I’m not sure when California became a mecca for spiritual cults and wacky ideas. Gellett Burgess’s The Heart Line (1907) suggests that it happened before the cultural center of the state moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In any case, by 1938 Southern California was a logical place for a visiting British writer to set a story of religious zealots going off the deep end. J. B. Priestley (1890-1980) wrote more than 100 books, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as a large number of plays. The Doomsday Men was the only novel he set primarily in California.
The Doomsday Men by J. B. Priestley. Harper and Brothers (1938), 287 pp.
A British architect plays tennis with a beautiful but mysterious Californian in France; an American physicist searches for a missing colleague in England; a global adventurer arrives in Los Angeles to investigate the murder of his brother. The three come together in Barstow, the largest town in the Mojave Desert. There they find a common interest in the activities of a small group of religious fundamentalists. It turns out the group is not merely looking forward to the end of the world but planning to bring it about.
This book has a thriller-like story -- someone is scheming to blow up the world -- but it differs markedly from modern thrillers. The plot unfolds at a leisurely pace. While Priestley makes it clear early on that something is amiss, he doesn't reveal the seriousness of the threat until well into the story. Instead of concentrating on a single heroic figure, perhaps a military officer or secret agent, he divides his attention among three characters. None works for a higher authority, and none is conspicuously courageous. Although the protagonists eventually see the need for action, they remain calm and fairly passive. Even during the climactic scene, which Priestley handles a bit clumsily, they do little but watch. Although not action packed, the book is notable for its main plot point and many vivid descriptions of the California desert. Readers, incidentially, may be surprised that Priestley had so much information (not all of it accurate) on the explosive possibilities of splitting the atom in 1938, seven years before the bomb was actually created.