‘Beat the Devils’ Excerpt Reveals a Murder in Joseph McCarthy’s America
For Josh Weiss, writing his debut novel, Beat the Devils, was a way to get closer to a grandfather he hardly knew.
Beat the Devils takes place in an alternate history 1958, one in which Joseph McCarthy is president of the United States, and xenophobic, anti-communist fervor has reached new heights. The book follows Morris Baker, an L.A. police detective and survivor of the Holocaust who becomes embroiled in a murder case after he discovers the bodies of forgotten director John Huston and up-and-coming journalist Walter Cronkite.
Weiss partially based Baker after his late grandfather, who was a survivor of the Holocaust himself.
“I grew up hearing about him. I met him a handful of times,” Weiss tells The Hollywood Reporter. “[The book] was me trying to understand, ‘How does a person live through three camps and a death march and come out?’ You don’t. Something changes you in that horrific experience. It was a way for me to go, ‘OK, I’m hearing these stories. I’m subconsciously building this character in my head.’”
Weiss, a freelance journalist who has written for outlets including THR and SyFy Wire, began dreaming up the book in 2015 when he was still in college. He knew he wanted to do something set during the Cold War after watching The Manchurian Candidate with Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey and eventually combined that desire with his family history.
He wrote about half of the book in college, and set it aside. As he made a career in journalism, Weiss picked the book back up again in his free time, getting feedback from friends and family and completing the manuscript.
After getting rejected by dozens of literary agents, Weiss eventually caught a break that changed his life.
“At first I thought he was prank-calling me,” Weiss says of getting the call from Scott Miller at Trident Media Group, who among other things, sold The Gray Man, the novel soon to be a Netflix movie from the Russo brothers. “It was surreal to hear somebody else, other than myself, talking about all the reasons he loved it.”
The duo sold the book just as the pandemic hit in 2020. Two years later, it is now a reality, with Grand Central Publishing releasing Beat the Devils on March 22. Weiss continues to work as a journalist and has his sights set on a second novel, currently in progress.
Though his grandfather is not around to read Beat the Devils, Weiss’ father approves of the way it weaves in family history. Says Weiss: “He loves it and is very proud. Both of my parents were two of the earliest readers.”
Read on for an excerpt from Beat the Devils.
“Nice to see you too, Brogan,” said Baker with a smile.
Brogan Abraham Connolly was a large, loud, and foulmouthed—but (mostly) good-natured—Irishman with flaming red hair and muttonchops that had gone out of style sometime after the First World War. His bright-green eyes took prominence over his hair, but it was usually his mouth that was most recognizable.
Baker would have pegged Connolly as an anti-Semitic bigot long ago if he hadn’t seen firsthand proof that Connolly hated everyone the same—regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. Hell, Connolly sometimes hated a person if they looked at him funny. Between them, Baker and Connolly had closed more cases than anyone else in the department and, therefore, bonded over this common ground more than anything else.
Their very first case together involved tracking down Raymond Neff, a particularly sick individual who had been abducting the youth of Los Angeles, molesting them, killing them, and burying their corpses in Death Valley National Park. Baker, who had seen children murdered countless ways during the war, was fed up with Connolly discounting his theories about the killer as “Hebrew hogwash” and even requested to be paired with another detective.
It was a stroke of luck that the two of them, leaving a nine-hour stakeout of a play park in Los Feliz, stumbled upon Neff trying to squash a particularly fat child into the trunk of his car. Baker left Neff with a broken arm and an eye so swollen, it had to be surgically removed before the man’s state execution in the gas chamber. The violence against Neff earned Baker a month’s suspension and docked pay, but it also earned him Connolly’s respect and friendship, even if the latter did sometimes take umbrage at Baker’s excessive drinking. Since that time, they’d worked as a seamless unit, constantly teasing each other like immature schoolboys. No other plainclothes detective would dare touch a case when the dynamic duo of Connolly and Baker was already on it, not unless they wanted to duke it out with the former.
“I was just telling Mickey here that if you hadn’t shown up within the next five minutes, we’d send out an APB on a big-nosed Sheenie drunk fitting your description,” said Connolly, chuckling.
Also present in the dimly lit hall were uniformed officers Mickey Sheehan and Kelvin Bletchley, both of whom were giving Baker nasty looks.
“I was asleep when you rang. You have,” Baker said, his accent turning the word into half, “to give me time to get dressed, or I’d show up with my shirt on backward and my, how you Americans like to say? Yes, my pecker out,” replied Baker, his eyes finally adjusting to the house’s weak lighting. He now realized he was standing in a wide hallway painted canary yellow and adorned with film posters housed in thick frames: The Maltese Falcon, In This Our Life, Across the Pacific.
The beautiful, toughened, and pudgy faces of Bogart, Astor, de Havilland, and Greenstreet all stared back at him with sharp glances, while dramatic tag lines declared: explosive! blazing! and boy, when bogart boffs those japs . . . you can feel it!
Although he wasn’t a frequent attendee of the movie houses, Baker knew who Bogart was. Everyone in this town (and the world, for that matter) knew who he was: McCarthy’s key propaganda tool in fighting Communism. He was still the iconic and manly symbol of American grit, especially after surviving a nasty battle with throat cancer a few years back.
Most recently, he’d played a key army general in the exemplar of sci-fi horror schlock: It Came from Planet Communist! In head-turning 3-D! While not a big fan of the drivel they played on screens these days, Baker killed an afternoon watching the picture and found the blue-and-red paper glasses far from head-turning. Headache-inducing was more like it.
