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Authors: Dan Fesperman

The Letter Writer

BOOK: The Letter Writer
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THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

Copyright © 2016 by Dan Fesperman

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.

www.aaknopf.com

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Fesperman, Dan, [date].

Title: The letter writer : a novel / Dan Fesperman.

Description: First edition. | New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. | “This is a Borzoi book.”

Identifiers: LCCN 2015037235

ISBN 978-1-101-87506-3 (hardcover) ISBN 978-1-101-87507-0 (ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: Police—New York (State)—New York—Fiction. | Murder—Investigation—Fiction. | Conspiracies—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General. | FICTION / Suspense. | GSAFD: Mystery fiction. | Suspense fiction.

Classification: LCC PS3556.E778 L48 2016 | DDC 813/.54—dc23 LC record available at
https://protect-us.mimecast.com/​s/NV8GB7CY7RpKTx
.

eBook ISBN 9781101875070

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover image: H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty Images

Cover design by Oliver Mundy

v4.1

ep

PROLOGUE

HIS WAS AN ARRIVAL
of dark portents: Black smoke on the Manhattan skyline. Hushed crowds gazing toward a crosstown calamity. Whispers of a ruthless enemy, willing to do anything.

Clearly, something terrible had just happened. But what? Woodrow Cain, groggy from a long passage out of the South, eyed the worried faces outside of Penn Station and tried to come up with an answer.

It was just him now. Wife gone, daughter abandoned. He'd forsaken all he held dear for a fresh start, only to be greeted by symptoms of mass hysteria. Suitcase in hand, he turned to a man in a fedora.

“What is it?” he asked. “What's going on?”

“The
Normandie,
” the man said. “She's on fire at Pier 88.”

“The
Normandie
?”

“The big luxury liner, the one they're turning into a troop ship. Guy I talked to says the Germans did it. She's rolled over on her side, gonna sink any minute. Thousands of people down there, even the mayor.”

“La Guardia?” Cain was still learning who was important up here.

“In a black raincoat, soaking wet from the hoses. Heard it on the radio. Walking the fire lines like he owns the joint.”

“He better be ready for more of the same,” another man said. “If they can do this, who says they can't fly a bunch of planes in? Bomb us to smithereens, just like the Japs at Pearl.”

Others nodded, but the first guy shook his head.

“The waterfront. That's where they'll come for us, just like today. The longshoremen, the shipbuilders, even the goddamn fishermen—half of 'em's either kraut or dago, and who you think they're rooting for? You watch. This is only the beginning.”

Cain looked up at the sky. The smoke was spreading, an inky smudge blowing east from the Hudson. He shook his head in angry disbelief. Ten lousy minutes in New York, and already his new life felt as full of loss and betrayal as the one he'd left behind.

—

A revealing account, don't you think? It came to me secondhand, but my source is trustworthy, and I will vouch for its accuracy as if I had witnessed it myself.

The day in question occurred two months ago, on the ninth of February in this tumultuous year of 1942. I wish I could report that conditions have improved in the interim, but if anything the city's fortunes have become even more unsettling. U-boats prowl the mouth of our harbor, sinking ships whenever they please. Residents of penthouse apartments—yes, I still know a few, despite my reduced circumstances—say the offshore glow of flames is visible in the night sky. My more numerous acquaintances from tenements and flophouses swear that fishing trawlers from our own docks are secretly refueling these underwater killers. If that sounds far-fetched, then what are we to make of the thirty-three German spies who were just sentenced to prison at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn? And if it was so easy to round up that many, how many more must yet lurk in our midst, relaying vital information by shortwave radio, or by handwritten messages in invisible ink?

In Yorkville, our very own Little Deutschland of the Upper East Side, the streets have gone eerily silent since war was declared, but only last summer its inhabitants were packing the movie houses for Nazi propaganda films. They marched by the thousands down 86th Street, the German Broadway, wearing brown shirts and swastikas and singing the Horst Wessel song. And who can forget how the Italians of East Harlem celebrated the conquest of Ethiopia, by raising tricolor flags from every window and cheering Mussolini's name? That fellow in the fedora, the one who spoke to Mr. Cain so direly of our future, may be an alarmist, but he was right about the abundance of enemy nationals. Three-quarters of the seven and a half million people of this city are first- or second-generation immigrants. Me included, I should add, and practically all of my neighbors, plus just about everyone I've ever known or met since I first arrived here so long ago, at the age of eleven.

