British author D.G. Compton’s first science fiction novel, The Quality of Mercy, appeared in the UK in 1965 but wasn’t available to the US public until a revised edition appeared in 1970 following the success of his later work.  I’ve never seen the British version, but I’d suspect that the anti-American sentiments expressed were toned down as part of the revision.  Compton doesn’t single out the Americans.  The Chinese and Russians are equally culpable, and the protagonist – who is British – is perhaps even guiltier because he knows what he’s doing.

 This is a Cold War novel, and as such it’s pretty dated politically as well as scientifically, which is rather a shame because the sentiments and concerns are as relevant as ever, perhaps more so.  Simply stated, US and British pilots are conducting secret aerial missions over the Communist bloc, taking advantage of a hole in their radar coverage, spraying radioactive particles that serve some vague monitoring purpose, or at least so we are told.  Presumably the other side is doing the same because the spread of a mysterious, deadly disease known as VPD has spread over the entire world, and most of the population – along with the reader – knows that it is somehow caused by radioactivity.  It is neither contagious nor infectious, so the victims mix freely in society, although we soon learn that the establishment is taking steps to keep them out of the public eye. Our protagonist is Donald Morrison, a priggish, inhibited sort who works with the Americans on one of the aircraft.  He and his wife live in a special compound where they are granted all the luxuries that are in short supply elsewhere, where enormous waves of immigration have made it impossible to maintain the former standard of living (this is supposedly set in 1979).  Since the air crews are predominantly male, there is a disproportionately large number of nurses, who are obviously there to satisfy the sexual needs of the servicemen, who are discouraged from fraternizing with the locals.  The aircraft are called Peace Probe Bombers, an evident contradiction in terms. 

The government, which has been in power for twenty seven years without a break, has become increasingly repressive.  People are encouraged to inform on one another, and Morrison does that very thing very early on.  There are other signs of the collapse of human society.  The arts are in a serious decline.  Although there is a test ban treaty in effect, no one has any faith in it, and the more than two million VPD victims testifies to its ineffectiveness.  The populace is increasingly alienated and dehumanized.  “One was tabulated down to the last eyeblink.”  A policy of cultural nationalism has been imposed.  The traditions and social activities of every population of 50,000 or more are imposed by law, so that London television programs cannot be shown in Bristol, for example.  The suicide rate is climbing and some tall buildings are secured to prevent people from publicly and spectacularly expressing their final protest. 

On some level, Morrison knows that his superiors are lying to him, that the spraying is related to the new plague, and that he is personally responsible for an unknown number of deaths.  When one of his colleagues wavers, the cover story is that he had a crisis of conscience, but Morrison knows this is also a lie.  This further undermines his ability to ignore what is happening around him.  “But if we can’t trust them, who can we trust?”   The command structure is frequently referred to as “godlike” or in other religious terms such as being like a “serpent”.  Morrison also recognizes that he is losing himself, that he is assuming different personalities for different situations.  “How many people was he?”  He and his wife abide in relative peace, even when their estrangement begins, because it just isn’t done to be emotional.  Moods are okay, but only “in moderation”.  It would never do to make a scene.  During one mission, Morrison recognizes that he “was an appendage of a computer program.”  A bit later, his wife tells him that he’s getting “just like one of his computers.”  He has trouble differentiating among the wives of his colleagues, who seem to him uniform in their perfection. 

He doesn’t begin to acknowledge this until he is confronted by a group of protesters who want him to carry a fatally ill woman to a hospital.  Knowing that there is no treatment available, and not wanting to expose his wife to the reality around them, he refuses, and has to use tear gas to avoid a violent confrontation.  Paradoxically, the teargas has an adverse on the woman’s condition and she dies, this time undeniably as a result of his actions, precipitating a violent demonstration at the airbase, alienation between Morrison and his wife, and his desire to wash his hands of it all and resign.  His ability to resist the truth is further eroded by the presence of an old friend, the Squadron Leader, who apparently knows more than he should about what’s really going on at the airbase.  Nevertheless, he is convinced that it is his friend is irrational, distanced from the world.  “Madness is a disease of separation.” 

Morrison concludes that “The ultimate responsibility could be put on nobody, because this is a democracy.”  It’s a two bladed sword because in one sense, it’s literally true.  We are complicit in the decisions of the government we elect; we cannot separate “them” from “us”.  But it’s also effectively a fallacy, because the government has effectively changed the electorate into a fragmented, regimented, mass who for the most part no longer believe that their desires have any impact on the course of events.  We are not responsible because we can’t be, and we can’t be responsible because we aren’t. 

