John Dunning's previous novels featuring a sleuth who's an expert in rare and collectible books won this former bookstore owner a devoted following; first editions of Booked to Die and The Bookman's Wake routinely fetch high sums in stores like the one Dunning himself owned for many years. With the verisimilitude that's a hallmark of his writing, Dunning delves into a new topic, the golden days of radio, igniting the reader's excitement about the enormous potential of the medium. Sadly, he can't assuage the inevitable disappointment over how that potential was wasted:
"Radio is the greatest invention of the past four centuries. It ranks right up there with Gutenberg's movable type as an earthshaking force.... One of the first things Gutenberg did with his movable type was print a magnificent Bible. The first thing radio did was argue how much selling would be permitted and how ridiculous it would be allowed to get. If it keeps on the way it's going there won't be anything worth listening to.... I have this almost morbid fear of the future--not that radio's greatest days will fade away but that its greatest day will never come. Fifty years from now it could just be a medium of hucksters and fools, a whorehouse in the sky."
The speaker is Jack Dulaney, a novelist who follows a dead man's trail to the Jersey shore in the early days of World War II, where a radio station owned by a recluse has fallen on hard times. The mysterious Harford, who built the station as a showcase for his late wife's ambition, has all but abandoned WHAR, but the actors, writers, producers, and technicians who once shared the dead woman's dream are galvanized by the appearance of Dulaney, who finds his true métier in the creation of original, politically provocative broadcast dramas. He also discovers true love in a talented young singer, Holly Carnahan, whose affections he once sacrificed out of loyalty to his best friend.
Carnahan's search for her missing father involves Dulaney in a mystery rooted in the long-ago Boer War that has grown into a conspiracy peopled by German saboteurs, Irish nationalists, and African freedom fighters. The plotting is dense and the cast of minor characters merely sketched, but Dulaney's creative process is artfully drawn and the ambience of America in wartime is skillfully portrayed. --Jane Adams