Mystery authors Joanne Dobson and Beverle Graves Myers met by sheer coincidence after learning that for several weeks each year they live right around the corner from each other. Long talks over coffee revealed that they love many of the same books and share a philosophy about what makes a good mystery. Joanne, a former English professor at Fordham University, is the author of the Karen Pelletier academic mystery series. Bev, a retired psychiatrist, writes the Tito Amato Mysteries set in 18th-century Venice.
Joanne and Bev decided to collaborate on a new series after realizing that they also share an interest in how World War II changed the lives and attitudes of everyday people. Face of the Enemy, released in September 2012, is the first installment of the New York in Wartime Mysteries and has garnered rave reviews. Booklist says, “This is a solid historical mystery, and its treatment of societal stereotyping of ethnic groups has obvious parallels today.”
Beverle Graves Myers
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It’s December 7, 1941. Louise Hunter is enjoying an egg cream in a Brooklyn candy store when a boy’s cracking voice yells from Flatbush Avenue, “They’re bombing us! Turn on the radio!” The news report of the brutal Pearl Harbor attack blares out, setting New York, and all of America, on its ear. Louise pushes her soda glass away, suddenly sickened by the sweet smell. She glances at her large-dialed nurse’s watch and thinks: 2:33 on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and nothing will ever be the same.
How right she was. Along with the pervasive fear and dread, and the awesome military response that accompanies a war declaration, Americans had to adjust themselves to a whole new way of living. A new national mantra swept the land: Use it up, wear it out! Make do or do without!
Today we call such a consumer philosophy recycling, and the determination by many to reuse rather than repurchase is conserving scarce resources and helping to keep our planet clean. Seventy years ago, however, collecting rubber, grease, and metal was much more personal. Doing without certain items just might save the life of your son or husband overseas. Rubber tires and corsets, even men’s suspenders, could be reworked into gas masks and lifeboats. Cooking grease was used in in the production of gunpowder and other explosives.
A ton of scrap metal, Americans were constantly reminded, could be made into two tons of steel for battleships, tanks, helmets, and canteens. People ransacked homes and businesses for every sliver of non-essential metal: keys, bedsprings, fences, filing cabinets, old stoves. Wedding rings. Piles upon piles of donated items grew at collection depots. If it would help the defense effort, it had to go.
As America continued to transform itself for war, many everyday items simply disappeared from stores and shops. Factories halted production of consumer goods and retooled their assembly lines for military needs. Textile factories changed production from women’s lingerie to G.I. shorts or mosquito netting. Instead of pianos and organs, the Wurlitzer Company produced radio-guided assault drones. Were your shoes wearing out? Tough. “Put some cardboard in ‘em. Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
New York City, the setting for Face of the Enemy, was urban Homefront Central. Week-long drives sponsored by the Boy Scouts and other organizations garnered astonishing amounts of goods. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia issued earnest proclamations, and radio personalities cajoled and encouraged from the airwaves. Baseball legend Joe DiMaggio even donated his baby’s rubber pants! In a lighthearted effort to support the drives, another celebrity of the day arranged a stunt at the Stork Club that involved debutantes pitching in their bracelets and hair curlers for the war effort. Even children did their part; the balloons so integral to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade were retired for scrap.
The teeming city also put its small plots of green into use. The tin cans used to package vegetables quickly became scarce, so postage-stamp victory gardens sprouted everywhere. The flower beds alongside the Rockefeller Center fountains now grew tomatoes, schoolyard playgrounds were partitioned for neighbors’ use, and bright red radishes could be spotted in window boxes along Fifth Ave.
Then there was rationing to contend with, governed by a baroque structure of cards and stamps. Gasoline was rationed early, of course. Foods that were staples on American tables succumbed gradually: meat, butter, eggs, coffee, and, eventually, sugar. Housewives stood in line to buy what they could and learned new, meatless recipes. Restaurants served ox-tail ragout and kidney stew instead of steak. Many of New York’s famed hot-dog stands disappeared for the duration.
It’s tempting to speculate that the consumer-driven society we’ve grown so used to in recent decades might well have begun in reaction against this wartime belt tightening. After VJ day, the sacrifice and cooperation so evident in the war years quickly turned to individualistic post-war indulgence. People wanted to celebrate—live it up—and industry was poised to give them what they wanted. In the new housing boom, old ethnic neighborhoods were abandoned for the suburbs. New cars went into production, growing longer and sleeker by the year. The “New Look” reigned in woman’s fashions, with lower hemlines and full skirts using yards of material.
America’s mood was changing yet again, and belt tightening soon became a quaint thing of the past.