THINK TWICE (1939) by Ayn Rand

RandAyn Rand, author of The Fountainhead, was a fan of mysteries, praising the likes of Mickey Spillane and Fredric Brown, and even dabbled in the genre. Night of January 16th was a popular courtroom drama where the audience decided the outcome; Think Twice was not produced in her lifetime and she claimed that it showed why she did not write any more whodunits as she could only ever really reach one ending. Let’s see …

I offer this review as my final contribution to Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ’Country House Criminals’ category and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Tomorrow, at twelve o’clock noon, I shall give this invention to mankind”

As this is a fairly obscure work, with not much info about it available online (even, gasp, on Wikipedia), I thought I’d better start off with a synopsis. A four-act play set over a July 4th weekend in Connecticut, it all takes place in the luxuriously appointed living room of a new country estate built by plutocrat, benefactor and all-round do-gooder philanthropist, Walter Breckenridge. It is a surprise gift for his wife Helen, so various friends and family members have been invited to be there when she arrives. As part of his general altruism, he collects the flotsam and jetsam of society to help them make something better of themselves. His protegees and pet projects include headstrong theatre star Adrienne Knowland (a Early-Ayn-Rand-signetKatharine Hepburn type); Tony Goddard, a medical student with musical ambitions; even Breckenridge’s wheelchair-bound son Billy was in fact adopted from Harvey Fleming, an engineer lost to drink who could no longer care for him; and Serge Sookin, a fawning Russian emigree who nobody likes. Breckenridge is turning 50 and concerned above all about securing his place for posterity. But he is not universally loved and recently survived a shooting incident, so has purchased a gun. Breckenridge’s largesse has in fact stifled all those who receive it, his ‘goodness’ proving to be much more of a burden than a bonus, even to his wife and adopted son, who hates the pity that is heaped upon him:

“You don’t know how important it is – not to need anybody”

Breckenridge is the owner of a major new power source that can capture cosmic rays and convert them into energy and has decided to gift this to the world (Many of Rand’s works have some SF elements). This puts him into conflict with Steve Inglewood, the man who actually invented the device and is his junior partner and who wants it to be exploited commercially. This conflict is exacerbated when Steve is discovered by Breckenridge in a clinch with his wife. Later that night, while the new machine is used to set off fireworks by remote control, Breckenridge is shot and all evidence points to Steve – the gun has his prints on it (but he was seen handling it earlier on) and a cigarette butt from his brand is found next to the body. Luckily Greg Hastings, the local DA, is too smart to fall for this – so who is responsible? Well, it turns out that everyone really hated the man and all are incredibly pleased that he is dead. Eventually a foreign agent is found to be among their midst, various declarations of love are made, and an arrest is made – but has the guilty party actually been found?

“Is there anyone here who does not want to be the murderer?”

Ayn_Rand_PortraitRand was the rabidly anti-Communist Russian-born founder of ‘Objectivism’, a philosophy that celebrates egotism and unfettered capitalism. Predictably therefore Breckenridge proves not to just have feet of clay but to be a monster in human form, crushing all he meets with his ‘charity’, robbing them of their individuality by his altruism – so the killer is pretty much a hero to all the suspects. Most of the characters are mere cyphers, with Serge faring especially badly as the Soviet stooge (this was a postwar revision to the play actually as the character was a German originally). To say that the arguments here are a bit loaded would be a real understatement and the dialogue unfortunately is mostly strident and unconvincing, especially in the romantic exchanges between Steve and Adrienne. But one must admit that the mechanics of the plot are fairly carefully thought out, though one can see just why Rand thought she couldn’t write whodunits. The killer would always ultimately be too predictable in terms of fulfilling her ideology, though here it is fairly well disguised it seems to me. Rand’s prose work, especially The Fountainhead, still stands up for the sheer force of her style even if you reject her ideology as the worst kind of infantile self-indulgence. Her dialogue is less impressive than the construction though and one can see why Think Twice was never produced professionally in her lifetime. The play can be found in the collection Three Plays that has been extracted from the 1984 anthology, The Early Ayn Rand, edited by her literary executor, Leonard Peikoff. Like all her work, it’s worth a look, but you take it seriously at your peril.

***** (1.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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28 Responses to THINK TWICE (1939) by Ayn Rand

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Hmmm… Definitely interesting in that it’s a look at Rand’s work. But…nope, I think for at least now I’ll give it a miss. Thank you though for a thorough and interesting look at it.

  2. TracyK says:

    Sergio, this is very interesting. I never knew much about Ayn Rand beyond her most well-known books, and I have read at least one of those, many years ago. This is welcome information and the premise sounds worth checking out. But probably won’t try reading it unless I run into at a book sale.

