Here's a quick look at two fast and fun books I read this week.
Zero Cool by "John Lange" (Michael Crichton) (1969)
While in medical school Michael Crichton published his first book, a thriller titled Odds On. Afraid that it might in some way adversely impact his future medical career, it was issued under the pseudonym "John Lange." It was the first of eight stand-alone paperback thrillers Crichton wrote as Lange. Zero Cool was the fourth book under the Lange by-line. As the author later explained,"My feeling about the Lange books is that my competition is in-flight movies. One can read the books in an hour and a half, and be more satisfactorily amused than watching Doris Day. I write them fast and the reader reads them fast and I get them off my back."
American radiologist Peter Ross is vacationing in Spain -- his first vacation in four years. He is told by hotel staff that, while he was out the previous night, an unnamed person was asking for him, but not by name but as the "American doctor." Peter goes to the beach, meets a beautiful woman, and begins to chat her up when another stranger goes up to he and tells him he "must not do it" and "It would be better if you left Spain immediately." The stranger then told told Peter that is he did the autopsy, they would kill him immediately. With that, the stranger left. An auspicious start to what should have been a relaxing vacation. Of course, as a radiologist Peter was not qualified to perform an autopsy.
That afternoon, four people show up at Peter's hotel room. The leader of the four tells Peter there has been a terrible tragedy: his brother, an American gangster, has been shot and killed in Barcelona. The man wants to take his brother's body back to America but Spanish law dictates that an autopsy must be performed first and American law dictates that the autopsy must be performed by an American. Peter thinks this is peculiar bit his bullshit detector does not go off. Peter is offered twenty thousand dollars to perform the autopsy. He refused and the four storm off.
The next day, Peter is kidnapped at gunpoint and taken to a private mental hospital in Barcelona and told he must do the autopsy. The victim's brother will observe and a nurse from the hospital will assist Peter. Peter stumbles and fakes his way through the autopsy when the gangster sends the nurse out of the room on an errand. He gives Peter a small box and orders him to place it behind the dead man's heart, then sew the corpse up. Twenty minutes later Peter is on a helicopter and is being flown back to Costa Brava and his hotel.
It turns out the box contained a precious relic -- the Stone of Cortez -- and three different gangs want it and everybody thinks Peter can lead them to it. Then begins a merry chase with Peter, the hapless hero, having no idea what is going on or who the players are. It doesn't help that in this game of musical chairs nobody is really who they say they are and that loyalties can change at the drop of a hat. Even Peter may not be what he says he is as we discover that he has hidden depths. Add a few more bodies and throw in characters like a murderous titled midget and his killer dogs and a laconic gangster named Tex and you have an "in-flight book" that will have you zipping through its pages.
Three To Conquer by Eric Frank Russell (1956; first published as a 3-part serial in Astounding Science Fiction, August-October 1955 as "Call Him Dead")
Russell was once considered a major writer in the SF field, with many of his works combining his interest in the writings of Charles Fort and the incipient libertarianism championed by John W. Campbell. His easy style and occasional dips into humor convinced many fans that Britisher Russell was actually an American.
The time is the near future -- 1980. America has secretly sent a manned rocket ship to Venus and is waiting for the three astronauts to return to Earth before announcing the mission. For the moment, the project is strictly hush-hush.
Wade Harper is a telepath, the only one in existence as far as he knows. Wade keeps his talent a secret but has, at times, used it to surreptitiously help officials catch murderers. Driving down a country road Wade "hears" a dying man in pain. He finds the man -- a state police deputy -- in a ditch with two bullets in him. The deputy dies in Wade's arms while thinking about the three men who killed him. Wade uses the radio in the deputy's abandoned car to report the crime.
Wade can't let the image of the man go. He stops at gas stations along the route the deputy must have taken and at one he finds an old man who saw the deputy. Three men, dressed in strange uniforms, and driving a "Thunderbug" had grabbed a young woman and took off; a few minutes later the deputy drove into the filling station and the old man told him what he saw and gave the deputy the Thunderbug's license number. The deputy set off in chase and that was the last he was seen until Wade found him in the ditch.
The authorities soon found the girl, who said that she was not forced into the car and that the men were absolute gentlemen who dropped her off near her home. Wade goes to talk to the girl. She walks by him and heads to her house. Wade calls out to her. She turns. And Wade shoots her through the head. WTF?
Knowing the police will soon be after him, Wade quickly drives to Washington before local police can catch up to him. In Washington, he gives himself up to an FBI agent, confessing to killing the girl. He refuses to speak further until he is met with a higher-up in the organization. Wade then explains that he is a telepath -- the only telepath -- and proves it. Why did he shoot the girl? When he touched her mind, she reacted -- something no one else has done -- and thought, "You Terrestrial bastard!"
Unknown to the government, the three astronauts had returned from Venus. At least their dead bodies did, now taken over and control by alien parasites bent on conquering Earth. Somehow they able to infect others with the parasite, and those can infect others, and so on. Thus began a long, confusing chase where no one can except Wade can tell who has been infected and who has not.
Another quick read with Wade being the "competent man" so often represented in fifties SF. His calm use of logic and determination to stop a global threat makes him the perfect to face the "solvable paranoia" involved in stemming an invasion.
Good, old fashioned SF.