Dan Simmons has never allowed his creative output to be confined by anything. From horror to science fiction, fantasy to historical fiction, thriller to action, and other areas, you never know what he will produce next. One interesting vein he’s fond of exploring, however, is real author’s lives via fiction. The Fifth Heart looked at William James and Arthur Conan Doyle. Fires of Eden featured Mark Twain. Drood was a take on the demons potentially haunting Charles Dickens. And with The Crook Factory (1999), we have a view to Ernest Hemingway and his double life beyond writing, helping the US government during WWII.
The Crook Factory is a story told by retired FBI agent Joe Lucas. Half Irish and half Mexican, he has used his heritage for a couple successful missions in Latin America. Getting the call from J. Edgar Hoover at the outset of the novel, he receives his newest mission—something so outrageous he almost can’t believe it. His job is to represent the FBI alongside Ernest Hemingway as they do their counter-espionage part to gather information and hinder the Nazis in the Caribbean. What follows is double-agents, colonial cities, palms and parties, and the blue seas between Cuba and Florida.
The Crook Factory is a classic spy adventure with Ernest Hemingway's character stirring the pot. Simmons builds out the structure of a le Carre novel, then adds layers of Hemingway and historical info from the era and Cuba. Simmons has always tread the line in terms of overdoing things with the research he does for certain novels. There are times it’s front and center and obvious, and not complementary, and there are times it’s integrated effectively into plot and scene. The Crook Factory is a mixed bag. There are moments the reader can see Simmons copying his notes. Thankfully, the lion's share of the book is developing the plot and characters.
Some readers may be interested in Simmons' treatment of Hemingway. As with his treatment of other historical figures, things seem objective, fair—based on fact, including letters, records, vetted documents, etc. Hemingway's machismo is on full display, and so too is his softer side, the side which brought about his most famous books. And of course, his relationship with life, and death.
In the end, The Crook Factory is a solid historical spy novel. Fans of Ernest Hemingway may be interested in seeing his larger-than-life character brought to life on the page. Connoisseurs may disagree with some details, but overall Simmons' presentation seems mostly objective—a boon to the novel. Overall, with action, agents, and the life of Cuba circa 1943 brought to full life, it’s a good beach read.