He also acknowledges that he is subject to a generalized feeling of guilt, but feels that it is universal, perhaps correctly although he has a particularly rich justification for it.  He is hardly even bothered when he discovers that his mail was being read, and on some level he realizes that he would have been surprised to learn otherwise.  The news that the now absent military officer is being held incommunicado, supposedly following a breakdown, doesn’t seem to bother him either.  His growing unrest is partially soothed by an encounter with the captain of the fencing team, an “impeccably controlled man”.  Control has now become the single most important thing in Morrison’s life, and he’s losing it. 

That loss of control eventually leads to a dalliance with a nurse, although he tries to justify it to himself as a burden on his soul and no affront to his wife, just as he has previously tried to justify his job for the military.  The incident becomes another convoluted lie, reinterpreted by the staff psychologist as an innocent trip to visit the father of the dead girl.  Morrison now realizes at least in part the extent to which his life is monitored, but apparently remains unaware that there is a camera monitoring his activities, even in his own bedroom. 

Morrison is perhaps unsalvageable.  When the Squadron Leader finally confronts him with the truth, that the three megapowers are cooperatively wiping out one fifth of the population of the Earth, he shoots his old friend through the head.  The source of his information, a civilian employee, is retained because he is “rather like a computer” and can be effectively convinced to believe a new program.  He and his commanding officer agree that they had a right, if not an obligation, to protect themselves and society from “truths” that are uncomfortable, tacitly accepting that the border between truth and lie has become hopelessly smudged.  He fails to convince his wife, who leaves him, that it’s alright sometimes to “adjust reality”, to believe what you want to believe rather than what is really the case.  Then he reveals that on some level he has always known the truth, insisting that she can’t leave him, that “they” won’t let her do so because it would affect his morale.  But he’s wrong.  And his ultimate betrayal comes when he agrees to assign the papers committing her to an institution.    A novel designed to depress and alarm the reader about the way in which we, as individuals and as a society, allow ourselves to become inured to the increasingly inhuman ways in which we treat one another. 

The Silent Multitude (1966) is in part a commentary on the way in which we let artificial things, artifacts, and coldly functional environments affect how we feel and what we think.  The opening viewpoint character is a cat prowling through an almost deserted cathedral in Gloucester, and although we aren’t told explicitly until later what has been happening, we already have a sense that the city is nearly deserted and that something terrible is in progress.  The theme is well established in the opening sequence.  The pigeons living in the cathedral are so used to being fed by the congregation that they have had no experience with natural food and are unable to forage for themselves.  The cat is prevented from pouncing on its natural prey – a cluster of sparrows – because they have taken refuge in a Christmas tree which is so laden with lights and ornaments that it is impossible to climb.  The cat, prowling the city, explores a house which it finds uninteresting because it “contained no animals”. The lone human figure, the Dean of Gloucester, has reached a point in life when he is unable to separate the physical existence of the cathedral from his belief in God.  So Compton has demonstrated that physical constructs, or perhaps civilization itself, has separated us from the natural world, the spiritual world, and perhaps even from the means of sustaining life.   

We then revert three days backward, when the still unspecified crisis was looming but had not reached the point of panicky flight from the city, and watch a nondescript man in “plasticized gray flannel” moving through a crowd that doesn’t even note his existence. The fact that it is Christmas season – the time when we are most concerned about purchasing or receiving things rather than enjoying one another – is hardly coincidental.  The man is Paper Smith, a recluse who lives secretly – or so he thinks – in the abandoned ground floor of a corporate center.  His presence is tolerated and he is looked upon favorably by several taxi drivers, but his life never meaningfully intersects with that of anyone else.  Smith encounters a stranger in the park, a man who clearly fills guilt about having put his elderly father in a nursing facility, a place that’s “steel-lined” and sheltered/isolated from the outside world. 

The reclusive Smith knows something is up, but it doesn’t really impinge on his world.  Compton does divulge its name, the Falling Sickness, but provides no details until midway through the novel.  Smith pays a daily visit to the museum where he spends hours watching landscapes and seascapes, but skims through “constructions, abstracts, dyed expanded polystyrene” and other non-representational art.  The people he meets are all living in what is effectively another world, an orderly place with hierarchies of authority, rules of conduct, standard procedures.  “Without consistency bank managers suffocate.”  When Smith finds the tea dispensing machine shut down, he falls against it and is literally supported by its existence, retreats into abject panic when it does not function as it should.  Even he, living on the fringe of society, cannot escape his conditioning. 

