Saturday, November 30, 2019

96. Slow Burner by William Haggard

I went to Toronto in October to see my aunt's art exhibit (which was really wonderful and moving).  I did some research ahead of time and mapped out all the used book stores I could find.  I ended up hitting quite a few of them.  The results were somewhat disappointing.  Toronto has lost some good used bookstores recently and the ones that remain are all quite nicely appointed, well-managed and often quite pleasant.  They also have this odd BMV chain which I can't tell if it is nefarious or good.  Unfortunately, they do not have a lot of the kinds of books I look for.  Nevertheless, I found a few things, including two William Haggard's at Rereading in the Darlington, which had the best stock of used genre paperbacks in general and made me want to go to what I believe is their sister store Reading.

Slow Burner turns out to be Haggard's first book.  It takes place domestically in England (actually mostly in various government offices in London) and is kind of an "office thriller", in the sense that much of the action is various educated and upper class government officials strategizing and speculating on how to deal with a crisis.  It may sound boring but I love this stuff.  The crisis in this case is that a scientific agency that has developed a form of efficient, transferable nuclear energy called Slow Burner that is being used in several factories to give the UK a competitive economic advantage discovers the same signal that Slow Burner gives off coming from a suburban house in Dipley.  Slow Burner gives off very specific epsilon rays and the security part of the agency constantly monitors the factories to ensure safety.

What does it mean?  How did it get there?  Who lives in the house?  The head of the nuclear agency, a super smart physicist turned administrator has to deal with his overly cautious Assistant Minister, who also hates him.  He works with the head of Security, Russel (a recurring character in Haggard's books) to try and solve the problem while maneuvering around the assistant minister.

There are two things that I find odd in this book.  The first is class.  Every main character is educated and many seem to have separate incomes and have been raised in public schools.  Yet, there is a still more complex layer of class hierarchy behind all their conversations.  The subtlety of political interaction is already incredibly high here.  Every interaction is a possible powerplay, down to the way somebody is greeted.  Somebody says or does something that seems pretty standard and then the other character is suddenly primed for an attack or shaken to the core.  I have dipped my toe in office politics and am thankfully in a role that is almost entirely free of them today.  I can see how when you are actually in politics, in a stratified society with an ancient aristocratic culture like Britain, it would be pretty intense, but this is at another level, much of whose background is lost to me.  I need to read this book with somebody from that world and have them explain it to me.

The second thing is the civil liberties and the deep respect they are given.  I always assumed the British internal intelligence agencies could just invoke the Official Secrets Act and do whatever they want.  Here, they are stymied by this house because they have no legal right to enter it nor to detain its owner.  They do have dossiers on everybody and find out a lot of info quickly but if this was today and some house was emitting epsilon rays, would there not be some commando team surrounding it within minutes?  It makes the book much more interesting and our world much more pleasant when the security forces actually respect the rule of law, but it was a bit of a surprise to me.

The ending was a bit too neat and the physicist character and his romantic arc resembled a bit too closely the career diplomat in The Powder Barrel, but these are minor quibbles and it was his first book.  I have two more Haggard's on deck and those are going to stay there for a while, aging like a fine wine, until the right time to take each one out.

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