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Novel Examines Navy’s Deal With the ‘Devil’

Courtesy Eric Dezenhall
“The Devil Himself” explores how the U.S. Navy sought help during World War II from the mafia in a collaboration dubbed “Operation Underworld.”

One might think that as the head of high-stakes communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Eric Dezenhall would have enough real-life drama. But helping celebrities, politicians and major corporations out of serious jams (don’t ask which ones; he isn’t saying) apparently doesn’t provide sufficient thrills — hence Dezenhall’s other job, that of novelist. 

In his sixth novel, “The Devil Himself,” Dezenhall explores how the U.S. Navy sought help during World War II from an unlikely source: the mafia. In the collaboration, dubbed “Operation Underworld,” mobsters such as Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Meyer Lansky aided the Allies in one of the war’s stranger and lesser known chapters.

“The Devil Himself” blends two narratives. One is that of a young aide to President Ronald Reagan, a Harvard grad named Jonah Eastman, whose grandfather is retired Atlantic City mafioso Mickey Price. When the White House wants to research counter-terrorism strategies, the president turns to Jonah with a top-secret assignment. He must interview his grandfather’s old associate, Luciano, about the covert role the mob played in World War II. That story, laced with Lansky’s Jewish-gangster patois, makes up much of the book. 

Dezenhall talked with Roll Call about how his day job influences his work — and about which of today’s political scandals might be tomorrow’s fiction.

You write that the narrative is “based on” real events. How much of the story is fact, and how much is fiction?
Here is what we know for sure: Fearing that Nazi spies on the New York waterfront were getting information about Allied shipping routes to German U-boats, the Navy sought the help of organized crime bosses that controlled the docks. The Navy tapped mob boss Meyer Lansky because they knew he had attempted to join the Army, broken up rallies of Nazi sympathizers in New York, was concerned about the fate of Eastern European Jews under the Nazis and was friendly with Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who was needed to order the Italian racketeers to cooperate with the Navy. 

We also know that Lansky and Luciano’s Sicilian contacts assisted Naval Intelligence in finding contacts in Sicily to help with [Gen. George] Patton’s invasion.  There’s a lot of debate about the actual value of what was called “Operation Underworld,” but the government, after decades of denials, finally admitted — in bits and pieces — that this campaign happened.

Because I wasn’t alive in 1942 and the actual substance of the interplay between mobsters and the Navy is unknown, I took some liberties with the personal motivations and dialogue of the players.

How did you research the novel’s backdrop?
I’ve known Meyer Lansky’s family for many years. It turned out Meyer had kept diaries and made notes about his Navy work.

I was able to get some of the documents relating to Operation Underworld. Also, there’s more source material about President [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt’s almost unfathomable role in the intricacies of counterespionage.
 
You’ve returned to writing about Jonah Eastman, the grandson of a Mafia don who struggles with his legacy while making his way in the Ivy League and in Washington. What about Jonah is interesting to you and to your readers?
No matter how far Jonah tries to run from his Atlantic City roots, he keeps getting pulled back there, at least metaphorically. This happens largely because of the power of his personal narrative — what people insist upon believing about him. It’s why I named him after the biblical Jonah, who tries to run from God and gets swallowed by a giant fish and spit back up on the beach. So here’s this guy, a pollster who is supposedly some kind of public opinion alchemist, who can’t control how he is perceived. 

How does your own day job — which often involves a good deal of spinning — inform your fiction writing?
I am fascinated by how people who should know about the limits of spin continue to peddle the illusion that there is a man behind the curtain secretly brainwashing the public. Corporate spin was invented by Big Oil companies a century ago, and everybody still hates them. I do a better job at controlling events in fiction than I do in real life, given the rough cases I get.

Your writing about the mafia — including lovable, sympathetic characters such as Mickey and Meyer — blurs the lines between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Is it more fun to write about flawed protagonists?
The central question in any war is, “Who is the enemy?” The answer to that question is complex. Sometimes, as in “The Devil Himself,” well-meaning pacifists enable genocide, while criminals do a better job at facing down evil. Joseph Heller wrote in “Catch-22” that the enemy is anybody that’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on. Trying to ferret out who the good and bad guys are is my central focus.

How do you juggle an intense job with a writing life?
I write in bursts, most intensely when I travel, something I don’t like doing. I write best when my work stress is the most intense because the writing gives me something I can control. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning only to find that I’ve written a few thousand words and I’m not sure how it got there.

What’s your next writing project?
There was a murder in my neighborhood [when I was] growing up that has always preoccupied me. I’m working on turning it into an international spy operation. I have no reason to believe it’s true, but that’s why fiction is fun.

What current political events are prime for a fictional treatment?
The whole hacking scandal with reporters in England is fascinating. While I have no involvement with this case, I have worked with media clients and find that the sense of self-exemption many reporters feel makes them more vulnerable than the rest of us to crossing certain lines.

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