Saturn Over the Water by J.B. Priestley ~ 1961. This edition: The Companion Book Club, 1961. Hardcover. 255 pages.
My rating: I dunno. This is tough. It was a diverting read, but the ending was just too deus ex machine to swallow whole. What the hey, J.B.? Clairvoyants and psychics save the world at the eleventh hour?! Couldn’t they have stepped in a little earlier, like when the nefarious villains started their evil organization?
Oh. Right. No story.
Let me think. It was amusing in a campy sort of way, plus the hero was a moderately likeable sort. The action scenes were acceptable, though never with a fully developed edge. The women were a stumbling block, but I’ll waive objections to their overwhelming sexiness and sultry beauty because the author allowed them some competences. Okay, mostly that they were just good drivers. (And fireworks-inducing passionate kissers – does that count as a competence? In this novel, apparently so.) But he also made them just plain silly with men. Hm.
Full of goofy racial stereotypes; author Priestley/narrator Tim was particularly hard on the Germans; vestiges of the last war, obviously. And the Russians got some serious needling, too.
So with everything considered, and taking into account the other similar schlock that was being published at the time and the very real spy-versus-spy tenseness of the Cold War political situation, I think I can safely give this one a 7.5/10. Even with the cop-out ending. Because Priestley did an adequate job, and he had a few serious things to say hidden in the nonsense, and I appreciate his willingness to dabble in the genre. And it was rather a fun read, of the “so bad it’s good” school.
So this was something unexpected. J.B. Priestley channels John Wyndham, with a dash of Ian Fleming, and a sprinkling of pure silliness. Here’s our story.
It all began with a call I had from Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, where my cousin Isabel was dying of leukemia. The Hospital didn’t say she was dying of course – they never do – but I knew she was and she knew she was. The scientists who enjoy playing about with these filthy bombs tell us it’s all quite safe and have figures to prove it; but before these bombs came along I’d never known anybody who had died of leukemia, whereas now my cousin Isabel was the fourth person I’d known who had died of it.
This handsome cover depicts Joe’s scribbled clues. Can you read his writing? If not, don’t feel too bad. Tim had trouble too.
Career artist Tim Bedford, standing by Isabel’s bedside, reluctantly takes on a commission for her. Some years ago her husband, Joe Farne, a biochemist, had gone out to Peru to work for the privately owned Arnaldos Institute, where research on various nebulous “beneficial projects” was being carried out. Isabel had stayed in England, because she and Joe were having marital issues, but they’d made up via letter and all was looking up when something disturbing occurred. Joe suddenly left his job at the Institute and vanished, Isabel’s letters started being returned unopened, and no one was able to say where he had gone.
Then another letter from Joe came, but from Chile, not Peru. Three pages of hastily scribbled reassurances that he loved her, and on the last page a collection of cryptic jottings, names and phrases that made no sense to Isabel at all, but that must have some meaning, otherwise why would Joe have sent them?
Could Tim please track Joe down, to see if he was all right, and to explain to him why Isabel herself was unable to come to him, and to give Joe her dying message of love? Well, what could Tim do, especially once he visited Isabel’s lawyer and found that there was a tidy sum of money for expenses at the ready.
Before departing England for South America, Tim does some intital groundwork by tracking down the widow of one of Joe’s fellow scientists at the Institute, and what she tells him gives him pause. Something deeply sinister was going on in Peru, and she urges him to start his search there, to find a clue to Joe’s departure and subsequent popping up several countries over.
Coincidences start to occur thick and fast, as Tim sets off on his quest, soon to encounter a stunning Russian countess, a wealthy English lord, a variety of Communist sympathizers, a beneficent New York art dealer, a Peruvian multimillionaire with a brooding and artistic granddaughter, pseudo-Nazis, evil scientists, corrupt policemen, and a motley crew of shady characters occasionally on his side in the ever-more-pressing race to discover what is going on in not only Peru, but the Emerald Lake in Chile and the Blue Mountains of Australia.
Will Tim find Joe, and incidentally help save the Northern Hemisphere from annihilation by the H-bomb?
Of course he will, and he’ll discover the cryptic meaning of the Wavy Eight symbol, too, and the significance of the mysterious phrase “Saturn Over the Water”. (It’s much more daft than you could ever imagine.)
A true period piece, this one. If you find it in your travels, give it a go. Says me.
Eye-catching first edition dust jacket.
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