Thomas Mullen sets hard-boiled ‘The Rumor Game’ in WWII-era Boston

A reporter and an FBI agent join forces to track stateside Nazi sympathizers and antisemitic activities.
Tom Mullen, whose Darktown series of thrillers is set in Atlanta, sets his latest thriller, "The Rumor Game," in Boston. (Courtesy of Kate Lamb)

Credit: Wild in Love Photo

Credit: Wild in Love Photo

Tom Mullen, whose Darktown series of thrillers is set in Atlanta, sets his latest thriller, "The Rumor Game," in Boston. (Courtesy of Kate Lamb)

Thomas Mullen’s latest historical fiction novel, “The Rumor Game,” part hard-boiled detective and part noir detective fiction, checks all the boxes — conspiracy, corruption, espionage, murder, sex. A New Englander by birth who calls Georgia home, Mullen sets his story in 1943 Boston, the city of his ancestors who he honors by using their surnames for the two main characters: FBI special agent Devon Patrick Mulvey and Boston Star reporter Anne Lemire, who writes a column disproving rumors around town.

Good historical fiction feels authentic, and Mullen adds credibility to his narrative by merging factual pro-Nazi, antisemitic groups that arose in New York and Boston during WWII to form his fictional Fascist group, the Christian Legion. When a John Doe is found murdered and a cocktail napkin with a swastika on it is discovered in the victim’s pocket, the crime bleeds over into the FBI’s world and the stakes get higher. Mulvey wonders if the man is a German spy or a calling card of Nazi sympathizers. His path intersects with Lemire when she uncovers antisemitic flyers printed by the Christian Legion.

Lemire’s character was inspired by a female Irish American journalist, Frances Sweeney, who had a brief stint writing a similar column to Lemire’s for the Boston Herald uncovering Fascist groups. Mullen does an excellent job weaving reality with fiction, reimagining Sweeney as a character with a new plot.

Mulvey cracks down on Nazi sympathizers and fascist groups stateside, and Lemire investigates and dispels Axis propaganda, disrupting confidence in the war effort. That all sounds great on paper, but for Mulvey, his work is just that — paper pushing. And for Lemire, the rumors she writes about make for fantastic headlines but are typically fake news. She is ambitious and wants to write a real story, while Mulvey merely complains about his job, lacking the motivation to do anything about it and remaining content to keep the status quo.

“The Rumor Game” by Tom Mullen
(Courtesy of Minotaur Books)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Lemire fits the mold of a classic hard-boiled detective with high moral standards who relentlessly pursues truth and justice with one caveat — her inexperience casts doubts about her abilities. Her determination to ferret out the truth is never a question, however, but she has skin in the game. Raised Catholic in the same neighborhood as Mulvey, she discovers her hidden ancestry: She’s half Jewish. Jews are being violently attacked by Irish gangs and the police turn a blind eye, shrugging it off as local rivalries. When Lemire’s little brother, Sammy, becomes the next victim, she must make a move.

While Lemire has real life conflicts, Mulvey is just internally conflicted. Still, he defies the typical noir detective character; he isn’t completely morally bankrupt. Mulvey is fussy about his fashion, enjoys fine dining and appreciates the company of beautiful women. His “dating” pool consists of married women whose husbands are overseas, and he justifies his actions as doing his part to ease their loneliness. Waking up in strange beds with strange women and a vague remembrance of the evening before or the whereabouts of his pants provides comic relief.

But put into context, and Mulvey’s antics become less charming. He doesn’t need to be fighting in the fronts to see he is surrounded by war. Munition factory smokestacks spew smoke nonstop to produce destroyers and weaponry. It’s a bleak atmosphere that smells like “soot and grease and the weird metallic tang of something akin to gunpowder mixed with rubber cement. Steam hammers banged in asynchronous fury.” War is in the air Mulvey breathes. It rings in his eardrums. The city is under extreme rations while he laps up life. What makes him redeemable is his guilty conscience and a healthy dose of Irish Catholic guilt.

Lemire’s also is not without flaws. She’s impulsive and reckless, often endangering herself and others. It’s important, however, to remember her young age. Her idea of investigative reporting hovers between the movie “His Girl Friday” and fantasies about being the next Martha Gellhorn. Naivete soon turns into reality, and she recognizes that in order to expose the truth, she must swallow her pride and accede to playing in a man’s world. She’d love to get credit for reporting on anti-Jewish hate rhetoric and murderous intentions, but she’s a big-picture type of character who doesn’t let her ego overtake her goals.

Along with those qualities and her recent “friendship” with Mulvey, Lemire capitalizes on her disadvantages. Her muddled feelings about her identity means “she could insinuate herself into places where Jews were barred. And her surprise heritage meant she had a currency that could get her into places a typical Gentile might not be welcome…”

Mulvey is also an outcast navigating two worlds. A college-educated Irish Catholic from the old neighborhood is a rare breed for an FBI agent. His status as a G-man doesn’t earn him points with Boston’s finest. His WASP partner, the rest of the Boston bureau agents and even his boss, the special agent in charge, all distrust Mulvey and stereotype him as “another Irish badge who drank too much, roughed up innocents, and lived off bribes.” Being an outsider is uncomfortable for Mulvey, but being half-Jewish in this time period could mean life or death for Lemire.

Mullen taps into a volatile time, providing historical context for the antisemitic sentiments of 1940′s America that mirror the present day. With its sharp characters and turbo-driven plot, “The Rumor Game” is a mystery not easily unraveled.


‘The Rumor Game’

By Thomas Mullen

Minotaur Books, 368 pages, $29