The Kingdom of Slender Swords Supersizes Suspense

cover of The Kingdom of Slender Swords

In a classic romance opening, Barbara Fairfax gets her first glimpse of Japan from the deck of an ocean liner. Japan is the land where here parents met, her father died, and where she hopes to escape from highly eligible suitor whom she doesn’t love.

As a house guest of the American ambassador’s daughter, Barbara has a front row seat to history in the making. She, however, is more interested in embassy staffer Duke Daunt than in political jockeying between superpowers.

Barbara Fairfax
Barbara Fairfax

Hallie Erminie Rives maintains a classic romance storyline for the remainder of The Kingdom of Slender Swords, but she embeds it within a thriller. Rives rounds out the novel with a bit of history, a chunk of local culture, and a sprinkle of religion.

Sounds like a recipe for literary hash, doesn’t it?

But Rives is no ordinary writer.

Her plotting is superb, her characters believable, her descriptions breathtaking.

Her predictions aren’t bad for 1910 either.

Rives anticipates Japan “will make some other nations get a move on” within the next half century. The novel’s bad guy, “the expert,” says it’s easier to dominate the the world by manipulating international financial markets than with weapons, though he has invented the ultimate weapon by harnessing atomic energy.

If that’s an ordinary romance novel, I’ll eat my Ramen Noodles.

The Kingdom of Slender Swords
by Hallie Erminie Rives 
Illus. A. B. Wenzell
1910 bestseller #5
Project Gutenberg EBook #42427

This review has been edited to correct the pronouns referring to the author from he/him to she/her.  Hallie Erminie Rives was also Mrs. Post Wheeler, wife of an American diplomat whose foreign service took the couple to posts in Europe, Asia and South America.

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The High and the Mighty is taut and scarey

Ernest K. Gann’s The High and the Mighty is to aviation novels what Gone with the Wind  is to Civil War novels.

A commercial airline is leaving Honolulu for San Francisco. The crew meticulously checks everything that could possibly go wrong , knowing that failure of some tiny, unseen part somewhere could trigger a series of small failures that could plunge everyone on board to their deaths.

They take off

At 35, Sullivan, is a seasoned pilot. His co-pilot took to the air in 1917; aside from a brief period after a crash in which his wife and son and all but one other passenger perished, Roman has been flying ever since.

The other three crew members and the 16 passengers are standard Hollywood issue: a pair of newly weds, a couple splitting up, a whore with a heart of gold, a dying man, an all-business millionaire. Their stories cover the long blocks of time when nothing is happening in the cockpit.

A pilot himself,  Gann writes with precise, spine-chilling detail about the plane’s operation and the mental and emotional courage of the crews that keep them flying.

Gann’s story is  implausible in a predictable, hollywood way, but peopled with characters so vividly drawn that the tale is unforgettable.

The High and the Mighty
by Ernest K. Gann
William Sloane Associates, 1953
342 pages
1953 bestseller # 6
My grade:  B
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Caravans return to Afghan war’s origins

As Americans wait for the end to the Afghan war, James A. Michener’s 1963 bestseller Caravans is a timely once more.

The novel is set in 1946. As World War II ends, the American embassy in Kabul is ordered to investigate the disappearance of  Ellen Jaspar Nazrulllah, a Pennsylvania woman recently married to an Afghan engineer.

The task is given to Mark Miller, a young Jew who loves ancient history and Afghan food. He’s accompanied by an Afghan who works for the American embassy as well as for the Afghanistan government.

His search for Ellen  takes Miller across Afghanistan on routes that were trod by Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan. Miller finds the missing woman, but in finding her uncovers more mysteries.

Michener is noted for his ability to weave history and fiction against a backdrop of vividly presented scenery. In Caravans, he not only does all that superbly, but also rachets up the suspense to thriller-level.

Once you start this novel, you won’t want to put it down. Later however, you’ll realize the weakness of the story:  Miller cannot figure out what really motivates the missing woman, and Michener appears not to have decided either. What readers should sense as ambiguity feels uncomfortably like lack of control.

Caravans
By James A. Michener
Random House, 1963
336 pages + notes
1963 bestseller # 4
My grade:  B
 ©2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My picks of 1962’s doomsday novels

Impending doom seems to be the theme of the 1962 best-selling novels. My favorites are each by a pair of writers.

Fail Safe and Seven Days in May are thrillers in every sense of the word. Both are marked by taut prose and tightly constructed plots. Eugene Burdick and  Harvey Wheeler’s Fail Safe, though, conveys a continuing sense of menace that makes it my top pick of ’62.  No one reading Fail Safe today could deny the US still is vulnerable to failures in its too-big-to-fail systems.