Smith is one of a few people who evade the mandatory evacuation.  As he prowls about in the aftermath, he notices a stainless steel model of the inside of a human mouth, which he views as “obscene”, reminding us of the disparity between real and artificial, and later he becomes fascinated by a display of artificial flowers. He meets a news photographer named Sally Paget who is photographing the last hours of the city, but she sees him as an element in a photographic composition, not as a person.  Her name is possibly significant as Paget’s disease is a virus that attacks the bones, the infrastructure of the body, where, as we eventually learn, the Falling Sickness is a fungus from outer space which attacks concrete, the infrastructure of cities.   Photojournalists recur as significant characters in some of Compton’s later novels.  Back at the cathedral, the Dean muses about “lifelong constructions of  relative importances” and notes that his housekeeper “openly despised gadgets”.  He knows her by the services she performed rather than the person she was.   He is subsequently soothed by the organized layout of the city which offers a place for “minds rather than bodies”, intellect rather than emotion.    

Smith and Paget run into Simeon, a man who follows the Falling Sickness from city to city because he enjoys seeing them crumble into ruin.  His name may be a reference to the Biblical Simeon, whose tribe was condemned to wander from place to place as punishment for a past crime.  This linkage is further confirmed when he attempts to rape Paget, as the Biblical Simeon raped Dinah.   They are joined in due course by the Dean, who reveals that Simeon’s father was the head architect for the recent redesign of Gloucester.  Simeon contends that modern civilization is like a drug, and its inhabitants all addicts.  He characterizes the city his father helped build as a monster. The Dean’s confusion of God with the cathedral is repeated several times, and when the police return to the doomed city searching for Paget, the author tells us “They were human beings really, catching machinery like a disease.”  Paget in turns thinks of herself as a slot machine “dispensing instant analysis” while Simeon refuses to admit even to himself that society is composed of people, believing it instead to be an artificial creation separate from humanity. 

As the collapses proliferate, the Cathedral remains standing although Sims insists the only thing holding it together is the “weight of its own inertia”, a statement both literally and perhaps metaphorically true.  One is left with the conviction that for Compton, the destruction of the city is not entirely a bad thing because it severs humanity’s enslavement to the artificial.  The devouring fungus is referred to within the book as a silent multitude, but the term also applies to the mass of people who surrender to the strictures of society without protest.  Gloucester is standing in for the Biblical Jericho, of course, the city which came “tumbling down”.  Joshua’s curse was that the builder of Jericho would lose his son, and Simeon – son of the head architect – is killed by Paget during the attempted rape. 

The tone of the novel is, on the surface, of gloom and decay.  Smith at one point summarizes life succinctly:  “Eating and going to the toilet – what else is there when you come down to it?”.  It ends, however, on a more hopeful note, despite the demise of Simeon, who clearly had a death wish from the outset.  Smith survives against all expectations, and even has better prospects for the future because of the revelation that his late wife left behind a substantial fortune.  Paget gets her story and discovers the ability to empathize with others which she had previously suppressed.  The Dean survives the collapse of the cathedral without losing his faith.  And perhaps the world that must evolve out of the spreading collapse will be a softer, more human environment. 

Before moving on, I’m going to speculate a bit about the title.  The only poem quoted in the book is by Sylvia Plath, but it seems likely that Compton must have been familiar with “Silent Multitude” by the early 19th Century poet, Mrs. Hemans.  The poem opens with a reference to a “mighty and a mingled throng were gathered in one spot”, obviously a city.  She goes on to speculate that what causes the multitudes to be silent is the fear of death, and that we are in one sense always alone because we must face that ultimate fear by ourselves.  Each of the characters in Compton’s story intend to face their possible death in the crumbling city alone, and it is only through happenstance that the four are brought together. 

Farewell, Earth’s Bliss (1966) opens aboard a shuttle carrying twenty four deportees to a penal colony on Mars.  They are all drugged to keep them manageable during the flight and each has been assigned a new name, all drawn from the Bible, apparently as a symbol of the life they are to lead.  The colony has existed for twelve years and has about two hundred residents, but neither the newcomers nor the reader learns much more about it during the early chapters.  There are open comparisons to the founding of this colony as a new Canaan and there are religious references throughout.  

