Book Review: “The Rumor Game” by Thomas Mullen

I Heard a Rumour …

Zachary Houle
Story Lamp Reviews

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“The Rumor Game” Book Cover [Source: Edelweiss/abovethetreeline.com]
“The Rumor Game” Book Cover [Source: Edelweiss/abovethetreeline.com]

Title: The Rumor Game
Date of Publication: February 27, 2024
Genre: Historical Fiction / Thriller
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press / Minotaur Books
Pages: 368

A little bird flew onto my windowsill to tell me all about this fantastic historical thriller called The Rumor Game. Set in Boston in the year 1943, the story follows two characters: one, Anne, is a newspaper reporter who has a gossip column dedicated to the dispelling of wartime rumours. When her 17-year-old brother is attacked by a young gang targeting him for being half-Jewish, Anne wants to write about the story in her column, only to meet resistance at every level (including that of her source, who doesn’t want to see his name in print). Investigating these beatings further takes Anne down a whole new rabbit hole of treachery and corruption. The other main protagonist is Devon, a philandering, Irish Catholic FBI agent who is investigating the murder of a Jewish man who worked at a federal munitions factory. Soon, a crate of machine guns goes missing from the factory, leading Devon and his brass to think that there’s a connection between the killing and something possibly much more nefarious — though the Bureau seems reluctant to find out by just how much. Anne’s and Devon’s worlds seem to be very different, but they soon collide as both stories overlap with the other’s. And, yes, the birdie said excitedly, “There’s even romance!” So, as you can probably tell, there’s an awful lot of plotting in this book as red herrings get uncovered and plot twists involving disparate subjects such as union politics, pro-fascism leagues, and the Italian mafia get thrown into the mix.

There are a few things that are striking about The Rumor Game. One is that Boston is as much of a character as the human inhabitants of this story. We go to the dockyards where German threats may be lying in wait, we visit the various ethnic neighbourhoods where people of diverse ethnic origins exist in uneasy relationships with each other, and we even get a mention of “The Town,” or a certain area that’s known for being predominately Irish. However, that’s not all that the book has going for it. As the book is heavily driven by its roller-coaster plot, the tone of the book is conversational. While some may frown at author Thomas Mullen’s penchant for telling more than showing, it’s almost a necessity given the whiplash pacing of the book. As a thriller, the book succeeds, and perhaps too much as one is never sure where the plot is going, and, if you looked too closely, you might find some dangling plot threads or the odd MacGuffins that crop up and go nowhere.

Still, there is much to enjoy about this novel, including its characterizations. Anne is tough, yet vulnerable, and is likable as well as being tenacious in her job. And Devon is a man who wants to redeem himself for not signing up for the war effort. Anne’s and Devon’s coupling is pleasant enough and goes into some non-clichéd places. And this is also a book about family ties, and the bonds of loyalty that permeate through them through bloodlines and ethnic lines. (Devon wants to douse water on any flames that might be stirred up in his Irish community by getting to them first.) However, if you looked closely, this is a book that forwards the agenda of film noir (even if it isn’t a film — at least, not yet!) In film noir, we had protagonists working outside of corrupt institutions, such as the police, seeking to right wrongs outside of the system. In The Rumor Game, the main characters either work for major newspapers or federal departments, which are seen to be influenced by outside forces. It turns out that everywhere the characters turn, corruption and crime are everywhere and go hand in hand. To get things done (and move that zippy plot along), the characters have to act independently of the system, bending or outright breaking the rules — even if doing so could cost them their jobs or worse. It is the extent of the corruption that is striking here — there are no safe harbours — which is probably apt as the nation of the book’s setting is in wartime. To that end, the book is relevant even today — the overtones of antisemitism being felt in the current world are an echo of what is faced by Anne in this book, a problem that has never quite seemed to successfully go away.

All in all, that little birdie was right to be chipper about this read. Although it is a little long and goes into places that it doesn’t have to — we’re taken into a union meeting even though it has hardly anything to do with the main plot — overall, the book is a success and is wildly entertaining. A lot of research went into this (as detailed by the author’s note at the end of the novel) and it shows in spades in this wonderfully vivid recreation of World War II America. This is a book that knows how to grab readers by the throat and never let go, but it also has an educational function to it as well — to remind people of what it was like to live in the middle of a global conflict. Believe all rumours that you might hear about this book: The Rumor Game is a lively thrill-ride romp through the streets and alleyways of 1940s Boston, and proof that one should never be afraid to listen to the birds when they drop by on your windowsill with book recommendations for those who like this sort of thing. Worth examining by history and World War II buffs.

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Get in touch: zacharyhoule@rogers.com

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Zachary Houle
Story Lamp Reviews

Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.