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‘Devil Himself’ mixes history, fiction for darkly comic tale

Looking for a quirky, witty look at World War II through the lens of alternate history?

Then look no further than “The Devil Himself” by Eric Dezenhall. It’s an enjoyable, educating journey through the dangerous world of the 1940s, when the mafia and U.S. government created an uneasy alliance to defend the homeland against German infiltrators.

Dezenhall’s book is fiction, but he bases his story on real-life events. For example, Operation Underworld was a top-secret campaign by the Navy to secure the port of New York during World War II with the help of racketeers. Another example is the Allied invasion of Sicily, code-named Operation Husky. Sicily is the bastion of the Italian mob. Did the mob assist the Allies?

Dezenhall writes that “a lot of folkore surrounds these events,” and he takes some creative liberties and changes some names in writing his story. I found the story to have some rich characters (especially Jewish mob boss Meyer Lansky) and a well-constructed plot, although it jumps around a lot. But Dezenhall takes a light-hearted approach to a superserious subject, and, for the most part, it works. It’s hard not to like a tale about the government and gangsters.

“The Devil Himself” begins in 1982 with an assignment for young White House aide Jonah Eastman. The Reagan administration is struggling to fight a spike in terrorism. A Reagan adviser asks Eastman, the grandson of Atlantic City gangster Mickey Price, to interview his grandfather’s old friend Lansky about his wartime activities. The Reagan team is hoping to learn something about the secret operation that may help them in combating terrorism.

Eastman travels to Florida and interviews Lansky, who is dying of cancer. Eastman gets a wild story involving the sinking of a cruise ship, espionage and more. Eastman learns the Navy was desperate to secure the coast, since German U-boats were seen patrolling offshore. The Navy turns to Lansky and asks for his assistance. Lansky enlists his mafia friends (including Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel and others) to help with the cause. Of course, trouble erupts.

Dezenhall takes the name of his historical novel from a real quote by wartime naval intelligence commander Charles Radcliffe Haffenden: “I’ll talk to anybody, a priest, a bank manager, a gangster, the devil himself, if I can get the information I need. This is a war.”

It’s a war indeed, as Dezenhall tells us a darkly comic tale about a chaotic period in American history. It’s fiction, but it’s a tale worth telling.

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