Two o’Clock, Eastern Wartime: A Novel

Written by John Dunning
Review by Steve Lewis

Beyond his several authorial specialties, mystery-suspense writer and antiquarian book dealer John Dunning is perhaps even more renowned as one of the country’s greatest experts in the field of “Old-Time Radio,” a term generally used to describe network and syndicated programming of the ’20s through the early ’60s.

Here he combines his two main loves into one giant blockbuster of a novel, an espionage murder-mystery thriller in which Jack Dulaney, the protagonist, takes refuge working in a New Jersey radio station. The year is 1942, and the East Coast is crawling with German infiltrators, or if not, it’s certainly overflowing with rumors. Mysterious killers are on Dulaney’s trail, or are they always one step ahead of him? And at the same time, he is searching for Holly Carnahan, the girl he lost but wishes he hadn’t. Working for WHAR, however, he also discovers an inborn talent for writing dramatic radio, on page 239 described as “the most intimate medium that will ever be devised.” The owner of the station later fears that “it’s being trivialized in its frenzy to sell deodorant soap and milk of magnesia.”

Well, we know what radio is in the US today: “a theater of babbling deejays and bloated, self-important talk show hosts.” But Dunning takes us back, shows us what radio was, and what it still could be, if anyone but a handful of enthusiasts really cared. The murder mystery? That’s another matter. There are a number of striking scenes, and the characters are deftly drawn, but the plot is held together by the barest of guy wires and good hopes. It defies in-depth analysis on even the first read-through, much less going back and trying to track down who was doing what to whom and when.

Better to not let the details get you down. Sit back, relax and travel back in time to another era, characterized by wartime jitters and general paranoia, superbly re-created by an author who cares.