Each of several characters is sketched in, some more thoroughly than others.  Joshua, for example, is troubled by the formlessness of the future.  “Wherever you are, you need shape.”  Ruth is determined to overcome whatever adversity comes.  “The exercise of her humanity was precious to her.”  Simon shows signs of mild aggression despite the drugs, and we learn that he had an unsavory reputation when he was known as Thornton Clare, who burned a black man to death.  Mark feels driven to take charge, as best he can, and worries about potential trouble makers.  He views Simon as a rival and when he intercedes on the half of Jacob, who is black, his contempt and patronizing tone make Jacob resent him even more than he does Simon.   We pick up bits and pieces about the others.  Ruth is a psychologist; Mark was deported after a failed assassination attempt.  Compton also suggests that their altered circumstances have general as well as specific psychological effects.  While discussing racing pigeons, among whom there is virtually no sex drive, Ruth comments that “captivity does that to a lot of animals”.  But the situation changes quickly when they finally arrive on Mars. 

Compton’s Mars isn’t far from what we now know to be reality.  It’s barren and the atmosphere will not support human life.  There is life on Mars, mostly lichens, but no intelligent creatures.  There are also sandstorms which last for weeks, and a lengthy one starts shortly after their arrival.  Although they’ve had a visit from the colonists, they are still confined to the ship, and when they are cut off by the storm, fifteen of their number starve to death before the storm subsides.  The survivors face what is clearly a repressive society where Preventive Hunger, i.e. withholding of rations, is a common form of punishment, where the new names assigned to them are dropped after a period of one year, and where many of the things they were told to expect just do not exist. 

 We begin to see the true nature of the colony very quickly.  Despite the apparent kindness of the families who take in the survivors, there is steel beneath the velvet.  Those who put others at risk and executed by exposure.  Unsatisfactory performance of one’s job leads to Preventive Hunger.  There is even a suggestion that the established colonists may have known of the sandstorm and used it to winnow out the weaker newcomers.  Ruth is accused of sedition, of corrupting children, and disappears to avoid execution, but is actually the secret mistress of the governor.  The newcomers eventually learn that, contrary to what they believed, there is no two way communication. They are dumped and left, out of sight and out of mind. 

At the same time, the religious undertones become more prominent.  Paul seems to be hallucinating about seeing the ice catch fire, comparing it to the burning bush of the Bible, and before long others witness the phenomenon, unparalleled in their experience.  The exiles compare themselves to the Semites.  We are told that the church was founded on “blindness, loneliness, and fear” and it’s not surprising that the new religion growing among the exiles values ignorance and considers knowledge a sin.  At the same time, it is an inadequate solace for some, particularly Jacob who takes his troubles to the rector and leaves worse off than when he came. 

The novel never quite pulls together.  There’s no central story and no resolution to the stories of the individual characters.  Their new society is repulsive and probably doomed to ultimate failure.  It suggests the inadequacy of religion to sustain us, but suggests that the miraculous is possible.  Despite some very effective scenes, the novel is too unfocused to be effective. 

Synthajoy (1968) is another story entirely, no pun intended.  It opens with a woman locked in some undefined mental institution.  She was at one time married to the man who invited Synthajoy, a way to record and playback the emotional states of people to be experienced vicariously by others.  Thea Cadence was no longer in love with her husband, Edward, and in fact was having an affair with one of his associates, Tony Stech.  The novel alternates scenes during her confinement with flashbacks to the history of the development of the technology.  In the early stages, her husband at least professed to be motivated by a desire to help humanity.  People who were sexually dysfunctional could begin to heal if they experienced genuine, conventional sex as recorded by another couple.  Even at that point, however, Thea seems to have suspected that he had other motives as well. 

One of the flashbacks is to Thea’s early encounters with Stech, whose father died while under Dr. Cadence’s care because he had lost the will to live rather than from any physical cause.  When he berates her for their inability to help, she suggests that it may not have been the best course of action to “cure” his father even if that had been possible, that maybe he was happiest having made his decision.  “Do we have to attack him with mechanisms?” she asks, or should they just let nature take its course.  Stech, however believes “in the pain of staying alive.”  This segues into the opening of a subtle argument, which would be repeated in different form in Compton’s subsequent work.  Does the fact that we know how to accomplish something technologically mean that we should actually do it, and, if we take some of those elements which make an individual unique and share them with large numbers of people, are we depriving both donors and receivers of the right to be themselves, however limited or imperfect. 

