Blue Smoke & Mirrors is an historical drama inspired by the real life-tragedy in 1978 in which a California-based cult relocates to Guyana in Central America. Comprised of marginalized members of society, constitutionally gullible and vulnerable, they are manipulated by Jimmy Jones, the cult’s charismatic mastermind, who is no less than evil incarnate.
Frequently in historical novels, a writer or journalist will create an expert, a detective, a scientist. Agatha Christie created Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple as her brilliant detectives, as Arthur Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes, picking through the evidence to solve a complex crime. Dan Brown in his books and movies, such as The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demon, created Robert Langdon as an adventure-prone symbologist. (He even created “symbology” as an academic field specializing in deciphering symbols). George Lucas created the swash-buckling archaeologist Indiana Jones, played in films by Harrison Ford, to do his bidding.
In his novel Blue Smoke & Mirrors, Arnold Ludwig works in reverse. He is himself a genuine expert, a distinguished psychiatrist, who works through a protagonist called “the author” who is a journalist and a man of normal intellect. The “author” writes his account of Jonestown based on the notes of Dwight Urban, who had earlier infiltrated the cult with phony credentials as a handyman and an anthropologist. As the story unfolds, there is a shocking revelation: it is an experiment gone awry.
The storyline in Blue Smoke & Mirrors renders the book a first-rate thriller. Revealing Dr. Ludwig’s own erudition are numerous allusions to art and literature, such as Michelangelo’s “Creation of Man” in the Sistine Chapel and the eminently mad artist Hieronymus Bosch’s depiction of “Hell.” The text is well written and rich in imagery, attesting to Ludwig’s gift with prose. In one passage he likens a hanging crystal chandelier to the “sword of Damocles,” and in another he invokes a lovely alliterative picture of a flock of starlings:
All the loose ends, all the discordant elements had come together and coalesced into one single picture, like a flock of swooping starlings settling on a sagging power line.
Another brainy and unexpected treat from Ludwig is his description of Dwight’s cryptic notes,
… the writer was disguising his commentary with a complex script known as reverse boustrophedon, a type of bidirectional text that mimics the turning back and forth from left to right then right to left of oxen during plowing.
I happen to be a physicist, and it would be impossible for me to write science fiction in which the story violates the laws of physics. As a seasoned psychiatrist, Dr. Ludwig would similarly be constrained by the established principles of psychiatry, presenting reasonable human weaknesses and vulnerabilities, while rejecting the impossible. There is a subtle and sobering message to our times about how large numbers of people can be fooled, made to behave in irrational manner or in a manner averse to their normal values. In one passage, one sees how logic can be dismissed:
Almost any rationale would do [suffice] to someone in her frame of mind. The word, ‘because,’ was enough. It anesthetizes the faculties, suggesting a causal link between a behavior and its justification. It can convey the notion of free will. It makes the action appropriate and just. ‘Because.’ The response is hardwired in the brain. People are capable of doing almost anything even it is against their nature, if they provide themselves with a suitable enough ‘because.’ Because I want to. Because I have to. Because I need to.
The preceding words are those of Dwight Urban. Having asked Jim Jones’ wife, Marceline, about the mass murder, “Why?” he realizes that in her state of mind, “The word, ‘Because,’ was enough.”
Dr. Ludwig makes no allusions whatsoever to a parallel between the Jonestown cult and the rest of society at the time with the present political division in America. But a number of political analysts see Donald Trump as a cult personality. The reality is, however, that his supporters comprise nearly half the voting population of America. Each side sees the other as alien creatures with whom communication is impossible, each side wonders how “they” can be so gullible, so intellectually dishonest. But isn’t that how society views members of a cult, and the members of the cult view outsiders? Brainwashing unfortunately works too well!
(Dr. Alatay has a Ph.D in theoretical physics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)