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The Doubtful Disciple

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Corgi, London, 1971
(first published 1969)
price: 20p (4/-); 160 pages

The blurb on the back:

'Germs aren't nationality-conscious, germs don't ask to see people's passports,' Laver said.
'They haven't so far,' Dominy said.
But now ... now that the scientists had discovered SPD - Selective Pigmentation Disease - they could see the unthinkable consequences if such a hellbrew were poured out into the world.
'Gripping stuff, tautly told' -
Yorkshire Evening Post
'Polished high-level detection' -
Evening News
'Mr Haggard is as entertaining and convincing as ever' -
Manchester Evening News
'His impeccable touch once again makes the pages tingle' -
Belfast Telegraph
'A well-contrived and absorbing plot ... Good pacing and characterisation, plausible and enjoyable' -
Books and Bookmen

opening lines:
Richard Laver was finding his first day in the Security Executive very much as was any first day in a brand-new job, and as a civil servant of what was absurdly called the Administrative Grade he had had experience of many.

The basic set-up is damn fine. A quasi-official laboratory has developed a new variation in biological warfare - a germ that impacts on racial grounds - and a whole host of people are trying to get hold of the details.

In the space of a fairly short book, we are whisked between a scientist with an acute fit of conscience, the new head of the Security Executive, a militant evangelical peacher man, a power-crazed industrialist and so on and so forth. It all crackles along happily enough, and there are moments of real insight that leap off the page at you. Here, for example, is the leading black character reflecting on the fact that he's had to kill a man in self-defence:

...now he was thinking differently, not with his brain but instinctively, with his viscera. Victor Lomax had been white and Peter wasn't; the police were white also and so was England. Peter was too intelligent to suppose that they wouldn't pick him up, but it simply wasn't thinkable to walk voluntarily into this white man's net. Let them find him when they could and do their worst. He hadn't the smallest doubt that they'd fix him given the slightest chance. (p.93)

The politics of race underpin the whole novel even if they sometimes get obscured by the excitement of this being a thriller. There's a whole sub-genre of post-Enoch Powell writing to which this owes some allegiance. Interesting.

William Haggard, apparently, was a pseudonym used by one Richard Henry Michael Clayton (1907-93), under which name some 32 novels were published: this was #14. (This information courtesy of a particularly useful Crime & Mystery Fiction site.)


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