Three tales that take the reader through the noir corridors of violated innocence, abuse and murderous revenge
2018 International Book Awards Finalist in Cross-Genre Fiction
FATHER DIVINE’S BIKES is a novel that melds a gangster war, three murders, a gun-toting paperboy, and the numbers racket with the dark, compelling story of two altar boys adrift in a world of poverty and hopelessness. Police-protected bookmakers and numbers banks share the crime-infested Third Ward with Jewish bathhouses, Voodoo shamans, Yiddish pushcart vendors and abandoned mansions. Corruption is endemic.
In the autumn of 1945, a battle rages when the city’s competing mobs end their truce. When it gets bloody, other criminal forces are ready to move in. Black bookies using Father Divine’s controversial International Peace Mission Movement as a front, recruit JOEY BANCIK and RICHIE MAXWELL to run numbers under the guise of newspaper routes.
Joey and Richie live in a shrinking white enclave where families welcome the few bucks their numbers-running kids put on the table. They are now petty criminals. FATHER TERRY NOLAN, their parish priest, and two homicide detectives, LT. NICK CISCO and SGT. KEVIN MCCLOSKY, fear the numbers racket will entrap them in a world of crime.
Cisco and McClosky are certain that the mob turf war and three of the Third Ward murders they are investigating are connected, and that a sadistic police captain has been pulling the strings for the gangsters. Cisco doesn’t want the kids hurt, but is reluctant to turn the matter over to a corrupt vice squad, long on the take with the mob.
The two detectives track Joey to a luxury apartment, arriving too late to prevent the tragedy that Cisco had foreseen. Joey’s body lay in a pool of blood on the basement floor, a gaping bullet wound in his chest, result of a wild shot by a panic-stricken beat cop, FRANK GAZZI. A few feet away is the body of a newspaper executive, a bullet in his brain accidentally put there when he reached to grab a pistol from one of his newsboys.
As an Urban Affairs investigative reporter for the Associated Press, I covered urban unrest extensively. In 1967, Newark was devastated by one of the deadliest race riots during that turbulent decade. More than twenty persons were killed and entire neighborhoods reduced to ashes, including the one where I grew up. When I returned to Newark and walked up Springfield Avenue, I was sickened by what I saw. Everything was gone. How did this happen? My story takes the reader down the streets of post-World War II Newark when there was time to set things right, but the city blew it.
“Father Divine’s Bikes” is a fantastically written and utterly enthralling book by a very talented author. It is at its best when a slice-of-life cultural expose, and for the most part this is what it is. Set in wartime 1940s New Jersey, it portrays a melting pot of immigrant culture, with all the racial segregation, paranoia and employment resentment which comes with that. The racial language is raw and offensive – there is certainly no whitewashed rewriting of history here, and the book is all the better for it. The blacks, Jews, Irish, Polish and Italians try desperately to carve their place in the slums and tenements of Newark city, in heart-inflating attempts to better their lives against hardship and indignity, with that age-old tragic foe of hope taunting them. Bassett doesn’t attempt to tell it like it wasn’t, with some politically correct paintbrush - all the associated stereotypes are here, including pimps, corrupt cops, mobsters, refugees and extortionate landlords. The large ensemble cast of characters doesn’t so much grow with each chapter, as expand organically, like a soap. It is a masterclass in character development, and even the most hateful and divisive of them become, to some extent, endearing.
For me, the book does tail off a little in the final third, in which it becomes less development-orientated, and the simple plotline starts to bring the characters together; at this point is where it starts to evolve into plain pulp fiction, uniting Mario Puzo and Elmore Leonard. Definitely better when it is creating the characters’ backstories, the storyline (of kids running numbers for criminals) is perhaps a touch thin – so much so as to seem incidental. Still, the tension is thick, and as mob culture starts to have a discernible influence into the lives of good, decent and downtrodden people, the air of menace underlying this book does become more tangible – I found myself biting my nails, nervously concerned about which of the poor, likeable souls the inevitable tragedy was imminently bound to befall. To tell the truth, I thought a racial flashpoint was brewing throughout, and was a touch disappointed with the final direction; I maybe felt, in a way, that all the work Bassett invested in the characters was left unjustified.
