactic of burying trauma has stopped working."—The New York Times
- “A debut novel from Josh Weiss, Beat the Devils delights in detective story tropes…The saloon shoot-outs, cryptic radio messages, grungy sunrises and ravishingly beautiful secret agents create a noir atmosphere redolent of Dashiell Hammett.”—The Forward
- “Tight, well-paced, inventive, and inspirational, Weiss’ splendid debut is classic noir tinged with the slightest pinch of science fiction; readers can thrill to the bits of dissonant history they recognize, even as they revel in the mayhem and suspense that permeate the text.”—Mystery Scene Magazine
- “America’s close call with the political paranoia of McCarthyism makes for one whopper of an alt-history backdrop for Beat the Devils... the novel is a tasty slice of noir fiction.”—SyFy Wire
- “Clever and innovative: a page-turner.”—Mystery Tribune
- "Beat The Devils by Josh Weiss blew me away. A brilliant alternate history, a riveting fifties-era noir crime caper, and an edge of your seat thriller—all wrapped into one! This is a stunning novel that takes readers for a mind-bending ride with elements that seem shockingly relevant in our current day and age."—Mark Greaney #1 NYT Bestselling Author of The Gray Man
- "A thought-provoking dive into an alternative USA even weirder and wilder than our own. Weiss and his world-weary protagonist LAPD detective Morris Baker put the reader eerily at home in a twisted world of prejudice, privilege and murder, but amid the dark deeds there's hope and humour and heart. A fun, intelligent and satisfying read."—Ian R MacLeod, author of Wake Up and Dream
- “Josh Weiss has announced himself as a bold new voice in the world of pulp noir fiction. One part Raymond Chandler, one part Philip Roth, a dash of Ben Hecht — and you’re about halfway there.”—J.D. Lifshitz, co-founder of BoulderLight Pictures and producer of The Vigil
- “Thrillers involving the 1950s and an L.A. police detective are close to being a dime-a-dozen, but not so with Josh Weiss’s superb Beat the Devils. It takes place in 1958 Los Angeles, but very different from our own history, beginning with the shocking twist that the President of the United States is former Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy. Instead of the relative peace and prosperity of the Eisenhower years, we’re in the nightmare that is the McCarthy years, filled with Communist hunts among government agencies, businesses, and the media, as well as a secret police arresting and sometimes executing those suspected of disloyalty. Into this richly plotted and detailed novel is Detective Morris Baker, a Holocaust survivor who must navigate the dangerous times of this place, where Jews are second-class citizens, subject to pogroms and violence. A murder involving a prominent journalist and a famed film director sets him on a course of suspicion, betrayal, and double-crosses against a background of deep paranoia and permanent war. A remarkable achievement.”—Brendan DuBois, award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Resurrection Day and Amerikan Eagle
- "Alternate histories are difficult to craft, but the world of Beat the Devils is built with hair-raising perfection. Weiss holds a warped mirror to the American Dream — revealing dark undercurrents thread through with troubling, yet true, history. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough!"—Ryan Graudin, award-winning author of Wolf by Wolf
- “Much more than a thriller… Riveting — and scary.”—AudioFile
- “A must-read for fans of alternate-history fiction.”—Booklist
- On Sale
- Mar 22, 2022
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Grand Central Publishing