Posts Tagged ‘Thriller’

The Finger of Saturn by Victor Canning ~ 1973. This edition: Heinemann, 1973. Hardcover. 271 pages.

Victor Canning has proven to be a reliable source of engaging if generally improbable adventure novels and thrillers. I am slowly working my way through his sixty-one books, written from 1934 till 1987 (his last novel was finished posthumously by his widow and daughter), and, according to my list on Library Thing, I am now at number thirteen. All so far are keepers, so I have much to look forward to, both in the pleasant quest for more of his titles, and the reading of them when found.

I bumped into this latest one when I was hunting down Charles Portis, and added it on to my Thrift Books order as a bonus book. How pleasing to find upon its arrival that it was a pristine first edition hardcover. I have no objection to previously read books; indeed, one of the great pleasures of second hand book reading is mulling over inscriptions and marginal notes and the bus tickets left between the pages and such, but cracking a crisp never-read copy is highly enjoyable, too, especially when one discovers that the book in question (this one) as been shuffled from shelf to shelf for some 49 years, without anyone being inspired to read it.

Ah, well. Some things are mysterious. It’s been read now, and will be again – I’ve just snuck it from my husband’s reading stack in order to write this little review – so its bookish destiny has finally been fulfilled.

What is The Finger of Saturn about?

Well, I’m not really sure. Aliens, maybe? (That’s a hint.)

How many spoilers should I divulge? Maybe I’d do best to keep it vague, but the gloriously loopy plot points really make this one, so I also rather want to skewer them (nicely, of course) and bring them wriggling out into the light. But, in the interests of my usual writing time crunch, I’ll resist.

Robert and Sarah Rolt have been been happily married and living in quite a lot of comfort at Robert’s old family estate of Rolthead in Dorset (in the Rolt family since the 13th Century, we are proudly told by Robert, who narrates this first-person tale) since their impetuous (and strongly opposed by Sarah’s mother) courtship some nine years earlier.

Sarah and Robert came into their marriage as independently wealthy individuals – how nice for them! – and though they share a united personal and emotional life (or do they?) they each retain an independent and private financial life, which is very convenient for Canning’s plot purposes.

So, happily married for seven years, everything is lovely in the Rolthead garden. The only thing missing is an heir to Rolthead up in the manor house nursery. But that’s all right. too, Sarah and Robert have decided to adopt a child to fill that niche. Then right out of the blue, everything comes to a shuddering stop.

Sarah goes out shopping one morning, and completely vanishes.

Two years go by.

Robert has never lost confidence that one day his beloved Sarah will return to him, so he professes to be not-too-surprised when an official from the Foreign Office gets in touch to ask Robert to identify a woman shown in several snippets of surveillance camera footage, collected by the Foreign Office and subsequently shared (cue forboding background music) with the Ministry of Defence.

“She is your wife, you say. She disappeared over two years ago. She could have lost her memory and could have started a new life. From that premise she could well have found herself cultivating an innocent friendship with this man . . . nothing more than that.  The only oddness, coincidence . . . is that it was him. He was a listed man. Not to be touched. Allowed to run because he was small beer. Could turn out to be more valuable to us free than inside. . . That’s why I’m here – under instructions.”

The woman looks, moves and speaks like Sarah, and Robert is convinced that his lost wife has been found. The hunt for the truth behind her disappearance and reappearance (albeit as someone else named Angela Starr) is on.

Robert, with the blessing of the Foreign Office (not that he cares for any bureaucratic permission) travels to see her, and is greeted with polite reserve and a fantastically detailed account of “Angela Starr’s” past two years. It is no secret that Mrs Starr (she’s apparently a widow) has no memory of her past prior to the awakening one day (two years ago) in an amnesiac state, all of her past apparently erased from her mind.

She’s definitely Sarah, though, and Robert eventually convinces her of this, enough so that she agrees to return to Rolthead with him in the hopes that her memory will return, but so many questions are there to be answered, and the sorting out of these and the real truth of Sarah’s origins before her marriage and the explanation of her strange disappearance make up the body of this convoluted thriller.

For thriller it turns out to be, including stock features from the genre such as a conflicted and soul-tortured government agent, an incredibly wealthy business entity serving as a facade for a secret society, close brushes with death for both Robert and Sarah, and various complexities culminating in a car bomb plot and, ultimately, the revelation of the real truth (or is it?) regarding Sarah and her backstory.

I quite enjoy Victor Canning’s thrillers. Great escape reading they are, just contrived enough to keep one fully aware that they are absolutely fictional. Much of Canning’s appeal to me lies in the characters he creates, who are often satisfyingly interesting, even as they carry out their cliched roles and responses. I’m also a sucker for detailed scene setting, and Victor Canning could hammer out descriptive passages with the best.

My rating: 8/10. Better than I had expected it to be, though occasionally worse, too. This rating lost a couple of points for the dramatically groan-inspiring ending – I have to admit I didn’t really see it coming, though I feel like I should have. I think our Victor could have been a bit more creative with the wrap-up, though it is well within the tradition for these sorts of tales.