Although this is an author of clear pedigree, with a wonderful, engaging style, I did find a couple of issues with the flow, perhaps caused by misplaced commas and missing scene breaks, which could have clarified what, at times, are slightly confusing events. Another confusing aspect is the fact that many of the important events in this book occur off-page, and are only mentioned in dialogue. This is compounded a touch by the non-linear timeline and large cast. But, that said, while it could do with a polish, this doesn’t harm the book in any notable way, and it is otherwise incredibly well composed.
Finally, a bit of an enigma: at the risk of adding a spoiler, I’m not sure if Father Divine actually did make an appearance (there is a brief scene in the opening chapters) or even whether he referred to is the real Father Divine (I admit: I had to Google him), a fictional version, or the crooks metaphorically using his name and reputation. This is not a bad thing – indeed, I quite like the ambiguity of this. Not that it really matters, to tell the truth – “Father Divine’s Bikes” is top quality, utterly engrossing writing, and I highly recommend picking up a Steve Bassett book if you get the chance.
Reviewed by Sheri Hoyte for Reader Views (5/18)
“Father Divine’s Bikes” by Steve Bassett is not only a great read – it is a cultural experience in the era following World War II. The city of Newark flourished during the war, only to fall to destitution and lack as peace spread throughout the world. With post-war employment scarce, people are losing jobs to folks they never imagined were a threat, and neighborhoods are in decline. As gangsters tighten their control of the city, a turf war creates an environment of fear in its citizens, instilling little hopes of escaping to a better life. When two altar boys take up paper routes to help support their families, they get caught up in the middle of the mob’s activities, running numbers for a group of bookies posing as barbers and faithful followers of Father Divine’s controversial cult movement.
This was such a phenomenal read, definitely one of those books that stayed with me for several days after I finished reading. I was instantly transported to 1945 Newark, making my way among the citizens trying to navigate life in a rapidly changing city. The vivid descriptions of the settings and situations, the people, and the cultural contrasts of everyday life in the various citywide districts are stunning and realistic. The author’s use of genuine dialogue further adds to the overall atmosphere of authenticity. The language might be off-putting to those of a particularly sensitive nature, but there was no such thing as being politically correct in 1945, and Bassett was spot on in his delivery.
I had the notion before I started reading that this book centered largely on the two newsboys, and I was pleasantly surprised that the story didn’t unfold strictly from their viewpoints. On the contrary, there is an engaging and distinct cast of characters, most of them swinging between protagonistic and antagonistic tendencies as the story evolves. The manner in which the back-story for each character was introduced compelled me to care and invest in their outcomes. The writing is exceptional and Bassett has a charming way of influencing readers with his prose.
“Father Divine’s Bikes” by Steve Bassett is a must-read for those who love historical fiction, crime and coming of age. I was excited to learn this is book one in a series – the ending left me wanting more!
CRITIC’S REPORT from BookLife Prize:
Plot: The novel is well structured and moves along at a solid pace. Although there are numerous plot threads, the author manages to bring all the elements together.
Prose: The novel features strong writing and language that feels authentic to the setting and era. The rendering of the setting is one of the book's strengths.
Originality: This historical novel offers a fresh perspective on a fascinating figure.
Character Development: The novel features authentic, well-crafted characters. Father Divine is comforting, convincing, and engaging.
• Plot/Idea: 8
• Originality: 7
• Prose: 8
• Character/Execution: 8
• Overall: 7.75
Report Submitted for BOOKLIFE PRIZE: April 30, 2018
I don’t usually read stories in the crime genre. Not because I don’t like them, but because there are so many on television. And to be honest, a lot of them are really good. But I was attracted to Father Divine’s Bikes for one simple reason. I know who Father Divine was. I had a feeling this book would be a window into a time, place, and people that we don’t read or even hear about much anymore. I was right. Father Divine’s Bikes is a brilliant snapshot of America right after World War II. It is the best portrait of Newark, New Jersey during that time when African Americans were pouring into the industrial North as they fled the Jim Crow South. This is the America we are heirs to and there are few books that get it so realistically right.
