on 26 February 1999
(from "The San Antonio Express-News," Feb '99) Writer sui generis Dan Simmons refuses to be pigeon-holed. His first novel ("Song of Kali," a psychological thriller) garnered a World Fantasy Award. Horror novels like "Carrion Comfort" and "Summer of Night" earned awards and admiration from peers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz. And his critically acclaimed, award winning quartet of SF ("Hyperion, "The Fall of Hyperion," "Endymion" and "The Rise of Endymion") are perennial bestsellers that have cemented his reputation in that genre. Not one to rest on his laurels, Simmons new novel, "The Crook Factory," explores an entirely different genre: literary espionage. Like those before it, this book is filled with crackerjack writing, a page-turning plot, and characters which will haunt the reader long after the book is finished. Joe Lucas, an amoral special agent in the FBI, finds himself assigned to a case that seems designed as punishment. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover has tasked him with keeping tabs on an amateur spy network in Cuba. The network has been coined "The Crook Factory" by it's ringleader - none other than Ernest Hemingway. Completely unaware of Hemingway's stature and celebrity as a writer (he doesn't read "make believe" books), Lucas' perspective and growing awareness of Hemingway is offered through fresh, unspoiled eyes. Upon reaching Cuba, Lucas is thoroughly unprepared for what he finds. In Hemingway, he discovers a braggart who embellishes upon every life story, and a writer who, despite an awareness of his own talent, constantly questions his own worth. And after joining up with Hemingway's eight-man spy network, Lucas discovers a spiderweb of machiavlleian schemes involving the intelligence agencies from three different countries that could affect the outcome of World War II. Worse, Lucas learns that Hemingway's "crook factory" has uncovered a vital piece of intelligence which puts all of them in mortal danger, and calls into question the loyalty of operatives in his own agency. Unsure of his sources (or who might be behind the American side of the conspiracy), Lucas partners with Hemingway in a perilous venture to get to the bottom of the mystery. Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, and a host of others make appearances in this story. What's more, as Simmons testifies in an afterword, ninety-five percent of the events are true. But in the end, what resonates deepest are the characters: Joe Lucas, who goes through a moral and emotional transformation; and, most especially, Ernest Hemingway. Capturing an historical persona within in the confines of a novel is no easy task. But Simmons does an incredible job. Readers will come away from this book feeling as if they actually lived alongside the great writer. Part spy novel, part history lesson, and part thriller, "The Crook Factory" is ample proof that the talents of Dan Simmons can't be constrained by any genre. (from "The San Antonio Express-News," Feb. 1999)
on 8 August 2000
Truth is stranger than fiction and if Dan Simmons is to be believed, 95% of the content of the Crook Factory is true. More importantly, its well written, has interesting characters and a compelling plot.
This is (to the best of my knowledge) Dan Simmons first foray into historical fiction and a straight espionage/thriller. Its good to see such a fine author challenge himself by writing outside the fantasy/ horror/ science fiction genres. Its even more pleasant when it is done so well.
on 3 February 1999
From Kirkus: Simmons leaps from fat genre novels suspense/horror/sf fantasy) to fat mainstream historical suspense in retelling the story of Ernest Hemingway's submarine-chasing exploits off Cuba in 1942-43. As is often the case with the author's overplanned and hyperdetailed novels,this one boasts proliferating plots and subplots. At its center lolls the brawnily bravura Falstaffian bully/braggart Hemingway, who at age 43 lives with fourth wife Martha Gellhorn in their finca outside Havana, coasting on the great reviews of For Whom the Bell Tolls from two years earlier and editing his anthology Men at War; Hemingway is also overdrinking and trying to assemble a raggle-taggle spy group (or crook factory) in Havana to support his pursuit of Nazi subs with his famed fishing boat, Pilar, while falling under the spell of the FBI and IRS (who undermine his sanity, causing the paranoia that later leads him to suicide). And that barely scratches the surface. Simmons also takes on Hemingway's sense of "the-true gen''-that is, how things work: guns,boats, boxing, fishing-and rivals him at his own game by creating a smartly characterized narrator, FBI agent Joe Lucas, who reads no fiction, has never read a word of Hemingway, and outsmarts Papa on boats, boxing, guns, and the true gen of spycraft. Simmons claims that ninety-five percent of his book is "true," derived from FBI files. Regardless, though, what helps vastly is that utter pragmatist Joe Lucas, fatally ill, has only nine months to write the book, unburdened by any strivings for an artistic excellence he knows nothing about. Thus when Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman show up to talk about filming For Whom the Bell Tolls, Joe has only the vaguest idea of what's under discussion. Also on hand: foppish top spy Commander Ian Fleming, getting charged up for his James Bond novels. For a change, Papa never utters a syllable that rings false. Meantime, Simmons (Children of the Night, 1992, etc.) more than handily ladles out suspense, a German Mata Hari, and a steady stream of solemn bemusement. .(KIRKUS REVIEW,'99)
Hemingway always liked to present an image of being a 'man's man', and the side of him that acutely observed and recorded those around him and their swirling tide-pool of emotions was normally hidden from view. Simmons, delving deep into the minutia of what is known about the man, managed to catch this ambivalence in this spy-vs-spy novel. Hemingway's braggart, macho face is clearly in evidence, but also much that is deeper: his genuine feelings for his children (and his 'children' were a much larger group than his biological family), his own realistic opinion of both his own and other's writing abilities, his fears and depressions, his charismatic presence, his dominance of almost any group he was part of, his real appreciation of what excellent art is, his total arrogance towards those whom he felt did not meet his standards.
Beyond this fine character portrait, we find a plot that seemingly came strictly from the land of make-believe, that is until you look at the documented facts surrounding the creation and operation of Hemingway's contribution to the WWII effort, his self-named Crook Factory. Nominally a strictly amateur counter-espionage group, which should have occupied the attention of the Washington bureaucrats for all of two minutes, is instead shown here to be the focus of not one but at least four professional intelligence-gathering organizations. Simmons weaves a finely complicated tale within the documented facts, some of which paint a very frightening picture of certain American organizations, and which become even more frightening in light of certain recently passed legislation allowing these organizations even more effectively unsupervised power. In Simmons' hands the facts and the fiction meld to become a nice who-is-really-who thriller, a ball of twine that Simmons carefully unravels and knits into shapes that continue to intrigue till the very climax of this work.
Simmons' style is a long ways from Hemingway's, normally a pretty basic utilitarian prose that does a decent job of presenting the story, but not exceptional. In a few spots, however, he caught something of Hemingway's inimitable ability to describe far more than just what the objective words on the page relay. These moments are few, though, and in many places I felt he presented too much mind-boggling detail of marginal relevance to the main story, regardless of how well these details are documented. These details in many places somewhat spoil the pacing of this otherwise well-wrought thriller.
Simmons also includes an epilogue, just to tie up all the loose ends. As he says himself within it, this is a bad idea. He had a perfectly good finish without the epilogue, and its inclusion merely weakens the overall impact of the work.
A good, enthralling read, with some nasty implications for today's world, although perhaps not the absolute top-flight work Simmons has exhibited in such works as Hyperion.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)