THE ALIEN (1968) by LP Davies

Davies-The-Alien-doubledayLeslie Purnell Davies was enormously prolific in the 60s and early 70s, crafting some twenty novels that combined SF and mystery in a highly distinctive fashion. This one later served as the basis for the cult classic, The Groundstar Conspiracy starring George Peppard. It starts with a man in the midst of a full-blown existential crisis …

I submit this review for (deep breath): Carl V’s The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience; Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“It all depends,” said Gregory Tuxan, “on who, or what, John Maxwell is.”

It is 2016 (fifty years in the future, as was from when the book was written) and a man is brought into hospital after a serious accident. When his blood it taken for typing, it matches nothing on file – indeed, it cannot even be said to be human. The man’s hair is an odd shade of white, he has an unusually sallow complexion, his heart is not quite in the usual position, there are odd scars on his face and thorax, he hates the taste of the food he is offered and he finds it hard to comfortably breathe the air around him. The man, whose documents say he is a clerk by the name of ‘John Maxwell’, recovers physically but has no memory. Is he part of an alien invasion, or is something else going on?

“I can remember waking up one morning,” he said slowly. “That was it. Before that – nothing. I knew who I was and where I was.” He counted in his mind. “That would be about twelve weeks ago.”

Davies-Alien-sphereHe is let out of hospital with unseemly haste and placed in a hostel where he makes friends with Dawna, an ex-nurse, and Jerry Rayburn, who says they met a few years earlier. Indeed, ‘Maxwell’ keeps bumping into people who seem to know him, some sinister, some merely trying to help him recover his bearings. None the less he becomes increasingly paranoid – he can’t abide being touched by people and is haunted by dreams of a faraway land of light blue skies and green trees where people speak in a foreign tongue. And he is right to be on his guard as Rayburn really works for an intelligence outfit and reports to the vaguely robotic Gregory Tuxan, while a man identified as ‘Carl Moseley’ is also interested in picking his brains – could he be an enemy agent?

“Taste and smell still playing you up?” Heywood asked.

It is one of the strengths of this book that while Maxwell tries to understand his own humanity, or lack thereof, this is contrasted with the cold-blooded and ruthless methods employed by Tuxan, Moseley and all those who want to find out what is hidden in his mind by any expedient method. Maxwell learns that he may have been involved in an explosion at a research lab two years before at a place called Glyderbank – but that there was also a confirmed UFO sighting at around the same time. Both stir vague memories so decides to investigate but before he can leave is kidnapped by Moseley. He manages to escape, though this may have been stage-managed to see what he will do. With the aid of another man he happens to meet on the road he makes it to Glyderbank. The man says that he used to work at the lab and that ‘Maxwell’ is really a scientist by the name of Philip Yashuto Corey – but how can this be as that man is dead? This leads to a murder as ‘Maxwell / Corey’ travels northwards towards Monksmere, the location for the UFO sighting and which, in a hilarious touch, has now taken to promoting itself as “The Flying Saucer Village.” And slowly but surely fragments of his memory start to come into place before a great big twist in the finale slots everything neatly into place.

“If that’s blood,” said the Senior Pathologist, a time-soured man rarely given to flippancy, “then I’m a red-tailed raccoon.”

Davies-Groundstar-sphereLP Davies, who also published novels as Leslie Vardre and short stories under a host of other names, wrote what he termed “Psycho fiction”, which is to say existential tales in which the subject is the character’s state of mind and the way it may be altered by amnesia, brainwashing and the like. To do this, and to keep readers on their toes, he happily mixed and matched the spy, mystery and SF genres to create a sort unique amalgam, not dissimilar to the kind of books Philip K. Dick was producing at the time, though much less intense and ‘cerebral, if you’ll pardon the pun. There is no denying that the prose and characterisation is simplistic, the kind that might uncharitably be ascribed to less sophisticated YA fiction, and his attempts to create a convincing futuristic society are often risible and naive, admittedly something it has in common with many other books of the era:

“Something to drink,” Maxwell told her.
“Syntho-beef, non-alco, maltine, coffeine-”

Actually the last of those, ‘coffeine’, I thought was rather a good one! Davies’ 2016 is a world that seems to be recovering from another World War as the austerity and privations it describes, as well as the heavy hand of the state, is much more reminiscent of life in Britain in the 1950s. But while there are some deficiencies, Davies’ plotting is often a thing of beauty and that is certainly the case here, though I wouldn’t want to make too exaggerated claims for it – for one thing, I would be very surprised if Davies’ hadn’t seen Mirage, the 1965 Gregory Peck amnesia movie from the book Fallen Angel by Howard Fast (I previously reviewed both here) as it certainly resembles them quite a bit. None the less, the plot really keeps you reading and I’m glad to say the ending doesn’t disappoint – indeed, when the book was adapted in 1972 as The Groundstar Conspiracy, most of the characters and dystopian elements were chucked out but the core story and final twist were kept. I’ll be reviewing the movie next week but if you get the chance, give this highly unusual book a look. It is not Davies’ best (that is probably Man Out of Nowhere, aka Who is Lewis Pinder?, which I reviewed previously here) but is an ultra typical example of the output of this often unfairly neglected author and is another good leaping on point.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘Spooky title’ category:

mark3-vintage-silver-card

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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46 Responses to THE ALIEN (1968) by LP Davies

  1. Sergio – I have to confess that in the main, I’m not a SciFi person. But this one does sound like more than anything a solid suspense story and that transcends genre. I respect solid plotting, too. Thanks as ever for the intelligent and interesting review.

