Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Young Man From Lima - John Blackburn

In the opening pages of The Young Man from Lima William Raven, the Secretary for External Affairs, is assassinated by a snowman. It is yet another in a series of assassinations of government officials throughout the world who happen to be tied to a mythical South American country called Nueva Leon. This is not a fantastical thriller with supernatural beings in the cast as in other Blackburn books. The snowman turns out to be a man covered in snow. Frosty the Hitman, however, is far from your typical hired gun. In fact he is far from being human as we think of humans. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Marcus Levin, a bacteriologist who appears in several other Blackburn books, is called in to consult on an autopsy. A strange life form has been found in the blood stream of the corpse that seems to be living even after the host body is long dead. Also there were elevated levels of serotonin in the body. It is pointed out that elevated serotonin is often seen in addicts who are partial to hallucinogenic drugs. Furthermore a vial of tablets found on the corpse proves to contain enough of a lichen like plant to cause hallucinations similar to those of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. The corpse it turns out is Frosty the Hitman. There is a fear that someone has created an army of assassins whose minds are being manipulated by mind altering drugs. Shades of Sax Rohmer and a bit of The Manchurian Candidate.  But what about that strange microorganism?  Could that be playing a part as well?

Though this Blackburn book is lacking in supernatural content it still has much to raise it out of the realm of your ordinary espionage thriller and into the world of the weird and strange. It has a decidedly X-Files feel to it with a microorganism not unlike the one that caused the black oil in that cult TV series. I was also reminded of the many pathogen thrillers that range from The Andromeda Strain (a contemporary thriller for the time this was published) to a fairly recent book, Dead of Night by Randy Wayne White, that has a remarkably similar and equally gruesome parasite in the role of the vermicidal villain. There's even a bit of the 1950s monster movie thrown in when in the jungles of Nueva Leon our intrepid heroes must do battle with hordes of soldier ants. These are particularly gruesome scenes.

Overall, the story is one that holds your interest and keeps the pages turning at a rapid pace. There are long stretches of didactic dialog (another X Files trait) but it's probably the most interesting choice in delivering the necessary scientific information to educate the reader on the unusual monster of the piece. The politics of the story is another thing altogether. There are only so many Communist threat tales I can stomach these days. Thankfully, all the paranoia is kept to a minimum. When the true villains behind all the bioterrorism are revealed we are back in Sax Rohmer territory for their motives have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with megalomaniacal world domination.

It's a ripping yarn well worth reading if you want an example of what the eco-thriller was like back in the 1960s. Blackburn like John Creasey had a devilish imagination and could dream up the worst possible scenarios based on current ecological dilemmas. You can discover the many other undeservedly forgotten books that have been gloriously revived by Top Notch Thrillers and Ostara Publishing by clicking here. The series is edited by crime fiction writer Mike Ripley who has done a bang-up job in selecting some great titles that have languished in Out-of-Printdom for far too long. Check them out and read them. Or else.

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