  3. Colin says:

    That’s most interesting. I’m really only familiar with Rand’s work through the movie adaptation of The Fountainhead. I still think that’s a wonderful, overheated piece of moviemaking that just looks great despite its various faults. I’ll have to be honest though and say this play doesn’t sound like my thing, not something I’d particularly enjoy. I can tolerate ideology (regardless of whether or not I happen to sympathize with the form it takes) in most forms of drama and even thrillers. However, I can’t see it mixing well with a whodunit mystery – in fact, I’m not sure I even see the point of it.

    • Thanks Colin. I first read this play decades ago and I remembered quite liking the conclusion, and I still do, but that is pretty much it frankly. Mind you, I don’t think I did a very good job of putting this one across – it can be enjoyed as a pure meodrama with a reasonably ingenious conclusion, though that is not what Rand was aiming for! I like the movie a lot (Rand apparently hated it even though her screenplay was largely unchanged) – it’s utterly bonkers but highly entertining in its cartoonish way.

  4. Ela says:

    Dialogue is not Rand’s strong point (though I say this based on having read only ATLAS SHRUGGED of her works), so I can’t imagine the play form working very well for her. Your summary reminded me of one of the Father Brown stories, The Miracle of Moon Crescent, which I’ve just been re-reading – a philanthropist is killed for his snap judgments about three men some years previously.

    • That is so interesting, thanks Ela, and I really must re-read that. I love Chesterton;s work but it has been such a long time since I have ready anythign by him (clearly a mistake on my part). I agree with you about Rand – I don’t really care much for her philosophy but her prose and construction could often be very impressive (and well done if you actually finished Atlas Shrugged as there can’t be many, surely …)

  5. I’ve read THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED but this is new to me. Rand was a quirky writer and thinker. But she had immense influence that still exists today.

  6. John says:

    Breckenridge sounds like an early incarnation of Ellsworth Toohey from THE FOUNTAINHEAD. I’ve only seen the movie and never read any of Rand’s books. I watched Rand interviewed by Mike Wallace in a video posted on YouTube several years ago (it’s probalby still up) and found her utterly repellent and self-deluded. Objectivism, to me — no matter how much Rand tries to rationalize her philosophy — is just a way to legitimize selfishness and egotism. It’s no wonder I see copies of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead almost exclusively in the hands of young people. The books seem to appeal to that period in growing up when “I want to live my life my way” is the mantra.

    • I haven’t seen that interview, thanks John. I think you are right about the ppeal of Rand – I was certainly in my late teens when I read her stuff – I did enjoy re-reading the play but it had been a good 25 years I think since the last time …

  7. Sergio, this is new to me as well. It;s interesting that you should point out the sf elements in Rand’s books. I found shades of it in her last book I read, ANTHEM, a novella. You have encouraged me to read and re-read her books. Many thanks, Sergio.

    • Thanks Prashant – I did enjoy re-reading this play though I remain unconvinced by Rand’s philosophy – but I think The Fountainhead endures as a well-told story even if you don’t subscribe to the ideals it espouses. Atlas Shrugged, a mad, incredibly overlong book, is more or less genuine SF.

  8. Yvette says:

    And new to me as well, Sergio. I never knew that Ayn Rand had even attempted to write a mystery. I’ve only ever read one Rand book many MANY years ago. (Can’t remember which one.) But I suppose one dose was enough for me. But I still enjoyed your post as I always do. You always manage to find something out of the ordinary. 🙂

  9. Kelly says:

    I remember reading The Night of January 16th in this same anthology in high school, but I didn’t read the other two.l We were also required to read Anthem, which is a nice post-apocalyptic novella.

    • Thanks Kelly – I think Night of January 16th is a better play and Anthem, along with We The Living, are among her more readable works certainly though it’s been a long time since I looked through my copies …

  10. neer says:

    This is interesting Sergio as I had no idea she had written any other play except JAN. 16TH.
    WE THE LIVING was the first book of Rand that I read and I loved it. By the time I finished the second: THE FOUNTAINHEAD, I became totally off her.

  11. Richard says:

    Nice review, Sergio and thank you for the analysis as well. John’s comment is insightful, Rand is rightly a young person’s novelist. I read The Fountainhead when I was in college, as did so many other people.

  12. I also didn’t know she liked, and had tried, mysteries. ATLAS SHRUGGED is the only thing by her I ever read. It was done on a swap with a friend who wanted me to try it. He read STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND on my recommendation. I liked it, but not enough to try anything else.

  13. Pingback: 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

  14. Jenny says:

    Thank for tipping your fedora to this piece! I have a soft spot in my heart for the Early Ayn Rand collection, especially how much insight it gives into the development if later characters.

    Adrienne Knowlton is the proto-Dominique Francon, the least sympathetic of Rand’s good characters across all the novels, I think.

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