Oh – what is “the finger of Saturn”? Well, I shan’t divulge, as it’s one of the clues to Sarah’s identity, but if you are really curious, pop over to this great review at Existential Ennui for a teasing explanation and another reader’s assessment of the book.

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the eyes around me gavin black 001The Eyes Around Me by Gavin Black ~ 1964. This edition: Harper & Row, 1964. Hardcover. 216 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Okay, why have I never come across this writer before? This murder mystery novel set in Red-era Hong Kong was pretty darned fabulous. Instant fan, I am. Now I must track down more…

From his obituary notice in The Independent, August 6, 1998:

Oswald Wynd was a modest man who had little to be modest about. As Gavin Black he wrote superior and literate thrillers – school of Stevenson and Buchan – which were at the same time witty and clever, and moved at a by no means gentlemanly pace…

A “superior and literate thriller” describes this fast-paced novel exceedingly well.

Middle-aged, recently divorced, lush living Scottish shortbread heiress Ella Bain lives in Hong Kong, in a lavish seaside mansion. An outside staircase to her bedroom allows her to receive gentleman callers without offending the sensibilities of old family retainer Kirsty, and by all reports it is a well-used piece of domestic architecture.

Ella is loud, she drinks too much, and though she has proven herself an astute businesswoman, enlarging her already substantial fortune by her occasional managerial visits back to the family factory in Scotland, she occasionally raises eyebrows by her larger than life actions. Long-time platonic friend Paul Harris views Ella with sometimes-exasperated affection; he has turned down her marriage proposal, but remains in Ella’s will as her chief beneficiary, cutting out Ella’s only brother Angus, who enjoys a fortune of his own.

So when Ella is found dead in her bed on New Year’s Day morning by Paul, who squired Ella about town the night before and stayed over at her house, both the police and the intimately entwined Hong Kong society crowd look at Paul with more than a little speculation.

Paul Harris, wealthy in his own right through a series of past speculations and questionably legal activities which I shan’t reveal to you here, resents the assumption that he murdered his friend, and sets out on a quest to clear his name.

This is a vividly atmospheric mystery novel, with a finely detailed setting and memorable (if occasionally rather unlikely) characters. One forgives the over-the-topness because the thing is so gloriously well written for this type of light fiction; Oswald Wynd/Gavin Black spins an exceedingly readable tale.

Paul Harris comes across as a greatly  improved version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Paul is suave, fast on his feet, good in a fight, exceedingly attractive and attracted to gorgeous women, and (one feels) truly a good guy at heart, despite his somewhat shady backstory. The arrogance which emanates from his fictional counterpart Bond is completely missing; one likes Paul Harris, despite our doubt that he is now a purely lily-white boy, gone all straight and narrow.

I guessed the murderer with surprising ease; I foretold the romantic clinch at the end; as a mystery the thing is decidedly clichéd and predictable, but despite these drawbacks I greatly liked this book.

The author wrote a rather respectable number of novels and thrillers, most set in Asia. I am keen to follow up on my introduction to Paul Harris, who apparently features in all of the Gavin Black-authored thrillers; the Oswald Wynd novels sound intriguing, too, if perhaps a bit “deeper” in theme.

1977’s The Ginger Tree was made into a well-received Masterpiece Theatre 4-part miniseries, and Wynd’s depiction of cross-cultural and mixed race relationships is spoken of very highly in reviews.

For future investigation:

As Oswald Wynd:

  • Black Fountains (1947) (1st novel, winner of $20,000 Doubleday prize for fiction)
  • Red Sun South (1948)
  • Friend of the Family (1949)
  • The Stubborn Flower (1949)
  • When Ape is King (1949) (Wynd’s lone speculative fiction, very rare )
  • The Gentle Pirate (1951)
  • Stars in the Heather (1956)
  • Moon of the Tiger (1958)
  • Summer Can’t Last (1960)
  • Death, the Red Flower (1965)
  • Walk Softly, Men Praying (1967)
  • Sumatra Seven Zero (1968)
  • The Hawser Pirates (1970)
  • The Forty Days (1972)
  • The Ginger Tree (1977)

As Gavin Black:

  • Suddenly at Singapore (1961)
  • The Devil Came on Sunday (1961)
  • Dead Man Calling (1962)
  • A Walk in the Long Dark Night (1962)
  • A Dragon for Christmas (1963)
  • The Eyes around Me (1964)
  • You Want to Die, Johnny? (1966)
  • A Wind of Death (1967)
  • The Cold Jungle (1969)
  • A Time for Pirates (1971)
  • The Bitter Tea (1972)
  • The Golden Cockatrice (1974)
  • A Big Wind for Summer (aka Gale Force) (1975)
  • A Moon for Killers (aka Killer Moon) (1976)
  • Night Run from Java (1979)
  • The Blazing Air (1981)
  • The Fatal Shadow (1983)
  • A Path for Serpents (1991)

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saturn over the water dj cbc j b priestleySaturn 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.

saturn over the water dj 2 j b priestley

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.

saturn over the water dj j b priestley

Eye-catching first edition dust jacket.

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