A Scent of New-Mown Hay by John Blackburn (1958)
John Blackburn (1923-1993) secured his reputation in England with this, his first book, a thriller cum horror novel that cannot be easily fitted into genre categories. His reputation in America is a little less assured because his books do not easily fit into marketing niches that can help propel books in this country. Still, his works have been enjoying a resurgence thanks to publishers such as Valancourt Books (which has reprinted fifteen of Blackburn's novels) and Centipede Press (which has reissued six novels thus far).
From the Valancourt Press listing for A Scent of New-Mown Hay:
"With a plot featuring Cold War intrigue,Nazi mad scientists, and a pandemic that threatens to destroy humanity by mutating people into fungoid monsters, it is not hard to see why A Scent of New-Mown Hay (1958) became a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic and an instant science-fiction classic. After a British ship's crew and a remote Russian village are wiped out in mysterious and horrible fashion, General Charles Kirk of British Foreign Intelligence sets out to investigate. As the [plague spreads to England, Kirk's frantic search leads him from the desolate tundra of Russia to the ruins of a Nazi camp, the site of unthinkable wartime atrocities. But who is responsible? Is it a Soviet experiment gone horribly wrong. the work of a depraved madman, or something else entirely? And can it be stopped?
"In this, his first and still best-known novel, the prolific John Blackburn (1923-1993) introduced the formula he was to employ so successfully in his career, seamlessly blending mystery, horror, and science fiction to create a thrilling best-seller that readers found impossible to put down."
And in his review of the novel, Don D'Ammassa wrote, "A demented scientist has bred a deadly fungus whose distinctive aroma warns of the disease it carries. Primarily a novel of espionage, the story is punctuate with distinctly horrific scenes and the climax, involving an animated, human-sized fungus , is every bit as chilling as a supernatural manifestation."
All well and good, but these descriptions mask the true nature of this novel. A Scent of New-Mown Hay is not a gross-out disaster novel as typified later in works by Guy N. Smith or James Herbert. Instead it is solidly in the tradition of the quiet catastrophe novel that was oh-so-British in the 1950s and 1960s (many of which were written by writers named John: "John Christopher," John Boland, "John Wyndham," John Creasey...although at least one James -- J. G. Ballard -- contributed greatly to this quasi-genre). Focusing on a few characters and the impact the catastrophe might have on them universalizes the impact of the disaster for the reader.
There is a sly humor in this novel, often in throwaway lines and descriptions: "He was an elder of the chapel, a county councillor, a justice of the peace, the Liberal candidate at the last election, and a thorn in the side of all desecrators of the Sabbath."
This is also a book of its time. Most of the characters are veddy, veddy British-y polite -- 1950s style. The scientific theory that might stop the plague is pure nonsense. The identity of the bad guy is ridiculously telegraphed. The action moves as if it were a late-50s, early-60s thriller movie -- and a British thriller movie at that. All that being said, if you approach the book with no preconceptions, you'll find it an entertaining and worthwhile thrill ride.
I should mention the only two things that bothered me with this book. First, there was a misplaced comma on page 33 that continued to irk me for the next fifty pages or so. (Anyone familiar with this blog knows how comma-happy I am, which should be an indication of how egregious I found this to be.) Second, the blurb on the back jacket flap misidentifies one Mrs. Baker, an inveterate shoplifter who eventually falls victim to the plague, as "Mrs. Bates." Ptah!