The writing in Father Divine’s Bikes is superb. I have only passed through Newark once, but I feel author Steve Bassett got it right. I have known quite a few people from there, and what they say, and how they act is what I see in this novel. The characters are so real, almost painfully real in some cases. The priests, the cops, the altar boys, and the prostitutes, they all ring true. The plot is as real as life in that time. Gangs and gangsters divided into ethnic armies, all vying for their piece of the American pie. I love the raw reality, the incorrect political speech, and the passionate writing that may very well push Father Divine’s Bikes into the ranks of the great American classics.
Ray Simmons for Readers' Favorite:
What fun! Very cinematic. If asked to compare “Father Divine’s Bike” to something, I would say E.L. Doctorow’s “Billy Bathgate” or “Ragtime.” The parts that really came alive for me were when the kids were playing stoop ball, and when they climbed up the fire escape on that building, when they were just running around the neighborhood being kids. I think the reason these stayed with me is that the camera was back up to capture the world they were in, the landscape, the buildings. I enjoyed seeing how the neighborhood was changing. How the buildings got sold. How the job of rent collection fell to thugs. How corruption colored everything.
Barb Johnson, author of “More of This World or Maybe Another and winner of American Library Association’s Barbara Gittings Literature Award.”
Steve Bassett’s Father Divine’s Bikes starts with a gruesome murder. However, perceiving it to be a regular murder-mystery would be a mistake. As soon as we are made familiar with the case at hand, the story quickly turns its attention towards the more complex surroundings of post-war era Newark. The tale flows from one character to another, and we are introduced to their backgrounds and conditions. Starting from a teenager, Richie, who is caught in the network of illegal activities, the story comes full circle, encompassing the spectrum of a multitude of characters that are somehow connected in this complex world. It tackles various themes, ranging from social issues like racism to the struggles of poverty and the turmoil of teenagers.
To begin with, I was taken completely off guard by the manner of storytelling in this novel. It was unexpected but pleasant, and I loved it. There were so many shades in this story that if it had been told any differently perhaps, it wouldn’t have been so impactful. I loved the variety of the characters, and how the style of story altered with respect to their perspectives. Steve Bassett has done a great job in writing this book. I liked how the story trickled from one character to another, changing its viewpoint after a couple of chapters. It was like they were passing a baton of some sorts. It is certainly one of the best writing styles I have seen in any novel recently. The backstories of the characters were another thing that I thoroughly enjoyed. Rest assured, Father Divine’s Bikes is all good things packed into one book.
By Diksha Sundriyal for Readers' Favorite
Veteran television journalist Steve Bassett puts his considerable storytelling skills to work in “Father Divine’s Bike,” a tragic coming of age saga involving two Catholic altar boys. .. Bassett weaves a story of triumph, regret and tragedy. The boys’ Catholic roots fail them in their time of need. Instead they are unwittingly seduced by the aura spread throughout Newark by Father Divine, the spellbinding black evangelist. It’s a book you won’t want to put down.
Pete Noyes, award winning journalist and author of “The Real L.A. Confidential." Recipient of the Peabody Award.
Father Divine’s Bikes by Steve Bassett is a compelling crime novel with a powerful setting against the backdrop of 1945 Newark, a society just emerging from the war. The reader is thrust into a world run by mobsters, where the conflict gets bloody. Now, the competing mobs have ended their truce and things get tense, with other players ready to get into the game. It’s against this backdrop that Joey Bancik and Richie Maxwell are recruited by the black bookies under the cover of newsboys. The reader follows the protagonist, Richie, on a perilous quest to achieve the promise of Father Divine’s “heaven on earth,” but Father Terry Nolan, the parish priest, and two homicide detectives fear for the lives of the kids, and rightly so. Can the kids avoid being sucked into a world of crime and tragedy, just to bring a few bucks home to their families?