Naturally the good intentions which were touted at first have been perverted.  Thea is herself being subjected to a tape of a man in abject contrition as part of her treatment for having committed some as yet unspecified act of aggression. She also believes that while they insist she is receiving contrition, they are actually filling her with guilt, which we subsequently we learn is true, though whether at the discretion of the doctor or the secret agenda of the court is unresolved.  The conversations between Thea and her doctor resemble the arguments in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, conflicting views of reality.  Thea’s relationship with him, and with her assigned nurse, is ambiguous.  The nurse appears sympathetic but Thea suspects it may be part of the treatment.  The doctor strikes her on one occasion, which suggests that something out of the ordinary might be going on.  This is all reinforced by flashbacks to her trial, for the murder of her husband following the suicide of her lover.  It is evident that she was found insane for political rather than judicial reasons, that the testimony against her was tainted and the judge prejudiced.  We also discover that the tapes are addictive and that Dr. Cadence had in fact bowed to coercion and given mobsters the exclusive rights to distribute the tapes. 

Compton addresses the problem of scientific advance through the words of Tony Stech.  “We can’t choose where to stop, what to discover and what’s better left unknown.”  We see the same ethical questions rising now with regard to cloning, genetic engineering, and stem cell experimentation.  The only advocacy for the value of the discovery is Stech, who isn’t sure that he believes his own statements, which robs the story of some of its potential, but it still makes a strong argument for protecting the individual against homogenization.  The ending is also ambiguous.  Thea apparently did kill her husband despite her memories that it was his mistress.  She also seems to have altered her stance and now plans to further her husband’s researches as soon as she is released. 

The Steel Crocodile (1970, aka The Electric Crocodile) is set in a future England where there has evolved a strange balance between the right of privacy and government surveillance.  Although the government is allowed to use tracking devices and other technology to keep track of people of interest, individuals have the right to destroy the devices and evade detection.  The protagonist, Matthew Oliver, is approached by Gryphon, an old acquaintance who wants him to accept a job at the Colindale Institute so that he can spy on them.  The Institute’s activities are somewhat mysterious and they are suspected of using subtle forms of control to influence the shape of scientific development.  Oliver is of two minds on the subject, particularly after his acquaintance is murdered within hours of their conversation.  The polarization of society is so pronounced that Abigail, Matthew’s wife, theorizes that Gryphon was murdered because of his “moderation” rather than because of some overt act he committed. 

They move to the institute, which provides housing.  Almost immediately they learn that Oliver’s predecessor, Henderson, died in a burning car, and that it was not an accident, although the intended victim was possibly the head of the institute, not Henderson, who just happened to borrow his car. Matthew learns the purpose of the institute, which is to repress certain scientific advances and encourage others in what the staff believes is the most beneficial way for the human race.  Within that elite lies another, a select group which is using the computer to try to design a new religion that will resonate in modern times. This last fact is a reflection of the major conflict in the novel, which is between Matthew and Abigail.  Abigail believes in God, but Matthew recognizes that he does not, but that he wishes to believe in one.  The computer becomes his rationalized deity, a being which disinterestedly directs humanity for its own good.  Although Abigail never learns of the plans to the create a new religion, she is appalled enough by the arrogance of attempting to decide all important issues in a star chamber atmosphere, and by the lack of privacy for employees who live with microphones in every room of their homes and who cannot go out without notifying their “tail”, a security person assigned to monitor their every action.  Matthew considers all of this a small sacrifice in return for the privilege to participate in such great events, to be so close to the godhead.  Matthew himself tends to make every decision, even in trivial matters, somehow appear to be a moral choice. 

The title refers to a model of a crocodile head which is supposed to signify the unfettered advance of science, devouring every bit of knowledge in its path without regard to the consequences.  Compton does provide examples of the untoward effects of progress.  Increased longevity has led to new mental illnesses including a kind of terminal depression in which people feel they have overstayed their welcome.  This and other factors have created a gaping generation gap, and given rise not only to semi-official resistance movements but even a more active one of which Abigail’s brother is secretly a member.  There is also an entire class of people who are termed “alienees”, so alienated from society that they are formerly disenfranchised.  Disagreement with the status quo is considered a form of schizophrenia, and Abigail’s resistance is diagnosed as such in the waning chapters, resulting in her imprisonment. 