Seven Days in May is a political thriller about a conspiracy to overthrow the President. While there are striking similarities between the book’s events and contemporary news,  Fletcher Knevel and Charles W. Bailey’s White House has a very low-key, Eisenhower era feel that doesn’t create the sense of continuing menace Fail Safe does.

Allen Drury’s A Shade of Difference is my  third-place  pick. The politicians who fill its pages are aware of being part of history. They see the significance of events they are helping to shape. The complex plot  that makes the book intriguing also make it easy to forget what happens in the novel.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh deserves an honorable mention. The quiet prose of her Dearly Beloved fares badly by contrast to the high voltage thrillers.  When read among quieter books, however, Lindbergh’s novel gently creates room for thoughtful reflection on the status and future of the institution of marriage.

©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Prize is a dynamite thriller

Stockholm by Night
Stockholm by Night

In The Prize, Irving Wallace knits threads about Cold War political intrigue, Nazi atrocities, gutter press journalism, and the Nobel Prize awards into a complex yarn that ends with no loose ends.

The main character is the year’s literature recipient, Andrew Craig, an American novelist who traded his pencil for a bottle after his wife died in a car crash with him at the wheel. In Stockholm, Andrew falls for a girl brought up by her uncle, the physics honoree, after her parents perished at the hands of the Nazis. Andrew discovers Emily has some war stories of her own.

Other Nobel winners who figure in the story are a French husband-wife research team and an American doctor with a chip on his shoulder big enough to require psychiatric removal.

The secondary characters are presented with broad strokes; the main characters are only slightly more individuals. But Wallace uses the history of the Nobel Prize to tie all the disparate threads together, making the implausible plot seem as inevitable as the annual awards themselves.

The ending seems a bit too pat and romantic; however, it’s hard to see how a novel about the world’s most illustrious award could be anything but romantic.

The Prize
Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster, 1962
768 pages
1962 Bestseller #8
My grade: B+
Photo of Stockholm by Night uploaded by Wyrls
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1962 political thriller is no seven days’ wonder

The White House in Washington D.C.
The White House

Seven Days in May is a thriller by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, a pair of newspaper reporters whose knowledge of the mid-twentieth century Washington political realities infuse every page.

One May Sunday, Marine Colonel Martin J. Casey uncovers what he thinks could be a plot by his boss, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Scott to overthrow the President. Putting his job on the line, Casey discloses his suspicions to the President.

President Lyman takes some convincing, but as evidence mounts, he decides to act. He will act secretly, with help from just a few trusted men and his long-time secretary.

The characters are drawn in broad outline, recognizable as types rather than individuals.

Knebel and Bailey’s strong point is plot. Fifty years after first publication, the story sounds even more plausible than it did against the landscape of the 1960s. If anything, the fictional President’s observation that a frustrated electorate, feeling unable to influence events has “seriously started looking for a superman” rings more true today than it did in 1962.

As to the rest of the setting—a President the people are not quite sure of, high unemployment, economic insecurity, apprehension over potential foreign attacks—sounds like the morning news to me.

Seven Days in May
Fletcher Knebel & Charles W. Bailey II
Harper & Row, 1962
341 pages
My grade: B+
1962 Bestseller #7
Photo of The White House by Edgar0587
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Cold War thriller packs contemporary message

Nuclear Warning
Nuclear Warning

During a military exercise, American bombers armed with nuclear weapons streak off past the fail-safe point, headed for Moscow.

Watching blips on the air command’s radar screen blink are a congressman and a manufacturer whose equipment went into the complex system intended to make the nuclear deployment program accident-proof. All hope fervently that the radar reports are wrong.

Russians watching their radar screens are also convinced the problem is in the display: nothing has prepared them for an attack or an American accident.

The President calls Krushchev.

To prevent an unprovoked attack on Moscow, the President first tries to shoot down the US planes. When that does not work, he seizes the only option available to avert World War III.

With that material to work from and their taut prose, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler could not help turning out a thriller.

Fail-Safe, however, is not just a few hours’ entertainment. It’s a reminder that in any complex, untested system, the occurrence of several statistically improbable errors can bring the whole system crashing down. Perhaps if that lesson had been learned from this novel, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might not have come as such as shock to the American public.

Fail-Safe
Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler
McGraw-Hill, 1962
284 pages
1962 Bestseller #6
My grade: B+
Illustration Nuclear Warning 2 by Flaivoloka
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni