Dan Simmons has a great many strengths as a writer. Deft plotting, strong characterization, skillful use of language, all the basics. But his greatest strength, by far, is his ideas. Each book of Simmons’ is usually packed with enough fantastic ideas to power a half-a-dozen novels. Most of the time, he weaves together all those ideas into a cohesive whole in a way that is absolutely thrilling. With Simmons, you never know exactly what you’re going to get, but you know that it’s going to be astonishing and satisfying.
The Crook Factory is no exception. It’s not quite as wild with concepts as some of his other work, but it’s still a handful. The Crook Factory is about WWII espionage, about the interactions between dozens of different competing interests (often more than one within the same nation), all playing their dangerous shadows games against the backdrop of the greatest armed conflict this world has ever seen. But it’s not just about that, it’s also about Cuba, and the effects of the war on its political and social status, about the upheaval wrought upon this tiny island nation caught up in a whirlwind of death. Mostly, however, it’s about Ernest Hemingway, the famous and renowned American author, a fragile child caught in the mind and body of the roughest and most testosterone-charged sort imaginable. It’s about Hemingway’s adventures and misadventures, about his famous friends, about his naivete and wisdom. It is about his soul, and the souls of the sort of people he caught up in his sizable wake.
Got all that?
Okay, so Simmons has clearly done his research, as always. I put off reading this one for a long time because I thought it was non-fiction (not that I have anything against non-fiction per say) and Simmons claims in the afterward that the book is essentially 95% factual, give or take. That can be a hard number to swallow, given the high stakes submarine chases and deadly midnight rendezvouses and shocking brutal betrays that go flying thick and fast amid the propulsive narrative, but hey, it was a crazy time, and Hemingway was a crazy kind of guy. I learned a great deal about espionage agencies of the period that I didn’t know, especially about the inter-agency competition that seems to have consumed a great deal of effort that might have been better spend opposing the enemy. I also learned a lot about Hemingway, about his life and passions and circle of acquaintances. Also, I learned a lot about Cuba.
If you’re feeling intimidated right around now, don’t. The Crook Factory is the furthest thing imaginable from the sort of stuffy info-dump you’re probably picturing. It is, instead, a diamond-hard genre narrative of impeccable craftsmanship that will have you flipping the pages as fast as your fingers can move. If any of the topics I mentioned are of any interest to you at all, you should pick this book up. It’s fast and smart and it goes like a racehorse.
That said, it’s not a masterpiece. I wouldn’t hesitate to apply that title to Simmons’ best works, but this is, for all its charms, not one of them. Some of the characters surrounding Hemingway – our protagonist, for example – feel a touch flat, like cogs in the churning machine of plot. And not all of the set-pieces come off quite as thrilling as you might hope. It lacks the desperate intensity of The Terror or Drood, and can’t reach the majestic heights of something like Hyperion. That said, I have to admire Simmons for keeping all the plates spinning in a way that feels so effortless, and I really did enjoy the story.
So then, a strong recommendation, but save it until after you’ve given Simmons’ true masterpieces a look.