‘The QE2 is Missing’ by Harry Harrison

qe2fit

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.

‘Psycho’ by Robert Bloch

Psycho fit

My wife and I were recently enjoying the first series of Bates Motel, when it suddenly occurred to me that, although I’d seen Psycho many times, its sequels of varying quality and even the monumentally redundant Gus van Sant remake; I’d never read the book that started it all – Robert Bloch’s Psycho.

It took me a few months to get around to buying it, of course, but when I did I found that I literally couldn’t put it down. I raced through the book in a couple of days and the fact that I was so familiar with the plot never really spoiled my enjoyment of the book at all.

What surprised me most of all is how closely Hitchcock’s film actually sticks to the book. I’ve had that experience in the past of reading a book after I’ve seen the movie and thinking ‘that was really based on this?’ A good example is Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room upon which the film Soylent Green was based – very loosely it seems. But Psycho isn’t like that at all; Joseph Stefano’s script maintains all of the same beats as the novel and rarely strays from the basic plot. He even adapts some of his dialogue directly from the novel.

There are significant cosmetic changes, of course. Norman Bates in the novel is pudgy, balding and middle-aged. He’s also a much less sympathetic character; his internal monologue makes up much of the text and this portrays his him as misogynistic and utterly antisocial. He’s also obsessed with sociology and amateur psychiatry, as well as pornography. For the film and subsequent media, Norman is softened up and presented as much more of a confused young man with simple and less academic hobbies.

The other significant character in Psycho, Norman’s mother Norma Bates, is kept deliberately vague throughout the majority of the text. Her interactions with Norman are told through Norman’s perception of them. In retrospect, it’s clear to see why, but it’s not done in so obvious a way that any reader of the original novel would have easily guessed the denouement.

The murder of Mary Crane (renamed Marion in the movie) is much more brutal in the novel, though very briskly described. The novel never dwells on the murders, but the beheading of this first victim would nonetheless has been unacceptable in 60s cinema. It’s changed to a famously vicious stabbing in the film, but still retains the novel’s shower setting.

Bloch begins the novel with Norman, and then switches to the back-story of Mary. This was changed in the film because Hitchcock wanted the audience to believe that the central character was Marion, not Norman. Both versions work best for their respective medium. A device which Bloch uses very effectively in the book, but which wouldn’t have transferred effectively to film, is to relate the events of a certain period of time as they happened to one person and then, in the next chapter, to describe the same period of time as it happened to another character. So, effectively, the consequences of a murder are discovered by one character before that murder has been related to the reader. It’s a device that works really well in the novel.

It’s clear that the writers of Bates Motel have read Robert Bloch’s Psycho, because there are certain elements found only in the book that resurface in that series. For example, when searching the Bates household, Mary’s sister Lyla discovers a plain-wrappered book in Norman’s room that is implied to contain sadomasochistic images. Anyone who’s been watching the TV show will know that a book of similar contents plays an important role in the first series.

In summary; Psycho is a very dynamic novel. Undoubtedly some of the punch of its original release has been diluted by over-familiarity, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still an enjoyable read 53 years after it was first published. If you’re thinking it will come across as dated – think again. If you’re thinking it won’t be as good as the movie – think again. It’s easy to see why Hitchcock was so keen to adapt Robert Bloch’s Psycho for the silver screen.

PSYCHO by Robert Bloch is published by Robert Hale Ltd in the UK

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Welcome to Hot Bullets, the book review blog for Thrillers and Action novels. I’m reviewing novels as and when I read them, so there might be the odd long gap when I’m reading something that doesn’t fall under the remit of this site.