“The Hindenburg Letter” by Roger Conlee
Journalist’s WWII novels blend fact and fiction
By Glenda Winders
SDUN Book Reviewer
Roger Conlee would have you believe there isn’t much similarity between him and Jake Weaver, the protagonist in his third novel, “The Hindenburg Letter” (Pale Horse Books). He admits he knows how to stand up for himself, as Jake does when he is verbally attacked by a military officer during a visit to the White House. And he acknowledges he was a newspaperman for many years, starting after graduation from San Diego State University at the evening Tribune in the 1960s and then moving on to the Chicago Daily News.
“I suppose any time you’re writing fiction it’s a little bit autobiographical,” he said, “but I was never a military writer (as Jake is) in my newspaper days.”
He did everything else, though, starting as a sportswriter and then becoming a copy editor, assistant features editor and men’s fashion columnist before returning to San Diego and working in public relations. Now semiretired, he does occasional public relations jobs and plays a little golf. Mostly, though, he’s doing exactly what he wants to do.
“I’m spending most of my time writing fiction,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to write books, and I’ve finally gotten to it.”
Jake has appeared in all of Conlee’s novels, but this is the first one in which he is the main character. The year is 1942 and Jake is working at the L.A. Herald-Express when he gets word that the Nazis have murdered his German uncle. Seeking information and revenge, Jake sets off on an odyssey that includes both pleasant surprises and life-threatening situations – from a bombing run with the British Royal Air Force to torture at the hands of the Gestapo in Berlin. He also encounters such famous people as William Randolph Hearst, Walt Disney, Sergei Prokofiev, President Franklin Roosevelt and Wernher von Braun as his personal journey of revenge develops into a top-level spy mission worthy of James Bond.
But Jake is no 007. He makes mistakes, takes too many chances and gives away too much information in his quest to fulfill the dual tasks that have been imposed upon him: find a letter written by German President Paul von Hindenburg to Adolf Hitler that admonishes him not to become a dictator, and learn about rockets von Braun is developing that could threaten England, and even the United States.
“I want my characters to have flaws because we’re all flawed,” Conlee said. “I wanted to have Jake grow, become more mature, learn some life lessons.”
All of his characters come off more like real people than fictional creations. The beauty of his German contact, code-named “Tapestry,” is marred by her broken nose; a child who enters his life in Germany is a brainwashed Nazi brat.
Conlee’s attention to detail also makes this book believable.
“I love doing research,” he said, “and I spend hours in the library and on the Internet. I’m fascinated by history and geography.”
Readers get to know, for example, that FDR’s adviser Harry Hopkins went to Grinnell College when he stubs out his cigarette in an ashtray with the school’s name on it. Conlee researched the Halifax bomber in which Jake rides to Switzerland on the Web, but he often dips into his encyclopedia of aircraft to learn about the planes that turn up in his books.
“Even though it’s fiction, you’ve got to have the details right,” he said.
His travels to Europe have also served Conlee well, enabling him to write realistic descriptions of wartime Berlin and London. On his last night in town, Jake muses that Big Ben’s “melodic peals washed through the gathering darkness, then echoed richly for a moment on the cold air as if they too were reluctant to leave.” The lyrics of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” provide a leitmotif throughout the story as he wonders if he’ll ever make it back to Valerie, the tool designer he plans to marry.
The book’s subject is serious and so is the writing, but Conlee skillfully lightens his dark story with a touch of humor. When a young Italian reporter named Federico Fellini says he has some ideas for screenplays, Jake wryly wishes him “Good luck with that.” During a conversation about the Germans’ development of synthetic fuel, Jake thinks, “Thank goodness, with the vast oil fields in Texas and Louisiana, the U.S. would never need foreign oil.”
And there are some special winks to Southern California readers. One is an homage to Agness Underwood, the legendary L.A. journalist who was supposedly one of the last people to speak with Hearst as he lay dying. While Jake is being tortured, he reflects on other bad spots in which he’s found himself. Recalling a forced landing in a small plane at the Santa Margarita Ranch near Oceanside, he recalls, “Uncle Sam later bought the place and was building a big Marine Corps base there.” Conlee leaves it to his readers to recognize what is now Camp Pendleton.
Conlee says World War II is his favorite period in history. His first book, “Every Shape, Every Shadow,” which takes place in Guadalcanal, is a tribute to the First Marine Division. The second, “Counterclockwise,” provides an alternate history in which the Japanese bomb San Diego and Los Angeles after Pearl Harbor.
“World War II completely changed the world,” he said. “It was the end of the colonial era, the end of the British Empire and the end of Europe’s land wars.”
The book Conlee is working on now is set in Austria in 1988 and concerns thieves who are after the Austrian crown jewels. He rises early each morning to write, with a novel typically taking a year to draft, then six months to polish.
“Writing is like any other job,” he said. “You’ve got to go to work. You can’t say, ‘I’m not creative today so I won’t write.'”
Conlee, who lives downtown, says that as a baseball fan, one of the pleasures of urban living he most enjoys is being able to walk to Petco Park for the Padres games. Coincidentally, one of Jake’s motivations to survive his escapades is a promise to a friend to be home for the Hollywood Stars’ season opener – something else this late-blooming author and his accidental hero have in common.u