The computer, which supposedly just finds associations among disparate facts, actually extrapolates from them, identifying potential outcomes.  The head of Colindale suggests that this is the creative process in humans, and therefore the computer has become a creator.  He also justifies the secrecy of the process.  “People in a democracy don’t like being told what is good for them.”   Since the computer is the product of the human mind, he sees no problem with allowing the computer to direct human destiny, since its source was human.  Although sabotage destroys the computer, it is clear that this is a stopgap,that another one will be built and the process will continue.   

Compton’s disenchantment with humanity is demonstrated again in Matthew’s relationship with Abigail.  As was the case with the protagonist of The Quality of Mercy, he believes that her incarceration might be best because the importance of the work in which he is engaged overrides questions of personal rights or loyalties. Once again we are shown people abdicating the responsibility for managing their own lives.  Even as Matthew accepts the right to decide for people as a whole, he is surrendering that right to the computer.  In many ways the novel is very similar to The Quality of Mercy, differing only in the nature of the threat.  Readers might be amused at Compton’s now outdated view of computer operations – they use tape readers and line printers – but they’re not likely to be amused by the implications. 

The Chronocules (1970, aka Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matches, and Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil) involves another secretive scientific installation.  This one is in a small town in England where a mysterious, indestructible book appeared.  It was first seen by a mentally ill young man named Roses who later functions as the village idiot, part of the installation’s camouflage.  David Silberstein is the administrator although the site was founded by Manny Littlejohn for reasons which are not immediately revealed to us.  Part of the complement is a team of athletically developed men and women who are, obviously, meant to spearhead some dangerous experiment at some point. 

The degree to which Silberstein, and my extension the entire facility, is divorced from the natural world is illustrated when he notices Roses fishing with a hook and line, which strikes him as anachronistic since there is equipment available which could harvest every fish in the area effortlessly within a few moments.  One of the other characters observes that it is entirely possible that in his entire life, David Silberstein never once had any fun.  Indeed, we discover that one of the prerequisites for being chosen to work on this project is a psychological as well as a physical separation from the outside world. 

We don’t see much of that world, although we are told that it is succumbing to pollution, overpopulation, and other woes.  There is no serious evidence of that dissolution inside the project, other than an almost clinically casual attitude toward sex, presumably a reflection of the collapsing moral values of the outside world.  We do, however, discover the purpose of the project, which is intended to develop time travel so that the participants can escape to a presumably better world or time.  The experiments have not been going well, however.  Although they can move items outside the normal time stream, when they return the shock of arrival inevitably destroys them, making human travel clearly impossible.  One of the scientists, Liza, considers the possibility that they are abdicating their responsibility to the present by running rather than fighting, but she is not troubled enough to seriously consider leaving.   

The man leading the project is a ruthless megalomaniac who orders the execution of several people for trivial reasons during the course of the novel.  Eventually the outside world overcomes their barriers, however.  An inspector is sent in who is just as reprehensible as the director, and through misrepresentation and misunderstanding she precipitates a crisis involving government intervention, a riot in the adjacent town, and the destruction of the project.  There is, however, one successful transmission and the time traveler is met in the future by the now much older Liza, who initially appears to be something of a hero, only to reveal that over the course of time she has been corrupted into a close copy of the tyrant who ran the operation in the first place.  A relentlessly depressing, though fascinating novel which questions the ways in which science sometimes pursues issues independently of the human factor, while also pointing out the almost fanatical fear of science that dominates our culture.  There are really no heroes in this one, and the villains are us. 

Compton’s next was The Missionaries (1972), only slightly less downbeat in tone.  A team of four alien missionaries arrives on Earth.  Part of their protocol is to capture two of the local indigenes – humans in this case – in order to evaluate the task of conveying their mystical revelations to a new species.  They land near a small town in Devon, where a college student named Dacre Wordsworth is waiting the presumed imminent death of his father, a career military officer, with mixed emotions.  Dacre is also head of a small motorcycle gang and acts as a restraining influence on their frequently anarchistic inclinations.  His mother refuses to accept her husband’s condition and is unrelentingly critical of her son’s lifestyle. He and a casual girlfriend, Janey, are riding alone one night when they are chosen to be specimens. 

The missionaries release them, but have shaped the experience to conform to a pre-existing scenario in the minds of the two humans, who subsequently believe that they were interrogated by Russian spies, improbable as that idea may be.  The government, however, has noticed the unusual aerial phenomena and are combing the moors with military forces.  The missionaries appear at the Wordsworth house the following morning, having taken on the appearance of four young bikers. The Wordsworths easily see through their cover story, so the foursome admit the truth, or part of it, and one of them intervenes to help cure the elder Wordsworth’s emphysema, despite the protestations of his wife, who considers their actions indecent. 