    • Thanks Margot – I’m running a couple more SF-related mystery reviews this month to coincide with the 2014 Sci-Fi Expeience though this, despite its 2016 setting, is in fact the least truly science-fictional of them all beyond being merely futuristic – well-worth tracking down!

  2. TracyK says:

    This book sounds perfect for me, I love sci fi mixed with mystery. And thanks for reminding me of Fallen Angel / Mirage, which I also want to read… someday. Great review, Sergio. And glad you joined in on Carl’s Sci-Fi Experience.

  3. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio: I’ve read one book by L P Davies…What Did I Do Tomorrow? but it was pre-blogging days and it just didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I know I had been looking for Who Is Lewis Pinder? for a very long time and couldn’t find it (still haven’t) and settled for that one. I keep thinking Davies sounds good….

  4. Colin says:

    Not a huge fan of SciFi myself, certainly not in books anyway. I don’t mind the genre on screen, although I wouldn’t call it a favorite either, but never really got into it as a literary style. This does sound like a fair enough suspense/thriller though.

  5. John says:

    So far I’ve only read PSYCHOGEIST among Davie’s sf/mystery genre blenders. I thought it remarkable and sort of delirious. I may need to re-read and review that book this year. My God! It’s 3 AM what on earth am I still doing awake? “To bed, to bed!” (More anon…)

    • Off to bed with you John! Psychogeist is, as you say, ultra typical and very weird and full of that truly bizarre pseudo-sciemce that can now seem quite charming in its naïveté. Would love to read your take on it – Davies remains one of my greatest gulity pleasures.

  6. Todd Mason says:

    People expect to be asleep at 3am? Wow. For my part, I tend to conflate Davies with L.P. Hartley, which is rather worse than the generalized tendency to misspell Davies’s name I’m noting in others…but they are not the same, they wrote quite differently there. Meanwhile, the Yanks I might usefully confuse Davies with run to William Sambrot and David Ely, clearly. Probably not so much Richard Condon. I do like the bits of Davies I’ve read.

  7. L. P. Davies is an underrated writer. I’ve enjoyed the few Davies books I’ve read. Nice review!

    • Richard says:

      Gee, Todd, I thought the right term was “spiffy”. Or is it “spiffy”, or “scientifiction”… HA HA HA HA HA HA HA…..

      • Scientification was always my favourite non-word Richard …

        • Todd Mason says:

          Oddly enough, I don’t think Gernsback ever bothered to try to trademark “scientifiction”…though for some reason Ted White seemed to think he could get the term to finally catch on in the ’70s, as alternative to Ackerman’s neologism. “Stef” just wasn’t that engaging, much less “stf” or the unabbreviated mouthful.

    • Thanks very much George – I dip into these at regular intervals but kept very far apart (not least as he did tend to plough the same furrow over and over), but I really enjoy his work

  8. 282daniele says:

    Ti è arrivato il pacchetto, Sergio?

  9. Richard says:

    Sergio, it’s a fairly tired plot, the fellow waking up and… no memory. Add the equally tired “human or not?” and the only thing that can save the book is top notch writing. I’m not sure your review tells me that’s present here.

    • I take your point Richard, though I’m not sure it was quite as big a cliche then as it might be now. Davies feels like a more accessible, lower wattage Philip K. Dick at times – his plots were usually great fun but the writing is fairly commonplace and pedestrian – but I’m always a sucker for a good amnesia story. This isn’t his best but he wrote half a dozen books that really do bamboozle you

  10. Todd Mason says:

    Meanwhile, yes, we must learn they are “Frisco” and “Sci-Fi” ‘cuz that’s what all the Kewl Kidz say, while trying to come up with fake Cockney rhymes. Meanwhile, some vocalists and organists and such: http://socialistjazz.blogspot.com/2014/01/blog-post.html

  11. Sergio, certain personal issues have prevented me from blogging regularly these past few days, hence this delay in posting my appreciation of a fine review of an spy-sf-mystery combo that I’m entirely unfamiliar with. L.P. Davies certainly sounds interesting and I’ll looking to read his works in coming times.

  12. Rivertown says:

    Try “The Reluctant Medium”. No sci-fi, but a pretty good impossible murder story if I remember correctly. Strange that it never has turned up on anyones list.

    • Thanks for that, though actually not a favourite of mine, probably because it is, as you rightly say, a more conventional mystery in which all seemngly supernatural phenomena are given completely earthly explanation – but I should read that one again, it’s been an age! Incidentally, it was also published as Tell It To The Dead under the ‘Leslie Vardre’ pseudonym.

  13. Pingback: The Groundstar Conspiracy – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

  14. DoingDewey says:

    I like your description of this book as something that includes mystery and sci-fi elements! Genre benders are often some of my favorite books :) I also love how much you know about literature from this time period. It’s so cool that you can point to some of the books which probably influenced the author!

    • Thanks Katie – I wouldn’t want to oversell its virtues but I think, of its time and within the limits of the author’s rather conventional worldview (shall we say), it’s a fun story with a good twist – the movie is probably a better version of the same material though there is a kid of charm to Davies’ tendency to reduce world scale events to the point of view of a small village inhabitant!

  15. Pingback: Top 20 Amnesia Mystery Movies | Tipping My Fedora

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