No, you haven’t logged into Space Probe 1 by mistake. Harry Harrison may be best known as a writer of science fiction, but he has also written the odd straight thriller over the years, In fact, one of his first published novels was as a ghost writer for Leslie Charteris on Vendetta for the Saint. 22 years later, along came The QE2 is Missing, a novel very much in the mould of the kind of hard-edged paperback thriller that you might see jammed into a wire rack in the local Post Office throughout the 1970s.
The story starts exactly as it says on the cover, with the famous luxury liner having dropped off the radar. It’s eventually discovered adrift off the coast of Peru– but completely deserted! What has happened to the crew? What has happened to the passengers? Rewind back to several months earlier and the discovery of a planned arms deal between representatives of the Paraguayan dictatorship and bunch of exiled ex-Nazis, which will take place in a luxury suite of the luxury liner QE2 and involve $250,000,000 worth of illegal WWII diamonds.
The information passes into the hands of a Jewish lawyer called Hank Greenstein, who is a conduit to a group of dedicated Nazi-hunters. Naturally, they’re quite keen on getting their hands on the war criminals, but can only do so by striking up an uneasy alliance with rebel forces from Paraguay. Posing as innocent passengers in the cabin next door to the Nazis, Hank and his wife act as cover for the team who have sneaked on board to prevent the deal taking place and head towards bringing the various war criminals to justice. Not everyone has the same kind of justice in mind though and the Greensteins are caught in between an uncomfortable alliance as tempers rise and the deal gets closer.
The QE2 is Missing is quite a slow burner. The action takes a long, long time to get going and along the way we are introduced to lots of characters. Maybe it’s just me, but the main problem I had with this book was remembering who’s who and one what side! You need quite a memory to be able to keep track of the sizeable dramatis personae in this novel; either that or take notes. When the action does take place – quite late in the book – it’s sudden and violent. There’s very little to and fro, no twists and turns; it just builds and builds and builds, then suddenly explodes. In that sense, I suppose it’s how such an event would take place in real life.
Having a multitude of characters can sometimes work against the book. Hank Greenstein, forefront for much of the narrative, drops out of the picture altogether for a big chunk of the action. There are simply too many characters to give everyone an equal share of the pages. Also, because of the number of characters, they’re not all as well-defined as you might hope for.
As I mentioned earlier, this book very much attempts to emulate the style of the archetypal 1970s pulp thriller. Exiled Nazis in South America are a mainstay of the action novels of that era. For anyone familiar with his work, this doesn’t really read like a Harry Harrison novel – it’s quite low on humour and there are infrequent but unexpectedly strong instances of sex and bad language. If your pre-teen son has discovered Harrison through the Stainless Steel Rat series (like I did), I really wouldn’t recommend buying him this one for Christmas!
I love Harry Harrison’s books but, as with all jobbing authors of his era, there were times where you got the impression that he was taking on certain jobs just to boost his bank account. I might be way off track, but that’s how The QE2 is Missing feels to me. It’s not, in any sense at all, a bad book; but there’s a feeling that he’s jumping on the bandwagon of what was popular in 1976. Ironic really, as one year later, Harrison’s preferred genre, science fiction, would suddenly become more popular than ever!
If you’re a fan of Sunday afternoon action films like North Sea Hijack or Raise the Titanic, you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy in The QE2 is Missing. It has its faults, but there’s a sturdy pulp adventure story at its heart that would probably have worked better as a movie than a novel. Those used to pacey modern adventure novels will most likely find it slow going, but it’s worth sticking in there. This would make a good holiday read, though the fact that the cover is adorned with swastikas might get you a few odd looks on the beach, depending on your destination.
This edition of The QE2 is Missing was published by Tor Books (1980) and is currently out of print.