Saturday, March 29, 2014

IN BRIEF: The Sins of the Father - John Blackburn

“What sort of mind could wish to free and harbour a group of compulsive murderers and then release them again? Men and women as dangerous as bombs, bullets or… Or hydrophobia.”
-- Marcus Levin in
The Sins of Our Father
A rash of crimes committed by criminally insane murders who have coincidentally all escaped from the institutions where they were incarcerated has General Kirk and a committee of prison reform experts more than alarmed. Is it possible that some mad genius is engineering these escapes with a nefarious purpose in mind? You betcha. And since this is a John Blackburn book can be sure that not only is there an evil mastermind at work but that some insidious virus will be uncovered and that some sort of supernatural power will be worked into the story.

The less than subtle "Prologue" to The Sins of the Fathers (1979) neatly ties in the title to an incident in the life of a notorious Nazi war criminal known as Papa Otto Fendler, "a geneticist far ahead of his time." Seems ol’ Papa was fond of a select group of children at the concentration camp where he conducted a variety of unseemly experiments. Just what he did to those children will not be fully revealed until the final chapters. And is it possible that Papa Otto has survived the destruction of the camp and is controlling a now adult group of his favorite human guinea pigs?

With ace bacteriologist Sir Marcus Levin on hand partnered with his wife Tania, a former KGB spy, the sinister plans of Papa Otto are proven to involve a form of germ warfare with humans used as a missile substitute. In a pulpy twist many of the infected madmen and madwomen exhibit symptoms indicative of rabies. Blackburn concocts several scenes where this unfortunate rabid-like victims attack innocent bystanders like so many wannabe vampires by taking healthy chomps out of their arms, hands and faces.

It’s not one of Blackburn’s more original stories. He seems to have culled together plot elements from several of his previous books. Interestingly, this book has a few didactic asides in the committee members heated debates. Blackburn raises all sorts of issues related to prison reform. Overcrowding, segregation of prisoners, and reinstatement of the death penalty are among the hot topics discussed at length. This was one of his last books and it may indicate a trend towards social criticism, a path so many genre writers seem to take in their later career as they tire of the so often formulaic structure of crime and thriller fiction. Nazis, viral experimentation on humans, grisly murders and mind control have all been featured in Blackburn's other novels.

Still it’s a neatly plotted book, swiftly paced and jam packed with pulpy adventure sure to satisfy fans of this kind of over-the-top thriller. The climax taking place in the catacombs of an ancient church with our heroes in peril of drowning by the impending flood from the underground River Larne more than makes up for any of the book’s recycled shortcomings.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card – E1: “Book with a Detective Team”


  1. I have never read any of his but have always wanted to as he has often been compared to lP Davies, an author I greatly enjoy - so John, where does one start? And keep in mind that I'll be looking to snap up whatever title you reccomend, so be gentle (for my wallet's sake)!

    1. You're in luck with this writer, Sergio. Valancourt Books has reprinted many of Blackburn's books and they are available new in handsome editions (some with scholarly introductions!) via amazon - on both sides of the Atlantic. And they are planning more Blackburn reprints in the coming months. You can see what's available on this page at the Valancourt website. There are still numerous booksellers offering paperback reprints of his books on the cheap and affordable all over the internet. You might find one for £4 or less in your neck of the woods!

      As for where to start -- it all depends on your taste. I read BROKEN BOY first and was surprised and impressed by the bizarreness of it all. There is straight out horror, too like FOR FEAR OF LITTLE MEN. For the more overt terrors try BURY HIM DARKLY, so far the most outrageous of his horror novels I've read. But most of his books tend to be forerunners of the technothriller and feature master criminals armed with a sinister array of bacterial and viral weapons. THE YOUNG MAN FROM LIMA (reprinted by Ostara), A RING OF ROSES, and the book above fit this category. Of the books I've reviewed on my blog I'd suggest you start with either BROKEN BOY or FOR FEAR OF LITTLE MEN to get an idea of what Blackburn does very well. Or you go read the blurb of the others at Valancourt and choose based on plot alone.

    2. Marvelous - thanks Mr N, much appreciated!