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The Hero

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New English Library, London, 1975
(originally published 1973)
price: 50p; 240 pages

dedication: For Philippa - with love

The blurb on the back:

The place and the threat is China. The weapon is nuclear and deadly. In the secret organizations that operate behind every government the fear was - how to eliminate the weapon without shattering the balance of power between East and West.
Richard Soulgrove is the man chosen for the mission. Aged 31, shy, anonymous, undistinguished in any field except that he can speak Chinese. He is taken from his peaceful existence as a civil servant and thrust into a long and dangerous assignment. An assignment where he has to learn to play the Hero. To develop the capacity for killing, and to learn how to live with the shadow of constant fear and imminent death.
It could fall to any one of us to play the Hero, to learn to take the Hero's fate.

opening lines:
At first the blackness was intense, cold with the feeling of hidden fear and pain. Then a light snapped on suddenly and in the prisoner's mind were colours of red and white and grey, whirling like the asymmetrical patterns in a kaleidoscope.

Peter Haining, of course, is familiar to all readers of 1970s paperbacks as the man who edited more horror anthologies than anyone else ever. Less well known is his career as a novelist. In fact, no one ever mentions it at all. And the reason is that, while he was a very fine editor, with a talent for unearthing neglected gems and drawing your attention to stuff you'd overlooked, he didn't actually write any fiction. But two books were issued in his name, ghost-written by the fabulously prolific Terry Harknett (see link at bottom of this page), of which this is the first.

It starts off pompously announcing that this is a novel concerning 'increased international tension brought about by man's distrust of man' and then settles into a fairly straightforward - if entirely implausible - red-baiting scare about the arms race. Here's one of the characters to explain what we're dealing with:

'The Black Bomb is a clean weapon ... It has no fall-out whatsoever. But the blast and heat generated on detonation at ground zero is sufficient to devastate an area slightly larger than the United States ... In theory everything above ground level over an area of three million square miles would be exploded, imploded or flattened.' (p.29)

The Chinese are threatening to detonate three such bombs, in Mexico City, Malta and Stockholm, wiping out the entire Western world, unless every major power in the world accepts the imposition of a Chinese appointed government. But why would anyone do such a dastardly deed? Well, it seems that 'ever since 1949 when they kicked out the nationalists, China has had one aim - to put the entire world under the yoke of her particular brand of Communism.' (p.77)

So there you have it. We got a problem with the Red/Yellow Menace and only a nondescript civil servant named Richard Soulgrove can sort it out for us. In short, it's an everyman thriller.

The most interesting point is the structure, with each chapter divided in half: the first part recounting Soulgrove's adventures, and the second concerned with the problems of a film company who are piecing the story together to make a feature film entitled The Hero. Naturally, they encounter much hostility from the establishment. The film sections are the best bits, prefiguring the kind of approach that was to become quite common in horror movies.

Incidentally, who the hell writes these cover notes? And have they actually read the book? Well, the answer to the latter question is clearly in the negative. 'Richard Soulgrove was a man in his late thirties,' we are told pretty definitively on page 38; by the back cover this has become very specific: Soulgrove is 'Aged 31'. I know it's a trivial point, but it sure does annoy the hell out of me.


from the maker of...

The Savage
see a biography of Terry Harknett
and a bibliography of his work

more China...

Bernard Newman, The Blue Ants