Verdict: THE DEVIL IN DREAMLAND is a decent mystery that is suspenseful in its own right.
A spy thriller set in WWII-era Hollywood, full of intrigue and daring escapes.
It’s 1941. Ben Kaline is working on the set of an obscure little film called Casablanca when an unfortunate and hilarious accident causes him to be immediately fired. Looking for work yet again in a tough town in tough times, and he almost lands a job at Warner Bros’ rival studio, Legion Pictures. But while going in for the interview, he overhears something which sends him on a quest that eventually uncovers a vast conspiracy of Nazi spies covertly nestled in the film industry.
Author Ray M. Schultze’s THE DEVIL IN DREAMLAND strikes the reader at first as a fun, nostalgic romp through 1940s America (the only country with even the slightest bit of nostalgia for that era, it should be said) in the vain of Inglourious Basterds, Captain America, Indiana Jones, etc. And while this book definitely is at times quite suspenseful, “romp” never seems to be the best word to describe it. It has all the characteristics of this kind of old-school Americana-fueled action-comedy: secret history; numerous cameos from historical figures such as Winston Churchill, Roosevelt, Patton, J Edgar Hoover, as well as a starring role for Humphrey Bogart; and a zany and implausible Axis plot to take down the United States. But while all those ingredients are there, the novel never seems terribly interested in exploiting the comedic juxtaposition of, say Hollywood and Nazi Germany (like, say, Inglourious Basterds), or the period’s ideals of heroism with our more modern and cynical take. Once we have established that there are Nazis in Hollywood trying to take down the United States government, and that one anonymous set-dresser and friend of Humphrey Bogart, and his sassy and plucky girlfriend, are all that stand in their evil way; the story more or less unfolds with total gravity and seriousness.
Bogey, of course, gets a few suitably good one-liners, like, “’Why the Warner brethren had to build their studio in this stand-in for the Gobi Desert I have no idea.’” But aside from that, the book plays its story relatively straight, even including a rather grim subplot involving a drunk driving accident. And while THE DEVIL IN DREAMLAND functions reasonably well as a regular spy thriller that just happens to be a period piece, it’s a mostly by-the-book affair, with over-the-top bad guys and a somewhat bland, but admittedly not totally generic, protagonist. It’s not bad the way it is, but the paint-by-numbers espionage plot never goes anywhere particularly unexpected, and the characters themselves (Bogey excepted) are never really interesting enough on their own.
THE DEVIL IN DREAMLAND is a decent mystery that is suspenseful in its own right.