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The Cummings Report
and Chain Reaction

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Hodder & Staughton, London, 1961
price: 2s 6d; 192 pages
(first published under the name James Brogan in 1958)
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Corgi, London, 1966
price: 3s 6d; 192 pages
(first published by Hodder & Staughton in 1959)

The blurb on the back:

The Cummings Report:
'This place is being used as a meeting point by a subversive organization'
The spy game amused him - at first.
The café in Oxford Street seemed quite ordinary: but it initiated Joel Cummings into the world of international intrigue, a bewildering world of treason and red herrings.

Chain Reaction:
It started with a can of beans...
Sir Robert Hargreaves said, 'We are no longer faced with a serious accident endangering the lives of a known section of the community, but with an apparently limitless chain of danger of which we do not know the cause.'
He picked up his glass of water and held it up. 'A tumbler of water - this cigarette - Gatt's stomach pills ... All or any of these things could be lethal ...'

opening lines:

The Cummings Report:
The day I left Murtha House Sir George Horrocks told me I was not cured. No one is really cured when their brain goes out of order.

Chain Reaction:
The sun poured down with surprising warmth upon the roof of the Rolls that picked its way fluidly between jagged lines of less mobile traffic.

Christopher Hodder-Williams (1925-95) was one of the journeymen of British literature, the author of more than a dozen novels from the late-1950s onwards (and at least one TV screenplay in 1961's The Ship That Couldn't Stop), which did respectably enough but never really catapaulted him into the big time. If writing were football, he'd be in League One (or whatever they're calling the Third Division these days) with aspirations of being promoted, but no expectation of ever reaching the Premiership.

Because essentially both these novels demonstrate the same fault: a lack of sparkle and excitement. The situations are perfectly adequate, and even quite interesting in their own way, but the characters don't leap off the page at you, the prose is, well, prosaic, and the books are all too easy to put down. Competent, workmanlike and uncompulsive.

The Cummings Report, originally published under a pseudonym, is about a guy who gets enmeshed in a Cold War spy plot to steal British scientific secrets. The fact that he's a songwriter recovering from a nervous breakdown sounds like he might be an interesting creation - particularly since Hodder-Williams also worked as a songwriter - but, twenty minutes after you've read about him, you'd be hard pushed to describe him. And while the plot twists and turns in the manner expected of these espionage pieces, it all feels a bit mechanical and schematic.

I'm aware that this is all sounding very negative, so I'd better stress that there are also some good things here. There is, for example, an account of prevailing fashions in treason. In the old days, it was all a question of money - people selling out their country for hard currency:

Then a great change came. Thinking men, instead of feeling a close bond with the country that nurtured them, began to wonder what was theoretically the best way to run the human race...
Mostly, these thinking men were not politicians or sociologists. They had little or no practical knowledge of what would happen to the State, or for that matter, the human mind, when such ideas were put into actual practice. But being men of high intellect, and many of a very high personal integrity, they pictured these social systems as they would have practised them themselves. (p.105)

Chain Reaction is not dissimilar, though with SF rather than spy overtones. A child seems listless and has lost her appetite. Then her father notices that a packet of photographic paper stored in his larder has been contaminated by radiation from a tin of baked beans. And he thinks: well, if the baked beans are radio-active, would that explain her sickness? And before you can say Eggwina, a major food scare is upon us.

Given the perpetual topicality of food safety issues, and of public faith in science and technology, it'd be nice to report that this largely forgotten novel is a neglected classic. Unfortunately it's no such thing. At the risk of repeating myself, it's actually a bit dull, with no real sense of panic generated, no characters that you can care about and no resonance. It's all a bit of a shame, particularly since it came out not long after the serious Windscale incident, to which it refers explicitly.

Three things however recommend this book and would beg to be considered. Firstly Mr Hodder-Williams thanks Crosse & Blackwell and Heinz for their help, which is an inspired contribution to the art of writing Acknowledgements. Secondly there's a glossary of technical terms, and I'm a sucker for that kind of self-authentication. And finally there's that lovely bit on the back warning that the crisis has become so serious that even cigarettes may turn out to be lethal. Really? Cigarettes? Stone me!