First, notice the cover. Do you know why my review copy looks so different from the one you may have read? Published 1970, baby, this edition comes courtesy of the local library system. Let’s give it up for the librarians, shall we, the ones who track down my ridiculous requests for books published before I was (figuratively, of course, my dears). I like to think of myself as the real life equivalent of the heroine in Bellwether, who was on a mission to check out unused books so that they wouldn’t be weeded and replaced.
But I digress. Of course I do. You know why? Because I just read a book first published in 1961, I’m drinking and listening to Three Dog Night, and I’m all hazy on what decade I’m supposed to be in.
So, the short review: fun, in a Thomas Crowne boozy arrogance, borderline personality kind of way. I mean that in the best possible way–I gave it over two stars, didn’t you notice? It’s totally dated in some ways, but it has all the seeds of modern entertainment–fast pace, confidence, swagger–the experienced con artist, the caper, the social awakening that occurs because of morals our “anti-hero” didn’t realize he had, the devastatingly beautiful dame, the unfettered government-sponsored corps of elite agents… any of that sound familiar?
The short version: James Boliviar, aka ‘Slippery Jim’ diGriz, has chosen freedom over law and order in the great galactic machine. He stays one step ahead through a combination of ingenuity, inspiration and careful planning, and by never repeating the same graft. In between jobs, the temptation of some fast cash leads him straight into the mousetrap of Johnny Law. Recruited and initially assigned time in the archives leads him to unraveling a scheme for manufacturing a galactic-class battleship, and in the time-honored tradition, the force sends a con to catch a con.
Harrison was clearly inspired by the Gentleman Thief trope–debonair, clever, pleasure in a job well done, the avoidance of violence–including the Worthwhile Adversary antagonist. Bolivar is completely likeable, almost admirable character, and if those surrounding him are somewhat cardboard-cutout, they are at least satisfactorily drawn. Still, there are fine moments that elevate:
“He apparently did not believe in pajama bottoms and it hurt me to see the goose-bumps rising on those thin shanks. But if the legs were thin, the voice was more than full enough to make up for the difference.”
But it is the masterful tone that places this above the average pulp. Bolivar’s breezy confidence reminds me of Cary Grant on a good day. Bolivar is charming, and his chuckling and self-satisfaction as he successfully executes a maneuver contagious.
“They were sure making a big fuss over a little larceny, but that’s the way it goes on these overcivilized worlds. Crime is such a rarity now that the police really get carried away when they run across some. In a way I can’t blame them, giving out traffic tickets must be an awful dull job. I really believe they ought to thank me for putting a little excitement in their otherwise dull lives.”
Pace is fast, and with only 158 pages, nothing feels like padding. I rather enjoyed the ins and outs of Bolivar’s deceptions, but the details never bogged down. It’s also fun to see the 1960s version of what might be ‘far-fetched’ sci-fi concepts. It was only near the middle of the book that I started to think about some of the logical inconsistencies in plotting… but honestly, I didn’t really care. (For future self–why was the battleship stolen, only to be abandoned? What was the long-term plan there?) I’ll say no more at risk of spoilers, except to say it’s one of those movie-type things where you realize it makes no sense, but that has little bearing on enjoyment level. I will, however, note that yet again, while a futuristic 1960s writer was able to envision a future with almost no crime, robots in a range of sophistication levels and people sending messages through space using psychic abilities, and women were clearly still not equal with men. Way to imagine the future, guys! (for the record, the last one I read like this was Day of the Triffids).
The psychological impact starts to ramp up near the end, and if I was surprised by the emotional complexity, I appreciated it. It’s that kind of thing that raises a book beyond the ordinary.
Consider it a strong recommendation for the right mood. I may even add it to my library, just as I did Ocean’s Eleven, for a time when you want a quick little romp–albeit the campy sci-fi space version.