Leslie 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.”
He 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.”
LP 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: