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Another obscure British sf masterwork

Among the books recommended to me by others for inclusion on my list of British sf masterworks (see here) was A Man of Double Deed, Leonard Daventry’s debut novel, and the first book of the Keyman trilogy. Daventry is forgotten now. He wrote seven science fiction novels between 1965 and 1980 – the last one somewhat ironically titled You Must Remember Us…? – but his books are neither in print nor especially easy to find. Which is a shame, as there are worse authors from that period still in print, whose deathless prose continues to clog the bookshelves of Waterstone’s and other book shops.

The title character of A Man of Double Deed is Claus Coman. He is a keyman. This means he is a telepath, and one of a handful of such people, who operate something like secret agents and something like Special Branch, on an Earth a century after an all-out nuclear war, the “Atomic Disaster of 1990″. Coman is something of a throwback – he lives in a house in Old Peckham, not in a giant apartment block, and he smokes like a chimney, even though the habit is illegal. He is also, we are told on the first page, “old-fashioned in other ways also, being content with two women only”. These two women are Jonl and Sein, and Coman is bonded to them – again, something considered old-fashioned and slightly dubious.

Coman returns to Earth after adventures on Venus – several of his previous escapades are mentioned in the novel – to find something strange going on. The youth of 2090 have taken to murder and suicide. It’s almost an epidemic. The only solution the World Council can conceive is a “War Section”. This is an area, preferably on another planet, in which the murderous teenagers and young adults can be left to their own violent devices. The Council is meeting shortly to consider implementing such a War Section, but the leader of the Council, Marst, is being influenced to vote against the proposal by a conspiracy. Coman’s boss, Karns, asks him to travel to the Fifteenth City, a holiday destination built above a line of islands in the Pacific, to persuade Marst to change his vote. Marst is apparently under the influence of a pair of “jokers”, telepaths who oppose the keymen but fortunately possess much weaker abilities. Coman and his two wives travel from the Twelfth City (London) to the Fifteenth City. Shortly after their arrival, while at a swimming-pool, Coman identifies one of the jokers, a woman called Linnel. He seduces her – Jonl and Sein are not happy about it, but they trust him. With Linnel’s help, Coman manages to prevent the conspiracy.

The plot summary above probably doesn’t quite illustrate how odd this novel is. Superficially, it resembles an ordinary piece of science fiction tosh from the 1950s or 1960s, with a superman hero, a supporting bevy of beautiful subservient women, and a future Earth which in no way resembles the Earth of the time of writing but still feels horribly dated. But that would be doing A Man of Double Deed a disservice. It’s a much better book than that.

Coman is such a strange hero, for one thing. He is a dour intellectual, but not a misanthrope. He is not a man of action, but is often called upon to behave like one. There’s something of the World War II RAF officer in him, a combination of education, arrogance, pragmatism, and a grudging respect for others. He is his own biggest critic, but extremely private with his criticisms. He is very British.

Nor are the women of the story, Jonl, Sein and Linnel, characterless females. On the contrary, Jonl could become a keyman herself, but does not wish to do so on principle. Sein is more stereotypical a female character. She loves Coman, and longs for a baby. She gets her wish in the end, and it’s a result all are happy with. Linnel is a femme fatale, but an insecure one who falls for Coman’s singular charms, but refuses to bend entirely to his will. These three are not, I hasten to add, brilliantly-drawn female characters, or even especially realistically-drawn ones, but they are a good deal better-realised than is common for genre fiction of the time.

A Man of Double Deed is a novel in which principles play a large part. At several points in the story, Coman, Karns, Marst, or Coman’s cyborg friend Deenan talk about moral and legal principles, and these are well-written and well-argued pieces of dialogue. They are not the usual political or moralistic crap you’d find in most genre novels, and which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, this is solid, well-presented, intelligent argument. It makes for a refreshing change.

Perhaps the invention on display in the novel is not especially high, but the writing is solid, and even occasionally good, the characters are drawn well, and the plot comes to a satisfactory end… even if not everything is explained. What, for example, was the conspiracy which had hired the two jokers? Why did they not want a War Section? Nevertheless, A Man of Double Deed is an interesting sf novel and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. In fact, I think I’ll hunt down the other two books in the trilogy, Reflections in a Mirage and The Ticking is in Your Head, and read them.

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