Baker didn’t recognize any of the films on display in these posters. Granted, he had arrived in America after the war and perhaps some of these had been made before his emigration, but he surely would have heard of them if they involved Bogart.
Most of the films these days (under the supervision of the govern- ment’s Department of Motion Pictures) were basically the same: An unsmiling Communist, be it spy or alien, tries to ruin the American way of life and the brave Republican, capitalist, and democracy-loving hero stops them cold in their tracks.
Baker’s slight confusion must have played on his face. Connolly piped up again in his gruff voice.
“I was confused for a second there too, Baker. Haven’t seen these films in over ten years. In fact, no one has! Hueys banned them in ’53, shortly after McCarthy took office. Didn’t want people watching stuff that didn’t keep them on their toes. You know how the story goes.”
Baker straightened. “I assume the maker of these pictures is around here somewhere without a pulse?”
“Right down here, as a matter of fact,” said Connolly, pointing to a brighter room off the darkened hallway. Baker headed in that direction, briefly noticing a kitchen at the far end and a set of stairs that led to the house’s lower levels.
“By the way,” he began. “What schmuck touched the doorknob with his bare hand?”
“That was Tommy outside. Kid doesn’t know his gun from his dick yet,” Connolly responded. “I’ve done some light dusting myself, but it’s been goose egg so far. Whoever did this, they knew what they were doing. Right through here.”
Baker walked through the slightly arched opening of the room toward which Connolly had directed him. A sudden flash exploded before his eyes, partially blinding him. Tiny lights popped and subsided, giving way to the blurry form of a man holding a large camera.
“Christ!” growled Baker, prompting an indignant squawk from Connolly. “You could warn a man!” He rubbed his eyeballs with knuckles that felt like sandpaper.
“Sorry, Morris,” said crime scene photographer Philip Lathrop, already unscrewing the flashbulb from his cumbersome Graflex Speed Graphic camera and replacing it with a new one. “Didn’t see you there. You check the lighting in here? It’s absolutely perfect!”
Baker let out a small sigh. Of all the photographers the station had to send, it was the one who fancied himself an “art-eest.” To call Philip H. Lathrop a perfectionist was an understatement. He sometimes forgot he was taking pictures of corpses—not actors and models.
He’d have made one hell of a cameraman for the motion pictures if the background checks weren’t so stringent and the president’s cronies (along with their snot-nosed kids) didn’t get first priority.
“I hadn’t noticed,” replied Baker, his vision returning. Lathrop was right, the lighting in here was pleasant and easy on the eyes. It lazily funneled into the space through high glass windows situated on both sides of the wood-paneled room.
The place was also handsomely furnished with spindly-legged Czech armchairs and a brown rectangular sofa. All the lavish seating faced a color RCA television set supported by gold-tipped appendages. Sitting atop an immaculate glass coffee table was an overflowing ashtray and a small pile of hardcover books, the top one of which teased a history of tramp steamers. A crystal decanter of amber liquid sat next to the books, half empty.
A polished record cabinet, complete with a top-of-the-line Zenith stereo system, sat in the corner to the left of the television. The player was still on and a faint crackling could be heard from the speakers—a sure sign that a record had reached its end. Baker wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t like the lonely sound.
The bodies of two very dead men were huddled in front of the coffee table. One of them was slumped over in a Barcalounger upholstered with black leather. His hair was graying, his face deeply lined. The heavy bags under his eyes looked as if they were relieved to finally rest after so many sleepless nights. He wore high-waisted pants, house slippers, and a plain white undergarment shirt that had a nasty red stain in the chest area.
The second man was not as recognizable, because he was lying facedown on the white carpet, a pool of his dried blood clinging to the fabric. He wore a slim-cut, navy-blue suit (which made it hard to see any bullet’s entry or exit), and the tan soles of his wing-tipped shoes faced the ceiling. Next to the body was a suede ottoman with a slight indentation. The man’s final sitting place.
Baker turned to address his partner. “How’d you find out about this?” he asked.
“Neighbor heard shots and called us,” replied Connolly, scratching his freckled nose.
“We speak to the neighbor yet?” Baker asked.
“They hung up before we could get a name or number. Probably didn’t want to get involved any further.”
That figured. These days, no one stuck out their necks more than was absolutely necessary. “Have you ID’d them yet?” Baker asked in a calm and measured tone. He was too used to death to be fazed by the ghastly scene before him.
“We believe so. The fellow on the chair there,” Connolly said, point- ing to the Barcalounger’s corpse, “is John Huston. Was a film director before the industry came under government regulation. Hasn’t worked in movies in over a decade, but he directed all those pictures you saw out in the hall there. Wasn’t too hard to get a fix on who he was. After all, it’s his house!”
“It is?” asked Baker.
“Didn’t you notice the H on the mailbox before you walked in here? Thought your people were smarter than that, Baker. But yes, it’s Huston, all right, and this is his humble abode. Nice place, too, if you ask me.”
Philip snapped another photo of the crime scene before Baker posed his next question. “And this one?” He pointed to the man on the floor. Connolly reached inside his checkered jacket pocket and pulled out a square piece of brown leather, which he threw to Baker.
“Found this on him,” said Connolly. He produced a pack of Pall Malls, pulled a cigarette out of the box with his yellowing teeth, and lit it with a match he struck on the wall. Baker caught what turned out to be a very worn leather billfold. Opening it up, he found $150 in cash, a bent photo of two young teenage girls, and a New York driver’s license issued to one Walter Cronkite. He quickly sucked in a breath of air and almost choked on it.
Excerpted from the book Beat the Devils by Josh Weiss. Copyright © 2022 by Josh Weiss. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.