How to write a sci-fi noir

How to write a sci-fi noir

‘Beat the Devils’ main character is a Holocaust survivor detective

Josh Weiss and the cover of his new alternative-history thriller.
Josh Weiss and the cover of his new alternative-history thriller.

Not surprisingly, the author bio for “Beat the Devils” caught my attention.

“Josh Weiss is an author from South Jersey,” it reads. “Raised in a proud Jewish home, he was instilled with an appreciation for his cultural heritage from a very young age. Today, Josh is utterly fascinated with the convergence of Judaism and culture in film, television, comics, literature, and other media.”

Readers therefore might logically assume that Josh’s book is a nonfiction examination of the role of Genesis in the Marvel universe. Or vice versa.

Or perhaps the story of how a Jewish player might help New Jersey’s beleaguered NHL team reach the Stanley Cup finals.

But nay. It is an interesting and offbeat 1930s Raymond Chandler-style noir mystery set in an alternative history. It’s 1958. Joe McCarthy, the bombastic senator from Wisconsin, is now president and has a squad of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) investigators at his disposal, super cops in search of communists and communist sympathizers — and by that, of course, he means Jews.

The protagonist is Morris Baker, Holocaust survivor and detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, where pretty much everyone hates Jews. Baker is not an attractive character. He drinks too much peach schnapps and womanizes. And, perhaps a bit surprisingly, this unflattering portrait is sort of based on Mr. Weiss’s Holocaust-survivor grandfather.

“I grew up Orthodox, though I’m not exactly Orthodox anymore,” he said. “I was told to be proud of my cultural and religious heritage. Especially being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor.”

But Mr. Weiss, who grew up in Cherry Hill, didn’t have a good relationship with his grandfather, part of which he explains as the aftereffects of  the man’s concentration camp experience.

“I grew up hearing these stories from my father about the horrific atrocities my grandfather witnessed when he was 12 or 13 years old. He was late for roll call one morning at Auschwitz, and an SS guard knocked him out with the butt of his rifle and put him on a pile of bodies that were going to be burned. Some friends from his town pulled him off, but” — as a result of the blow — “he suffered epilepsy for the rest of his life.”

“I never really knew my grandfather, but I have tried to understand him, figure out how a person can go through all that horrific experience and come out on the other side,” Mr. Weiss continued. “You can’t come out normal. He was not a loving man, at least the person I knew. So this was kind of a way for me to get close to him, even though I did not have a close relationship with him.

“He divorced my grandmother years ago, got remarried, and moved away. So every time I met him, it was like meeting a stranger. But growing up, I kind of built this character in my head, and I wanted to tell his story in some way.

“Unfortunately, before I was able to seriously pursue that, he was already gone. You know, thinking about it, as a member of a postwar generation, I ask, how can a God if he exists allow this to happen? So, you know, this story is a mixture of my grandfather, and also kind of my own questioning of faith.”

Mr. Weiss is a fan of alternative history, such novels as “Fatherland,” in which Robert Harris imagines a world in which Hitler won the second World War, and “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” where Michael Chabon imagines life in a settlement of Jewish World War II refugees in Sitka, Alaska.

In Mr. Weiss’s dystopian world, “the public hangings of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and the rest of their band of miscreants will be televised live on NBC… The event is sponsored by Colgate toothpaste.”

It’s a world in which the Rosenbergs’ spying strengthened McCarthy’s antisemitic hand. “The president’s position also emboldened groups across the country to destroy Jewish businesses, synagogues, and community centers with impunity. It has gotten so bad that American Jews no longer affixed mezzuzot to the door post of their homes.”

It is a world in which at least one author’s bio likely would read differently, and that world threatens to get worse. Someone is threatening to blow up a bomb in Los Angeles, and we all know who will get blamed — if Baker doesn’t stop them.

It’s a world of double and triple crosses, populated by real people. People like Walter Cronkite, Ed Murrow, and Humphrey Bogart.

Mr. Weiss started writing the book almost eight years ago, working in fits and starts. “It began as an exercise in imagination and creativity, but the more time went on as I was writing, the more it seemed that what I wrote was coming true,” he said.

Spoiler alert: Morris Baker lives to fight again, in the second novel in the series, “Sunrise Empire.” Now a private eye, he’s hired by a woman to track down her missing husband, Henry Kissinger, a State Department consultant working for Vice President Richard Nixon.

What could go wrong?

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