I love John Dunning's Cliff Janeway series (former cop turned bookseller, who always manages to find some book-related mystery to investigate), and was tickled to find this stand-alone novel at a secondhand shop, as the Janeway books were the only ones of his I'd read.Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime
draws from Dunning's love of old radio shows (he has also authored On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio
.) Set during World War II, the story follows Jack Dulaney, who is barred from serving in the military due to a slight hearing loss. Jack is a sometime writer, having had one novel and several stories published, but his success has been marginal. He makes a scant living hot-walking horses at various racetracks, traveling from place to place as the racing season dictates. Along the way he picks up a traveling companion - Kendall, who at first appears to be just another guy living on the fringes of society. Visiting Jack in jail (where he has landed after a bar fight), Kendall unexpectedly reveals that he was sent to California to find Jack and bring him back East, implying that he was sent by Holly Carnahan, the woman Jack once loved, and that Holly is in danger.
Escaping from a work crew, Jack makes his way to New Jersey, and under a false name finds work writing "continuity" for a local radio station while he looks for Holly. Once he locates her, however, Holly appears not to know him. Convinced that she is only maintaining a front to avoid revealing their prior relationship to whomever is threatening her, Jack settles into his new position, discovering an affinity for writing radio drama, and keeps an eye on Holly, waiting for an opportunity to speak with her privately and learn what trouble keeps her from him. What he finds are more mysteries than he ever bargained for - disappearances, possible Nazi spies, and the wealthy, enigmatic station owner, who may or may not be the one threatening Holly.
The book's real strength is in its exploration of the golden age of radio and America in the '40s - a world long gone, which despite the wartime setting seems oddly innocent in some ways, like when Jack is able to get a driver's license under his assumed name without a second thought. Its depiction of the controlled chaos of putting together a radio program from scratch, often in less than a week's time - including writing, casting, composition of original music (with a full orchestra, no less), rehearsal, and production - is utterly fascinating, and made me a little sad for the loss of such fertile creative environments as they must have been.