Who are we to trust, then? And when events inevitably turn for the worse, who are we to blame? When you are born in one homeland, and then move to another, and the two become mortal enemies, who can say for sure where your loyalties will reside? Those are the questions which press upon our souls.

By day, New Yorkers go about their business in a sort of concealed dread, wondering when the worst of the war will reach our shores. Not long after sunset we begin dousing our lights as a precaution against air raids, even on the Great White Way, where the only illumination comes from a scatter of low-wattage bulbs beneath the marquees. A dim-out, they call it, so that the silhouettes of the merchant ships offshore will not be so easy to see against the bright backdrop of the skyline. Although, as with most calls for austerity, I have noticed that the wealthy do not always participate.

A few weeks ago, soldiers began entrenching anti-aircraft guns in the parks and along the rivers. One went off by accident at the foot of Grand Street, and the errant 37-millimeter shell blew a chunk out of the thirty-eighth floor of the Equitable Building, two miles away in the financial district. The stock market wavered, and moved on.

Yet, when the sirens wail for air raid drills most New Yorkers react slowly, if at all, especially now that spring has arrived. They mill and laugh on the street until the all-clear, as if refusing to accept that the revelry of our previous lives has ended. I sense a looming disaster.

As for Woodrow Cain, one can only imagine his bewilderment. Even at the best of times this city takes a smug pleasure in overwhelming new arrivals from the provinces, especially those who come by necessity. He came for a job, from the small town of Horton, North Carolina, where he was a senior detective on a small police force. As of late last week he is now a detective sergeant with the New York City Police Department, posted to district level in the 14th precinct house on West 30th Street, the building that looks like a bleak old castle, turrets and all. He is thirty-four years of age, and he has a young daughter, Olivia, who he left behind in the care of his sister. If he is able to make a home here, she will join him at the end of the school year.

I am told that he departed his previous employment under dubious circumstances, but if experience has taught me one thing, it is that everyone has a past. The trick is in learning to manage it. It is said that well-placed connections led to his hiring here. I suppose it also didn't hurt that the police department has lost so many men to the armed services. Due to wartime shortages, the newest officers—Mr. Cain among them—were rushed through their training in half the normal time, or else he would still be in a classroom.

Supposedly he is the sort of man whose demeanor warns you to keep your distance, although those who make an effort are sometimes rewarded with easy laughter and quick confidences. A hard shell with a soft center, if you will, unless he is one of those quiet men whose center lies even deeper within—a shell within a shell, impenetrable. Perhaps I say this because from my one glance at him I sensed an inner darkness, a tendency toward undue risk. Something in the eyes, I think.

Mr. Cain's life is in some ways a study in contradiction. He is well educated, holding a degree in the humanities from a respected state university. Not what you'd expect from a policeman, perhaps, but the Depression has pushed many a promising young man into careers they might once have sneered at. For all his bookish enlightenment, I am told he killed a man in cold blood. He is a lifelong Southerner, supposedly full of affection for the place, yet he speaks poorly of the region to almost all who ask. He is in fine health, but he sometimes walks with a limp. Its origins are the subject of rumor.

To this point, none of what I have revealed to you came to me in confidence. Indeed, if this were the extent of my knowledge about Mr. Cain, I would probably not give his affairs a further thought. But in the course of my daily duties I quite recently came across several disturbing items which made me fear for Mr. Cain's safety. That is why I have taken such a keen interest in learning more about him, although I will admit that I am also fascinated by the nature of his profession, partly because of its similarity to my own.

Both of us, you see, trade in secrets, even though we handle this commodity in radically different ways. Detective Cain's success often depends on making his findings public—airing them in a court of law, or leaking them to newspapers. I, on the other hand, am a steadfast practitioner of concealing and forgetting. Almost from the moment an item of confidential information comes into my possession, I begin working assiduously to set it aside, bury it, forget it—even as I begin dispensing its particulars with the greatest possible precision as instructed by my customers. It is a policy geared toward protecting not only the privacy of my clients, but my own peace of mind. For me there is never any “tracking of clues” or “adding up of the facts.” When it comes to the secrets of others, I am a bit like a farmer who is forever plowing under his sprouting crops, lest they grow into something larger and more noticeable to the neighbors.

