Set in California and Arizona in 1936, The Good Know Nothing, the seventh in Ken Kuhlken’s Tom Hickey series, has the police detective embarked on a quest for the truth about the perplexing disappearance of his father many years in the past. When he is given a manuscript of a novel in his father’s hand by an old friend, a novel which has been published by the mysterious B. Traven, he is convinced he has hit upon a line of investigation that must be pursued. What it reveals is a complex tale that involves not only Traven, but a cast of historical figures including The Sundance Kid, Ambrose Bierce, William Randolph Hearst, and Pancho Villa.
Working in the corrupt Los Angeles police department, Hickey, an independent cop concerned with justice, is neither one of the boys, nor a favorite of his superiors. So when it comes to his quest, he is fairly on his own. While in some respects he is the image of the noir detective painted by the writers of the period, he does have some unusual attributes. He is married to a beautiful band singer who seems to have him wound around her pretty finger. He has a young daughter whom he dotes on and indeed seems to be her primary care giver. He spends as much time taking her to see the ducks, it seems, as he does pursuing criminals. He does the cooking and the shopping, not the kind of thing you’d expect from a tough guy ‘shamus’ in the 1930s.
Still, it is in his creation of the period that Kuhlken is at his best. It is his attention to detail that gives the tale its sense of reality: a radio broadcast of a Yankee baseball game with Lefty Grove pitching, an account of Jesse Owens at the German Olympic Games, references to the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty, an allusion to the disappearance of Amy Semple MacPherson. He plays Chinese Checkers with his daughter. He gets to drive a fancy Packard and tips the gas station attendant a quarter. He buys meat from a butcher.
His treatment of broader social and political themes is also spot on. The Californian treatment of the Dust Bowl migration becomes a major part of the story, as do the politics of Hearst — his anti-communism and his flirtation with Hitler. Kuhlken creates a truly effective picture of the period with the kind of verisimilitude that allows the reader to accept some of the story’s unlikely events.
And much of the plot, exciting at times, seems quite unlikely. No spoilers here, suffice it to say that the revelations are not always adequately prepared for, and seem to come from nowhere. Conclusions are based on somewhat tenuous testimony, and character motivation is at times not very convincing. Still, when he is on his game, Kuhlken’s story telling carries the day.
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