It’s not very often I have the pleasure of reading a novel written as a noir story. And when that chance comes up, it makes the reading all the more enjoyable. That is what happened when I read the novel Joe Steele by Harry Turtledove. I just love noir stories and given this book’s topic and the kind of shady character in it, complete with his own goons and backup squad, noir seemed like a perfect fit here. The story is told from the POV of two brothers – Charlie and Mike Sullivan – and their “voices” just seemed to make the story all the more mysterious and suspenseful.
As I read this novel, I had to constantly remind myself that it was set in the early 1930s (at the beginning) and certain words and phrases were used back then. I came across the word “colored” to refer to a black person and at first I thought “No one says that anymore” but then I remembered that they did in the ‘30s so that fit in the story. I was tickled by a character saying in surprise “Dog my cats!” and enjoyed reading about characters getting one of those new things called a “television set” or getting the morning edition of a paper.
With a story set in the past, there’s the chance of a historical figure popping up in the story. That definitely happened in this novel. There were a few of them: Adolf Hitler, Hirohito, J. Edgar Hoover and Albert Einstein. It was so interesting to see how the author handled portraying them. I bet his depiction of Hoover, from what I have read about Hoover, was pretty spot on!
This novel is categorized as an “alternate history” story. It would not be the first of its kind. In fact, I have read a novel of what the world would have been like if JFK had not been assassinated and of course we’ve seen many movies or TV shows of how history would have changed if someone had not died or if something had not happened. In this particular novel, we see what would happen if it had been a ruthless man like Joe Steele winning the Presidency (and if a President like FDR had been murdered just so he could be removed from the competition) and taking over the country. The Constitution is no longer valid and the President can order men to be killed by a firing squad if they so much as even look at him funny. There is no more “freedom of the press” or any rights protecting citizens from government dictatorship. Marshall Law is even enacted, at one point. Yes, we do indeed get to witness what kind of impact that sort of situation would have on our country if it came true. It’s Big Brother in the White House and all of a sudden the nation is turned into a 1984 novel. Anybody who speaks out against the wrong being done in this country is sent to a labor camp and people end up ratting each other out if they come across someone complaining about it.
And even the people trying to stay on the President’s good side are not even safe. They say if you play with fire you are going to get burned. Even if a character in this novel doesn’t agree with everything Joe Steele does, or how he does it, getting into bed with him can only mean disaster.
I really enjoyed reading this alternate history novel. It made me grateful that at least today that kind of man would not be able to wield such power from the White House no matter how much control over the rest of the government he thought he had. No, in the USA, the Constitution still means something. Politicians lie to get their way, sure, but in the end, justice will reign. I am not sure if the same can be said for everyone in this novel but at least we can rest assured that this is a story only living on in the world of literature.
New York Times bestselling author Harry Turtledove’s thought-provoking forays into the past have produced such intriguing “what-if” novels as Ruled Britannia, Days of Infamy, and Opening Atlantis. Now “the maven of alternate history” (The San Diego Union-Tribune) envisions the election of a United States President whose political power will redefine what the nation is—and what it means to be American….
President Herbert Hoover has failed America. The Great Depression that rose from the ashes of the 1929 stock market crash still casts its dark shadow over the country. Despairing and desperate, the American people hope one of the potential Democratic candidates—New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and California congressman Joe Steele—can get the nation on the road to recovery.
But fate snatches away one hope when a mansion fire claims the life of Roosevelt, leaving the Democratic party little choice but to nominate Steele, son of a Russian immigrant laborer who identifies more with the common man than with Washington D.C.’s wealthy power brokers.
Achieving a landslide victory, President Joe Steele wastes no time pushing through Congress reforms that put citizens back to work. Anyone who gets in his way is getting in the way of America, and that includes the highest in the land. Joe Steele’s critics may believe the government is gaining too much control, but they tend to find themselves in work camps if they make too much noise about it. And most people welcome strong leadership, full employment, and an absence of complaining from the newspapers—especially as Hitler and Trotsky begin the kind of posturing that seems sure to drag America into war.