Steve Bassett creates a story that is utterly absorbing with characters that are compelling and believable. The handling of conflict is exceptional and readers can’t help but be thrilled at the complex plot that melds crime with corruption. I loved characters like Lt. Cisco and his clairvoyance, but his fear of the kids getting hurt turns out to be true. The array of characters, including mobsters, corrupt cops, and innocent kids irresistibly pulled towards a life of crime are elements of this novel that create the tension that propels it forward. The author’s use of contrast and humor are masterly and they add to the strengths of the narrative, arresting the reader’s attention. Readers follow a gritty investigation into murders while caring about characters whose lives are in grave danger. Father Divine’s Bikes is a mesmerizing tale of two compelling characters, deeply human and broken, which makes it easy for readers to connect with them. But it is also a tale of a changing community, a community that once flourished but that is about to sink into violence. A real page-turner!
By Romuald Dzemo for Readers' Favorite
Father Divine’s Bike carries you along the well orchestrated plot of Bassett’s protagonist, Richie Maxwell. In voicings of character and place, Maxwell takes you along on his quest to obtain the promise of “heaven on earth.” In rhythm and tone Bassett achieves a counterpoint that moves the reader between contrasting themes of class and privilege, poverty and wealth, despair and hope. Caught up by the hustle of Father Divine’s “heaven on earth,” Richie Maxwell becomes ensnared in a hustle of his own making that transports him to a reality just north of hell, on a bike that costs more than he could ever imagine.
Paul Pattwell, Library Administrator, Newark Public Library, former manager of the New Jersey Information Center, an archive for Newark and New Jersey history.
Father Divine’s Bikes by Steve Bassett is a story about murder, mob wars, and the journey of two altar boys struggling to rise above the poverty line — consumed by the desire to experience “heaven on earth.” It’s Newark in 1945, a place where danger lurks around every corner. With the truce between two powerful gangs ended, violence becomes the order of the day. The boys, Joey and Richie, are hired by the black bookies. Their parish priest as well as the police fear for their lives — they could be embarking on a path of no return, getting absorbed into a world of crime. While Lt. Nick Cisco and Sgt. Kevin McClosky investigate three murders from the Third Ward, there are clear signs that there could be a connection between the mob war, the murders, and a police captain.
I was pulled in from the very beginning by the beauty of the prose and Steve Bassett’s gift for plot. The author manages to weave different stories into a narrative that will have readers spellbound as they follow the memorable characters through a setting that is socially decaying and politically tense. The figure of Fr. Divine, the black evangelist, and his promise of “heaven on earth” is reminiscent of what happens when people become disenchanted, with poverty weighing on their shoulders and violence on their doorsteps. The setting is strong and it reflects the conflict that is skillfully developed throughout the narrative. The author injects life and realism into the narrative, evoking images that readers will quickly recognize. Here is fiction that reads like a real crime story, with characters that are imbued with a realistic humanity — they are flawed, they are struggling, and they are conflicted. The author weaves powerful themes into the narrative — religion and faith, crime and freedom, hope and despair, family and friendship, and a lot more — and these read like beautiful colors in the fabric of this tale. It’s fast-paced with interesting twists, suspenseful, and deeply satisfying. Father Divine’s Bikes is a riveting story told by a master storyteller!
By Christian Sia for Readers' Favorite
I have finally settled into reading Steve Bassett's book and I love it!!! I am enjoying it so. I love the milieu, the dialogue, the characters, the story, everything. I can't wait to finish it and pass it on to my husband who will love it as well. He may even recognize some of the characters from hearing his father's and grandfather's stories of growing up poor in Philadelphia, which wasn't all that different from Newark. I love Steve's style and I find it very readable and very, very cinematic. Has he given thought to rewriting it as a screenplay. I really think it would make a great film!!!
Marsha Pincus, retired Philadelphia inner city Public School teacher and writer and documentary producer.
In Development. Coming in 2019