I’ve long been a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s work, and I like the literary detective sub-genre where an actual writer from the past functions as the detective in a mystery novel. (See Joe Gores’ excellent HAMMETT for an early example of this sort of book.) So it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT, the second novel in Michael Atkinson’s series casting Papa as a crime-solver.
For one thing, the set-up is perfectly believable. Hemingway is in Spain in 1937, writing dispatches about the Spanish Civil War and struggling with the creative process for the novel that eventually will become FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. Fellow writer John Dos Passos shows up and tells Hemingway that a mutual friend of theirs who they knew in Italy during World War I has disappeared and possibly been murdered. The two writers set out to find out what happened to the missing man, which proves to be dangerous in the political minefield that is Madrid during wartime.
There’s not really a lot of mystery to this one, although Hemingway does wind up solving his friend’s murder, of course. It’s more of a historical adventure novel, and an excellent one, at that. I’m not a real student of the Spanish Civil War, but the details seem accurate enough to me and Atkinson does a fine job of recreating that particular time and place. Wisely, he doesn’t try to imitate Hemingway’s style – although the Hemingway voice does come through in places – but rather tells his story in prose that ranges from bleak and hardboiled to bizarrely funny, almost surreal, in fact (as in the opening scene that involves a bullfight in the basement of a building in Madrid).
Atkinson also succeeds in painting an interesting portrait of Hemingway as both a writer and a man: struggling with his work, juggling the affair he’s carrying on with Martha Gellhorn with all the fleeting relationships he has with various women in Madrid, wrestling with the issues of honor and bravery that crop up so often in his writing as he risks his life to find out the truth of what happened to his friend. One of the goals of historical fiction is to make it seem to the reader like the events mixed in with the historical background really could have happened, and Atkinson succeeds admirably in that regard. Once Hemingway reaches a certain point in his investigation, history tells us what’s going to happen next, but that doesn’t take anything away from the headlong pace of the book.
I haven’t read the first novel in this series, HEMINGWAY DEADLIGHTS, but I plan to. HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT is a well-written, very entertaining yarn.