You may call me by my professional name, Danziger. Mention it in a certain sixteen-block area near Rivington Street and almost anyone will be able to direct you to my door. My product, as my business card plainly states, is information, although the duty I am best known for is the translation and writing of other people's letters. I handle written correspondence of all manifestations, from personal pleas and job queries to requests for help from municipal, state, or federal officials, or letters of explanation to bankers and creditors. My clientele comes mostly from the illiterate portion of the city's immigrants of four different tongues—German, Russian, Yiddish, and Italian (the latter, an obvious outlier, is explainable by an episode of youthful folly, the details of which are not relevant to our discussion).

My working methods are straightforward and simple: Customers come to my place of business, say what they wish to say, and then wait while I polish their words into more serviceable syntax, writing it down for them either in English or in their native tongue, depending on their needs. For those who have received mail, in whatever language, I read it back to them, translating when necessary.

I dispense these services from the ground floor of a tenement house, in a drafty sprawling room of pigeonholes and sagging bookshelves, a dim chamber which serves as both post office and nerve center for a needful clientele. I live in the same building, in a small room upstairs with a cookstove and a cold-water sink.

As you might guess, my line of work brings me into contact with a wide variety of people. My life fairly abounds with eccentrics. Abounds. What a fine word of your marvelous language, a tongue that borrows and then keeps, promiscuous in its adoptions. Not the English of the king, but of his subjects, his colonists, which is one of the things I have always liked best about your country. Your people, with all their different beginnings and backgrounds, have hammered and buttressed this language into an international emporium of wonders, a hall of mirrors in which I can roam happily for hours at a time, especially when I am accompanied by the massive two-volume collegiate dictionary which holds pride of place on my shelves.

My guilty secret is that as a
speaker
of English I am not always quite so comfortable or confident. Orally, my tendency is to move a little slower, more deliberately. Now and then I grope for the correct grammar, a more precise meaning. As a result, when I speak it is often in a mannered fashion, like some upright fellow being served tea in her ladyship's parlor.

On paper it is a different story. I am as fluent as a Founding Father, at ease among various locutions and in almost all thickets of foreign influence. I am even comfortable bushwhacking my way through swamps of idiom and slang, although I confess that some coinages of the South and Midwest still elude me, Southerners and Midwesterners not exactly being common to the environs of Rivington Street.

And so, while writing I sometimes find myself thinking in many voices at once, a ventriloquist of the open page, neatly setting down locutions in varying tones to suit the needs of different tasks and personalities.

My rates are reasonable. Fifty cents to read a letter, fifty cents to write one, provided you keep things brief and to the point. The long-winded pay extra. On an average day I handle about ten correspondences, and whenever possible I avoid the drafting of love letters. Such material is too chancy, too wrapped up in a client's deepest hopes and anxieties. Only for a surcharge will I relent, and even then I accept no blame for any ensuing failure or recrimination. My own status as a confirmed bachelor with a narrow bed would seem to be advertisement enough to not entrust me with such correspondence. Yet, customers continue to ask, often in tones of deepest desperation.

Thus has my home become a place where clients often learn important news, for better and for worse. It is also where they frequently begin framing reactions and replies in the first flush of revelation. With my able assistance, they give joy of their good fortune, or regrets of their tragedies. At each important turn of their lives I am their mouthpiece, their amanuensis, the intermediary entrusted with relaying their most vitally important news to loved ones and enemies alike.

I doubt that I shall be lacking for business anytime soon. Despite a recent profusion of schools and academies offering instruction in English, my corner of Manhattan seems to hold an unlimited supply of clients, young and old. Indeed, my neighborhood teems with more life than I once could have imagined. Teems. Now there is another fine word, bringing to mind the sight of tiny organisms aswarm on the slide of a microscope, multiplying, dividing, jitterbugging their way toward the edges.

So often in this quarter of the city, life teems to the point of peril, with some specimens falling entirely from sight. Or perhaps I say that because, in recent months, I have become ever more conscious of the gathering peril that looms over so much of my clientele. Although I still write many letters for the domestic mails, much of my current work involves correspondences abroad—chiefly to and from Europe, more particularly those countries which for the past three years have been at war. As the months have passed, my clients' secrets have grown darker and more sorrowful, placing an ever greater weight upon their souls, and upon mine. More and more, letters to that benighted landscape go unanswered. Voices once full of life and whimsy fall silent. The tears of many stain my blotter.

BOOK: The Letter Writer
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