From New York Times bestselling author William Martin comes a WWII thriller as intense as The Day of the Jackal and as gripping as The Eye of the Needle. In December ’41, Martin takes us on the ultimate manhunt, a desperate chase from Los Angeles to Washington, D. C., in the first weeks of the Second World War.
On the day after Pearl Harbor, shocked Americans gather around their radios to hear Franklin Roosevelt declare war. In Los Angeles, a German agent named Martin Browning is planning to kill FDR on the night he lights the National Christmas Tree. Who will stop him? Relentless FBI Agent Frank Carter? Kevin Cusack, a Hollywood script reader who also spies on the German Bund of Los Angeles, and becomes a suspect himself? Or Vivian Hopewell, the aspiring actress who signs on to play Martin Browning’s wife and cannot help but fall in love with him?
The clock is ticking. The tracks are laid. The train of narrow escapes, mistaken identities, and shocking deaths is right on schedule. It’s a thrilling ride that will sweep you from the back lots of Hollywood to the speeding Super Chief to that solemn Christmas Eve, when twenty thousand people gather on the South Lawn of the White House and the lives of Franklin Roosevelt and his surprise guest, Winston Churchill, hang in the balance.
December ’41 will be available on June 7th, 2022. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
MONDAY, DECEMBER 8, 1941
It was the largest radio audience in history.
On the cold coast of Maine, they were listening. Down on Wall Street, trading stopped so they could listen. On assembly lines in Detroit, they were taking long lunches so the autoworkers could listen. In Chicago, the butchers stopped slaughtering in the stockyards to listen. In Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa, where they grew corn and wheat enough to feed the world, now that the rains had returned and the dust had stopped blowing, the farmers were listening there, too.
In all the places where the muscle and sinew of America bound one state or town or family to another, they were listening for the warm baritone and patrician inflections that somehow never sounded too upper-crusty coming out of the radio…
…because America had awakened that morning to the cold reality of war, war in every time zone, war encircling the earth, war once more as the original human fact.
In Hawaii, U.S. Navy battleships burned beneath great funerary clouds of black oil smoke. In the far Pacific, Japanese troops attacked along every line of latitude and longitude. In swirling blizzards of blood and snow, Russians and Germans slaughtered each other before Moscow. Across Europe, jackboots echoed and resistance guttered, while U-boats stalked freighters on the roiling gray Atlantic. But Americans were listening because Franklin Roosevelt was about to make sense of it all.
In Washington, the CBS radio announcer was describing the packed House chamber, the tense atmosphere . . . when suddenly his voice rose: “Now, ladies and gentlemen, the president is appearing and moving toward the podium.”
And from out of deep-bass consoles and tinny tabletop radios in every corner of the country, a roar exploded, something between a cheer and an angry shout, the harsh, hard, ferocious cry of Americans lifting themselves from shock and drawing strength from the president who’d lifted himself from a wheelchair and by remarkable force of will was appearing upright before them.
When the roar receded, the Speaker announced, “Senators and Representatives, I have the distinguished honor of presenting the president of the United States.”
More cheers and shouts, then Franklin Roosevelt’s voice rang out, firm, confident, indignant: “Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives: Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. . . .”
In the West, radio stations had gone off the air the night before so that Japanese bombers couldn’t home in on the broadcasts.
But now, Roosevelt’s voice rolled across deserts, up and over mountain ranges, and down into the warm green dream of Southern California, down along boulevards laid like gridwork atop lettuce fields and orange groves, down onto long, straight, relentless thoroughfares that ended where scrub-covered hillsides leaped up to define and divide the expanse of Los Angeles, down into offices and coffee shops and cars where people were listening, unaware that as Roosevelt spoke, a Nazi assassin was shooting at targets in a local canyon and planning the most daring act of the age, unaware also that before it was over, he would draw many of them into his dark orbit.
One of them, a young man named Kevin Cusack, was listening in the Warner Bros. story department. He and his friends should have been working. They were the gang who read the plays and novels sent out from New York, then synopsized them and offered opinions. A pile of books and manuscripts lay on the table. But Jack L. Warner himself was probably listening, so why shouldn’t they?
Kevin’s next assignment: a play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s. He didn’t hold much hope for it. All he needed to read was the story editor’s one-liner: “A love triangle set in wartime Casablanca.” He hated love triangles. But when you worked on the bottom rung in the story department for a buck twelve an hour, you took what they gave you.
And the job was good cover, along with his Irish surname and dark Irish brow. His friends in the German American Bund loved that he worked by day in a “nest of Hollywood Jews,” then went down to Deutsches Haus, the Bund hall, to drink German beer and deliver the gossip every night. If they’d known that he was really a spy who passed information to the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee, who then passed it to the FBI, those jolly Germans might have killed him.
But he felt safe at the studio. When Roosevelt said, “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory,” Kevin cheered right along with those congressmen and senators back in Washington.
So did all the others around the conference table. Jerry Sloane, an emotional kind of guy, wiped away a tear. Sally Drake, the only female in the room, the girl with the Vassar accent and Katharine Hepburn slacks, put her fingers in her mouth and gave out with a big ballpark whistle. Pretty good for a college girl.
Kevin liked Sally. He liked her a lot. So did Jerry. And Jerry seemed to be winning. Maybe that was why Kevin hated love triangles.
Over on West Olive, Big Time Breakfast of Burbank was pumping out the all-American aromas of bacon and coffee. In some small ways, life went on as usual on the day after Pearl Harbor. People got hungry. People got thirsty. People dreamed of better days. But in the booths and at the counter, conversation and plate-scraping stopped as soon as the president’s voice came out of the radio. Now all the day players and studio hands were listening, except for one young woman in a yellow dress who sat at the end of the counter, sipped her coffee, and stared into space.
Vivian Hopewell didn’t have money for breakfast, not in a restaurant anyway. She barely had money for a bowl of cornflakes at home, if that’s what you could call a single in a crummy Glendale rooming house.
Rattling around in her purse were three nickels, two dimes, and an envelope containing one glossy headshot. She always carried a headshot. A girl had to be ready. Now that there was a war on, maybe she’d catch a break. Folks back home always said she looked like a young Marlene Dietrich. Maybe that Germanic bone structure might appeal to some casting director who needed a Nazi villainess.
But in the brown paper bag at her feet she carried a pair of white, rubber-soled flats and a gray uniform dress, to show that she knew how to wait tables, too, from back when she was just plain Kathy Schortmann of Annapolis, Maryland.
The owner had already given her the bad news: he’d hired somebody else. “She ain’t quite so pretty as you, so she ain’t likely to go runnin’ across the street if she gets a walk-on in some cheapo serial.”
“Across the street” was Gate 4, a breach in the wall surrounding the Warner Bros. soundstages that were more beautiful to Vivian than the Taj Mahal . . . and just as remote. And it was true. If she ever got a role—good girl, bad girl, or background-broad bit part—she’d be gone from that breakfast counter before she untied her apron.
So she finished her coffee and stepped out into the sunshine. At least there was always sunshine. It made the disappointment easier to take. She glanced again at Gate 4, then checked the bus schedule back to Glendale. Maybe she’d hitch a ride and save a nickel. Or maybe she’d walk. It was only six miles, and she had her waitress shoes.
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