Friday, May 3, 2013
FFB: Alarum and Excursion - Virginia Perdue
There are number of features that make Perdue's book stand out from the rest of the amnesiac crowd. First, her protagonist Nicholas Methany is 62 years old and the CEO of his own oil company. You can probably guess the story is not going to include any action scenes of youthful derring-do. Plus, he has two grown children and a very young wife. Second, the manner in which Methany's memory returns is orchestrated with some of the most original and realistic scenes in a book of this type. He never completely loses his memory, as I expect would happen in a real amnesia situation. Methany can only recall vague moments and envision hazy glimpses of a specific event -- a lab explosion at his firm Seaboard Petroleum that left him injured.
In two of the most cleverly done parts Methany is given modeling clay and he finds himself unconsciously shaping and forming it into a serpent ready to strike. Later he will find an exact replica of that snake in a drawer in his home and it will have great significance to a plot that slowly is revealed to him. In another scene Hero, his wife, puts out her cigarette in an small earthenware container she uses as an ashtray and Methany is instantly taken back to a similar scene in his past. The smell of a perfume, the sound of a voice, the mention of a name -- all of these will jar his broken memory bank and send him into the past, remembering and piecing together his past life to help him explain his present predicament. It's all carefully orchestrated by Perdue and rings true in every instance.
As his memory of the accident gradually returns into full focus Methany learns that two people died and one was most likely murdered. He also learns that the accident was not an accident at all but a plot to undermine the development of a synthetic fuel his firm was about to release. With gasoline in short supply and the US entering the war, Methany is sure his non-petroleum based alternate fuel will be the saving grace for the war effort. He plans to give the formula to the military free of charge or licensing fees. But there are others in his company who disagree with Methany's altruism and see nicoline (the fuel's name) as the means to financial riches if the formula were offered up for sale.
There is a lot to recommend the book: the structure and plot details are imaginative and well thought out, Perdue's muscular prose that walks a fine line between being tough and sentimental, and a cast of unusual minor characters. I will single out Professor Wyndham, a kooky paleontologist locked up at the Crestview mental institution where Methany is recuperating, who walks three steps forward and one back, talks about life on Mars and Mercury and helps Methany in a daring escape. Much later in the book we meet the crude saloon piano player, Beulah Westmore, who has some vital information about Methany's son's involvement in the lab explosion and why it happened.
As each characters' true nature is revealed the novel ventures further into the realm of noir. The strange relationship between Hero, her ex-con father Charley Van Norman, and Methany becomes one of seedy corruption , self-interest and base greed. The finale is as dark as any noir of the 1950s. And the last paragraph is one guaranteed to induce a gasp of awe in any reader. I know let loose with a "Wow!" before I closed the book.
SIDEBAR: In an attempt to learn more about Virginia Perdue I discovered that she had a special relationship with Robert Heinlein. According to The Heinlein Society website in the 1930s Perdue and Heinlein were friends. She was instrumental in giving the science fiction writer advice on submitting his manuscripts to mainstream magazines, not just the pulps, and encouraged him to write novels. Heinlein's second wife also believed that the relationship went a bit deeper than just writers helping each other out with their careers. A feature article on Perdue (rather than the two paragraphs I found) was supposed to appear in an issue of The Heinlein Journal, but I was unable to find it.