Mrs. Wordsworth undergoes an immediate transformation when her husband’s life is saved, recognizing that much of what she believed was false, that she never really accepted Christianity in the first place, just gave it lip service.  She is now ready to accept the existence of the god of the missionaries, Ustiliath, which exists in all energy, performs miracles, but is unknowable.  “God was the lie of her life.”  Mr. Wordsworth, paradoxically, is not happy at first to be cured, since it has upset the established order of his life.  Dacre, meanwhile, remains highly skeptical, particularly when one of the missionaries suggests that his mother’s conversion may have been premature and therefore unhelpful.  Their arguments are simplistic.  Instead of good and evil, they suggest constructive and destructive, and since the universe exists, then obviously the former must have won.  The easy conversion of Mrs. Wordsworth and a casual visitor, Wilcox, are not entirely plausible, although it is possible that the author intended this as an example of how Christian missionaries judged as successes the impulsive actions of their assumed converts. 

The cured elder Wordsworth has ambivalent thoughts and almost turns his visitors in to the authorities.  While he recognizes that his wife did not understand her old faith and therefore feels no need to understand the new, he requires understanding and purpose in life.  He cannot accept that his health was restored as a gift, without an expected recompense.  At a minimum, if it was miraculous, he feels obligated to find a new purpose in life, a reason why he has been thus chosen. Human nature being what it is, Mrs. Wordsworth and Wilcox both decide to ignore their instructions and try to bring about conversions, and both fail miserably and in different ways.  Her essential uncertainty and shallowness of thought fail to convince the local priest, and his bad temper and poor judgment alienate a crowd that gathers when he tries to harangue them in public.
The situation changes dramatically within a few pages.  One of Dacre’s gang members stabs Wilcox, then hangs himself in an abandoned building.  Mrs. Wordsworth admits that there are strangers at the house and one of the police officers who arrives is killed by some mysterious mental force used by the missionaries, although they immediately surrender and the death is not attributed to them.  Dacre is also puzzled by their references to their “necessary machines”, a relationship they won’t explain.  They also state that their religion, like all religions, is utilitarian, striving for the betterment of its followers, but there appears to be a cold, analytical, even inhuman undertone to their words.  He accuses the missionaries of being indifferent to human suffering and they don’t deny it.  Dacre accepts that “Logic and faith occupy different compartments”, and is disturbed by the cool logic of the missionaries.  His skepticism is reinforced for the reader by periodic excerpts from the missionaries’ manual of operations, which eventually begins to mention the need to use mental control to influence highly placed leaders and other ways to manipulate public opinion.  Their arrival begins to look more like a conquest than a conversion. 

The alien religion is clearly a substitute by the author for actual human religions, the meaningless of which is reinforced by a reference to a television set as a household god .  Dacre even notes at one time that the mindless piety is so similar that he cannot tell the difference.  Instead of bringing people together, it clearly drives them apart.  Wordsworth and his wife are no longer really communicating, and when Dacre tries to talk frankly about the subject he is rebuffed and the two men cease talking almost entirely.  The older man then decides to go to London, without his family, to try to intercede for the imprisoned missionaries. Wilcox is hospitalized and cut off from them all.  Even the four missionaries, now in custody, are kept separate from one another, although physical separation may or may not limit their capacity to communicate.  Dacre and Janey have not spoken since the night they were abducted, and when they encounter one another by chance, she is hostile and distant.  The early converts have already become outcasts, are even suspected of witchcraft. 

Mrs. Wordsworth, however, unconverts, in fact becomes a rapid opponent of Ustiliath, but she is clearly out of her mind, suffering from paranoia and hallucinations.  She is determined to kill the missionaries, destroy their new religion, and exhorts the local vicar to help.  The corruption inherent in all religions is illustrated by the ease with which he agrees to be part of an assassination plot, although he insists on avoiding actually talking about what they are planning. 

