Your Own Back Yard is delighted to welcome Guest Reviewer AJ Sabatini aboard with his review of Delicious Little Traitor: A Varian Pike Mystery by Jack DeWitt
Delicious Little Traitor: A Varian Pike Mystery by Jack DeWitt
Fiction ~ Black Opal Books, 2015 http://www.blackopalbooks.com Reviewed by By AJ Sabatini
The settings and landscapes of Jack Dewitt’s Varian Pike mystery, Delicious Little Traitor, range from the small cities and sparse back roads of Connecticut to New York City and the outskirts of Philadelphia, circa the winter of 1953. This was an era when most ordinary Americans were settling into ways of living after the trauma and disruption of World War II. But the country itself was changing politically with The Cold War underway. Its dark winds chilled the pursuit of comfort as power hungry politicians, federal agents and ambitious government bureaucrats schemed to take control of the government and make life miserable for those who they accused of being “Un-American.” Although Varian Pike doesn’t bargain for it, he is thrown into the muck of vicious political intrigue almost from the moment he tries find out who killed a nineteen-year-old University of Connecticut college student, Lara Greenbaum. And why.
Pike, basically a loner, is a combat vet from the European theater with an acute sense of pain and human self-deception. He also has a low attention span for bullshit and thinks of himself, he tells us, as being part of a larger world, He talks about politics, jazz and painting, but also plays cards with his buddies and keeps up with baseball and boxing. After a poker game, one of his friends approaches him about the disappearance of his niece over the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend. Daughter of a Jewish dentist, Lara Greenbaum had an independent, intellectual streak about her and she was also alluring and sexy and knew it.
Pike meets with Lara’s parents and immediately takes the case. It is near Christmas and he drives up to for grey, frigid college UConn campus in what was a farm town then, Storrs. Pike is pretty frustrated by what he hears from a boyfriend, campus cops, Lara’s roommates and an edgy English professor who is frightened that his relationship with Lara and his political opinions could put him in danger. Varian checks out Lara’s room and steals her diary, only to find out that it is written in code. What did she have to hide? Within days, her naked and apparently tortured body turns up outside of Philadelphia in Abington, Pennsylvania. No arrests were made.
Lara, it turns out, was deeply involved in politics and had done research on a right wing, Communist hunting U.S. Congressman, Lindzey Hall. Even before Pike can track him down, so called Federal Agents start tracking him and telling him to lay off. The official story is that Lara was a rape victim, but no one can tell him why she was near Philadelphia. As Christmas nears and Pike wants to avoid everything to do with good tidings and the endless Crosby and Sinatra tunes on the radio, so he makes his way to Abington. A Happy Holiday does not ensue.
It is cold and dreary in the Northeast and everything Pike uncovers entangles him further in a sordid conspiracy which eventually brings him in contact with a handful of cleanly drawn though mostly unsavory characters. Some of them are helpful, a few try to kill him, he sleeps with one and has long, in depth conversations with others. Most of them have too much ego and something to hide. Louis, a friend of his, seems to have ties to the Mob, or worse. He lives alone in a modern style house in the woods, drinks French wine and owns abstract geometric art works. As Varian learns more from him and tries to get a handle on everyone’s motives, suspicions rise that Lara is not innocent in the dealings that surround her.
With a sure knowledge of American life in the 1950s, DeWitt drives the narrative from city to country, from a private Boy’s School to college campuses, to law offices, police stations and hideaways. Everyone Varian talks to seems to know something, but the whole picture never coheres. He does his best to stick to his code and find out the truth, but the Congressman and his goons play hardball and are not afraid to spill blood. But, through it all Varian is haunted by death of the smart, young woman and his obligation to her parents.
Varian drives a Chevy and finds radio stations that play his favorite Charlie Parker tunes, which give the reader the sense that the world is unpredictable and moving fast. His affair with a war widow throws light on women’s lives in post-war America. He and Louis ruminate about the real story behind ex-Nazis in America, spies and the Rosenberg trail and execution, the OSS, CDA, COS, FBI, Herbert Hoover and Joe McCarthy. What could being a “delicious little traitor” mean? Varian realizes he could care less about men in power, but is the murder of a young girl ever justified? And who knows the truth and who keeps secrets when it comes to historical and political machinations?
My guess is that DeWitt has more Varian Pike mysteries to write. The book has the feel of a serious novel of ideas, if not a movie. DeWitt, who has published several books of poetry and a study of hot rod culture (Cool Cars, High Art), knows the 1950s. I doubt Varian will start listening to rock and roll, though he might wind up reading Beat poetry and go on the road in a better car.
About Jack DeWitt
Jack DeWitt’s new novel, Delicious Little Traitor A Varian Pike Mystery (Black Opal Books), is the first in a series. His study of American hot rodding, Cool Cars, High Art: The Rise of Kustom Kulture is included in the Street Rodder Hall of Fame. For three years he wrote the column, “Cars and Culture,” for the American Poetry Review. One of the columns was chosen as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2010. Almost Grown, his latest book of poems, is about growing up in Stamford, CT. For many years he taught in the Liberal Arts Division of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. www.jackdewitt.com
About AJ Sabatini
AJ Sabatini is a Philadelphia –based writer and an Arizona State University Associate Professor of Performance Studies. For other reviews, see his entries at