Josh Weiss Discusses His Crime Thriller, ‘Sunset Empire’

Inspired by noir classics such as "The Maltese Falcon" and "Chinatown," Weiss subverts the hardboiled mystery genre with his own outlandish twist
May 25, 2023

When you think of Jewish authors whose identity became a hallmark of their novels, names like Philip Roth, Chaim Potok, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Safran Foer likely come to mind. There are others, but it’s not a long list. Now, you can add a fresh name to the bunch with Josh Weiss.

In 2015, while still in college, Weiss conceived his first alternative-history novel, “Beat the Devils,” which came out in 2022. Now a year after his debut, at just 28, Weiss has returned with a page-turning sequel, “Sunset Empire,” which ramps up the paranoia of the Red Scare to new heights.

Inspired by noir classics such as “The Maltese Falcon” and “Chinatown,” Weiss subverts the hardboiled mystery genre with his own outlandish twist. In his dystopian universe, Joseph McCarthy is President, and America has become akin to Nazi Germany. The country has run amok with xenophobia, antisemitism, and anti-Asian racism (except notably for Japanese people). People deemed enemies of the state are sent to the true-to-history Manzanar concentration camp for “un-American” activities.

If this all sounds dark, it may come as a surprise that Weiss writes this thriller as an irreverent romp, hoping readers enjoy the levity amidst the tragedy.

“It’s not trying to be super serious,” Weiss says. “I try to make what I write fun.”

While there have been plenty of alternative history thrillers to hit bookshelves, few have infused Jewish identity so front-and-center as Weiss has done with this series. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more Jewish book in the mystery section.

“They say write what you know, and having been a Jew all my life, that’s all I know.”

Weiss’s decision to write a demonstrably Jewish thriller came from reading Michael Chabon’s novel, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” “The fact that he wasn’t afraid to get super Jewish with it really emboldened me on these two books,” says Weiss.

And indeed, super Jewish Weiss gets.

I dare you to find another dystopian thriller where the main character is a Holocaust survivor who wraps tefillin, uses Yiddish words like farkakte, and confides in a rabbi —  a survivor of Theresienstadt — for emotional support and wisdom? That alone makes it stand out, but what makes it compelling is the way Weiss meticulously weaves history and fantasy together to create a zany story filled with twists and misdirections.

Weiss created the character of Morris Baker from stories he grew up hearing about his grandfather: a Chezoslovakian Holocaust survivor with epilepsy, a trait Weiss gave to his protagonist as well.

“My grandpa was in three different camps, including Auschwitz, and was on a death march. One morning, he was late to roll call at Auschwitz, and an SS guard hit him on the head with the butt of his rifle, and he was knocked unconscious. He was put on a pile of bodies to be burned, but his friend took him off,” Weiss said. Harrowing stories like this are embedded throughout Weiss’s two books, making for a complicated and tragic protagonist haunted by the trauma of his past.

Weiss says after dozens of rejections, he received a call from an agent who believed in his vision — enough to get Weiss a two-book deal with Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette. Other people have discovered Weiss —    “Sunset Empire” was recently named a Mystery Pick of the Month by The Strand Book Store in New York.

The first novel, set in 1958, finds LAPD detective Morris Baker investigating the murders of filmmaker John Huston and up-and-coming journalist Walter Cronkrite, which he soon learns is part of a bizarre political conspiracy.

“Sunset Empire” is set a year later, during the week of Hanukkah and Christmas. Baker, now a private investigator, is confronted with two daunting tasks: locate the whereabouts of a missing Henry Kissinger and uncover the facts behind a Korean-American suicide bomber who targeted a Los Angeles mall.

Weiss says his decision to blend fervent antisemitism with anti-Asian racism in his latest novel was inspired by the paranoia and violence against Asian Americans during COVID, making his period thriller feel eerily relevant today.

Weiss, who reports on Hollywood blockbusters for SYFI Wire and Forbes, is a pop culture maven through and through.“Sunset Empire” reads like a treasure trove of cultural and historical Easter eggs: keep an eye out for a young Steven Spielberg working as a production assistant on an adult film set. Yes, you read that right. In this world, Jews are blacklisted from Hollywood and reinvent themselves as masterclass porn filmmakers. That is the kind of bonkers ride that awaits in this novel.

His series also pays homage to classic film and literature, honoring tropes from “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Minority Report,” “Blade Runner” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and is heavily influenced by Philip Roth’s ”The Plot Against America.”

The story’s main villain is McCarthy, but look out for Nixon and Roy Cohn too, where Weiss astutely captures the horrors of both the Red Scare and the lesser-known Lavender Scare persecuting homosexuals. Part of what makes “Sunset Empire” a unique read are all the granular details that abound, such as a passage that mentions the banning of The Jewish Daily Forward.

If you’re wondering if the young author has more books planned, the answer is an emphatic yes. 

“I have a Google doc of 50 pages worth of ideas.”

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