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Review: Dillinger in Charleston

Updated: Jan 23, 2019

Adam Selby-Martin reviews Mark Ciccone's book

Back in January of this year, I reviewed an indie Alternate History novel on my blog, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviewer, which struck a chord with me. The novel was Red Delta: A Novel of Alternate History, self-published by author Mark Ciccone, and to be frank it was one of the most enjoyable indie alternate history/counter-factual history books I’ve read in a long time, excluding, of course, those titles sold by Sea Lion Press. Although the background to the novel itself was one of the most common tropes to be found in the genre – the victory of the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War – Mr Ciccone did not set anything other than the opening chapter of the novel in that timeframe. Instead, the rest of the story is actually set a century later, in a Balkanised and increasingly war-torn Confederacy that is engaged in a brutal guerrilla conflict with radicalised African-American insurgents – both in the form of irregular groups that work behind Confederate lines, and a regular army (the Brotherhood Liberation Army) that possesses armour and aircraft and launches offensives against the Confederacy across the country.

As my review over on the blog highlights, the setting for the story is essentially that of the Vietnam War grafted onto a late-20th Century CSA, complete with a Confederate-flagged Huey Bell helicopter on the front cover of the novel. One of the few (minor) criticisms of the novel that I had was that, at times, this became a little too on the nose; a major plot point (and memorable war crime) is lifted wholesale from ‘our’ Vietnam conflict and into Red Delta, complete with identical real-life persons. For me, however, this was a trifling concern, and I found that Ciccone had been able to create a vivid, memorable and fast-paced espionage thriller that rewards the knowledgeable reader with a constant supply of Easter eggs – references to familiar historical personages in unfamiliar roles, events twisted and turned inside out to become surprises, in addition to some impressive characterisation in the form of the protagonist and main cast of characters.

I ended my review with a vow that I would go on to read the alternate history novellas that Ciccone had released prior to Red Delta, and I now find myself in a position that I am able to do so. There are currently three novellas: Obsidian & Steel posits a different outcome in the case of Cortez v Aztecs; For State and Country looks at what the outcome might have been if Robert E. Lee had commanded the Union armies during the American Civil War; and Dillinger in Charleston is another espionage thriller set in a world with a divided USA and CSA. I’ll be reviewing all three, but decided to start first with Dillinger in Charleston.

The first thing that caught my eye with the novella was the front cover. I’ve made a point of including within all of my reviews a brief discussion of the cover art, because I’m of the opinion that it is key to grabbing a reader’s attention as they’re slogging through the many thousands of alternate history titles that can be found on, for example, the Kindle. While not all cover art can approach the high-quality, distinctive nature of SLP’s own Jack Tindale, with a little effort (or money, which admittedly not all authors can afford), a clear, concise and attractive piece of cover art can be produced that will catch the eye of a potential reader and make them want to read the cover blurb. Dillinger in Charleston is an excellent example of this, as illustrator Christopher Trejo has provided an ideal cover: one half of Dillinger’s face stares out at the reader from the left, with Charleston’s’ capitol looming to his right, and the Confederate flag in the background. The accompanying text is consistent and contrasts well with the cover art itself, making the important information of title and author easy to read.

Moving onto the novella itself, the cover blurb sets out the intriguing backdrop to the story: 1946, and the Second World War is finally over. Operation Downfall has finally succeeded in crushing all resistance in the Japanese Home Islands, and in Europe the Soviet juggernaut has barely been halted at the Rhine and Alps after the dismemberment of the Third Reich. In the United States, veteran FBI agent Charles Dillinger is approached by Office of Strategic Services Deputy Director J. Edgar Hoover to conduct a dangerous undercover mission into the heart of the Confederate States of America; if captured, the USA will wash its hands of him and his mission. He must head to the city of Charleston and ascertain why one of the city’s mobsters – Melvin Purvis – is no longer feeding information to the OSS, and has instead turned on its agents.

To begin with, let me say that this novella was a fun read, and as accomplished and impressive as Mr Ciccone’s full-length novel; although it is only 60-odd pages, the author efficiently packs in a lot of background information, some intriguing (and often amusing ) characters, and enough plot threads that I would be happy to see this universe expanded into a full-length novel itself, or even a series. Quite frankly, any piece of alternate-history fiction that features famed mob-buster Elliot Ness as a drunken, washed-up Consul chief who barely seems to know what’s going on at the best of times, is always going to get my money.

The protagonist of the novella is, of course, Charles Dillinger, and his target Melvin Purvis; the author has conducted an amusing switch, making Dillinger the officer of the law and Purvis the corrupt mobster; it’s a simple conceit but it works well, and Ciccone develops their characters sufficiently to ensure that they aren’t simply the same men as in our timeline, but with the names switched around. The same goes for the other well-known historical personality featured in the novella, J. Edgar Hoover: although it took me a few moments to appreciate Dillinger and Purvis switching roles, I immediately brought Hoover as the secretive, scheming Deputy Director of the OSS. After all, although the goals and abilities of the FBI and OSS are somewhat different, I imagine that Hoover in any universe would be power-hungry and devious enough to work his way to the top of an organisation.

The novella opens with Dillinger finishing a raid on a warehouse full of weapons and explosives belonging to a CSA-funded guerrilla group operating in the USA, and Dillinger’s musings allow a little bit of an information dump that nonetheless concisely distils the changes that occurred in the past century to make 1946 so different to our own. The author drops some tantalising hints at the background to this universe; while Trotsky leading the USSR was somewhat expected, I was surprised by the revelation that the USA and CSA had not been in a major conflict since the Civil War, and had only conducted a few fairly brief border skirmishes and one short-lived conflict. It was a nice change from the usual, Turtledove-inspired canon where the two countries fight each other as often as possible, and seemed somewhat more ‘realistic’ as a result.

When Dillinger is summoned by Hoover for the undercover mission into the CSA, it isn’t made entirely clear why he’s being sent into the other country, and Hoover seems to be deliberately vague with the details. However as Dillinger explores Charleston and investigates Purvis and his activities, it rapidly becomes clear that Hoover has very clear and concrete goals for Dillinger; and unfortunately for the agent, they don’t bode well for him. As was the case with Red Delta, one of the biggest strengths for the novella is the world-building and Mr Ciccone’s flair for descriptive writing– the Charleston that he portrays is convincing as a city that is both an integral part of the CSA, but also chafes under its authoritarian government and oppressive state agencies, which allows a character like Purvis to become so powerful – and therefore invaluable to Hoover and the OSS.

I won’t spoil any of the plot, as really the novella is short enough that any discussion of the narrative would risk ruining the entire thing, especially some of the twists at the end. But suffice to say that the author delivers a fast-paced and action-packed plot that keeps the reader’s attention until the very last page, with an ending that just begs to be expanded upon in additional stories. Dillinger in Charleston deserves to be read by any discerning fan of alternate/counter-factual history, and I believe that Mr Ciccone will go far in the genre if he maintains this level of quality writing.


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