“In the Shadow of Lies” by M.A. Adler: Outstanding Depiction of California in the Early 1940s



This book reminded me of butter, the writing style was so rich and smooth. It is one of the most skillfully written books I’ve read in a long time. The prose was like ambrosia, the imagery vivid and memorable. I always appreciate an author who can render emotions properly and thus draw the reader into the characters. Again, Adler did a stellar job.

This story is far more than a murder mystery. Its coverage of the early 1940s, i.e. the historical period during the early days of WWII, was outstanding. That was such a different time and so much has changed since then. I was particularly drawn in because I have personal connections to the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Area as well as that time period through family and in-laws.

For starters, my father was in the U.S. Navy during WWII. He had fond memories of his time on leave in the Bay Area, so much so that many years later, in 1960, our family moved from New York State to the East Bay. However, it did not turn out to be the Utopia he had imagined. He’d been a diesel mechanic for the New York Central Railroad in New York for a decade and assumed he’d be able to get a job, possibly with a trucking company. As it turned out, however, the labor unions at the time made this impossible. To get such a job you needed to be a union member, and to be a union member you had to have a job. The ultimate catch-22 supported by pure nepotism. As the cliche says, it’s not what you know but whom you know. My father had a few insignificant jobs, like working for a lawnmower repair shop, then eventually transitioned from unemployment to retirement. This had a devastating effect on our family.

But I digress.

Back to the story. Even though I was a teenager in the 60s, I had no idea how bad racism was a few decades before, much less that the KKK had been so active there. I also had no idea how badly Italians were treated during the war, due to their assumed sympathy toward Mussolini. I had in-laws who were Hungarian and some married Italians. Now I understand why some of them were so resistant to providing information when I was doing genealogical research back in the 70s. It’s sad they didn’t share their stories, but they may have been too painful for them to recount. On top of it all, some were Jewish, and had fled Europe just in time; some left behind were exterminated by Hitler.

I’ve never been a history buff. The way it was taught when I was in high school was a horrible bore. Even as a child, I preferred to learn about history through historical novels and this one definitely provided a treasure trove of information for a period I didn’t know much about. For that I am most grateful to the author for her meticulous and comprehensive research. This made reading the book an actual experience that had a strong impact on my understanding of the world at that time.

There were a lot of different characters in the story. I mean LOTS. So many that they were a bit difficult to keep track of. Fortunately, the author included a dramatis personae in the beginning, but this was not that easy to access with an ebook; I wish I’d read this in a print book, where I could have flipped back to refer to it more easily. I know I would have been doing a lot of highlighting and dogeared many pages in an actual book. Since I don’t exactly have what you’d call a “steel trap” memory, I probably should have taken notes while I was reading. LOL. Okay, I’m weird like that, when I really get into a book. This one and some others I’ve read recently (more specifically the “Finding Billy Battles” series by Ronald E. Yates) have reminded me of why I should be reading more historical novels; usually I prefer science fiction.

The one thing about having so many characters with their own prejudices and agendas is that it does make the story seem very real. My familiarity with the East Bay Area added to this, especially when references were made to streets and other areas with which I was familiar. This made it very easy for me to connect to this book.

I’m grateful the author used multiple viewpoints in different sections to get into the characters’ heads as opposed to omniscient, which would have been entirely mind-boggling. She is a very skillful writer. The story did wander about somewhat, yet it added to its rich texture and sense of real-life as opposed to one with a classic, straight-line plot. She broke some rules, but did so in such as way that it worked, which is exactly how it should be done.

This book would not be for everyone, especially those that want to whip through a story and not wander about, really getting into the time, place, and people. However, if you appreciate a well-written, complex story with considerable historical significance, I highly recommend it.

Pick up your copy on Amazon here.