Paradoxically, the missionaries – about whom the reader will have developed even deeper suspicions – are opposed most effectively by the insanity of Mrs. Wordsworth and the lies she has propagated.  They are also split among themselves, suggesting that their mission is not going as planned, that they’ve become more of a fad than a movement.  They return to the Wordsworth’s farm, ostensibly to rest and regroup, unaware that rumors have been spread that they raped Janey during their first encounter and that they are entering an almost entirely hostile community.  The divided missionaries finally let down their guard, admitting that there is a political element to their efforts, that it is possible that their superiors might wish to acquire the Earth for their own purposes.  Completing the paradox, the missionaries are burned to death by an angry mob and Dacre goes to Wilcox to see if some of his father’s losses can be recouped, only to accept a job as treasurer of the new religious movement, despite his lack of belief.  We are told thereby that all religions are just tools of commerce and politics, regardless of whether or not they contain elements of actual truth. 

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974, aka The Unsleeping Eye) is set in a future in which fatal diseases are almost unknown.  The title character contracts one, however, which is caused by too much information in her brain interacting with a physical problem, physiologically nonsensical but true to the theme of the novel.  The narrator is a man who has been surgically implanted with a movie camera in place of one eye so that he can act as an invasive journalist, following her continuously through the last few weeks of her life.  The basic story line clearly establishes the inhumanity of the existing system and the further dehumanization caused by media exploitation, but Compton surrounds the obvious with less overt signs. 

For example, when the doctor is explaining her situation to Mortenhoe, he addresses the wall rather than the woman.  The narrator, watching secretly through a one way glass, glances into a camera/mirror effect and cannot find himself in the image even though he’s within range.  This is later reprised when Mortenhoe looks into a mirror and determines that the reflection is not of herself.  Her profession is to copy edit popular novels which are churned out by computer programs, similar to those in Fritz Leiber’s more openly satirical The Silver Eggheads.  Mortenhoe accepts the lack of human feelings in the world even before she learns of her illness.  “Opinions and decisions – matters of faith even – were likewise a matter of chemistry.” 

Compton’s depiction of her initial reaction to the news is convincing.  Mortenhoe returns to her job and decides to continue as long as possible, reassured partially by a sense of familiarity.  She also fantasizes about other things she could be doing, the novel she always meant to write, even flirts with a man using a false name.  She becomes acutely aware of things in her environment, things she has never actually looked at before.   

She is also infuriated because the medical center leaked the information to the media.  Journalists hound her, someone told her husband before she could do so, and there is a letter waiting for suggesting that she sell her life – or rather death – story.  The protagonist, Roddie, is clandestinely watching her although he cannot act officially until she signs a contract.  He is in fact impressed with her self possession and determination not to share her grief.  Despite his profession, however, he has trouble with human connections himself, which is illustrated by an ill conceived visit to his ex-wife.  His doctor points out that he was an ideal candidate for the prosthesis because rather than feeling alienated from other people, Roddie has always felt alienated from himself, and now he has a good reason to feel that way. 

Society as a whole is divorced from its own human nature.  The fascination with Mortenhoe results from a dearth of deep emotion in the populace as a whole.  When she and her husband visit a tourist attraction, we are told that everything is carefully labeled defining its nature, including all of the people who work there.  The employees then are simply assets, parts of the landscape rather than individuals.  There is also a disparity in how they respond to her illness.  When people see her on television, they feel compassionate because even though they are vicariously experiencing her final days, the television makes the experience safe and unreal.  When they encounter her in real life, and note her infirmity and distress, they are hostile because they see in her their own frailty and wish to reject it. 

Like most of Compton’s settings, this is a dreary, unhappy world.  There are constant mass protests against one thing or another, marriages are short term arrangements subject to renewal and with little continuity, literature is debased, the media is even worse, and the elderly are drugged into a state resembling happiness.  Those who don’t care for the shaspe of society drop out and become Fringies, living in derelict buildings. The propensity for violence is not well hidden.  Roddie kills at least one person when he tries to drive through a protest, and he is beaten by the police rather than the protestors during his subsequent rescue from the mob.  

Determined to outsmart the media, Mortenhoe signs a contract to allow them to film her final days, deposits the money in her husband’s account, then disguises herself in order to blend into the underclass.  Unfortunately, she is unaware of the fact that her husband planted a tracer in her purse.  Roddie, whom she has never seen, then disguises himself similarly so that he can approach her as a friend rather than a cameraman. As he continues the charade, he begins to genuinely sympathize with her, so much so that he eventually destroys his camera system, leaving him blind, rather than show any more.  The additional irony to this is that we have just learned that she is not actually fatally ill at all, that this was all a fraud perpetrated by her doctor and the television producer, although Roddie is not aware of this. 

Ultimately, she dies because she is convinced that she will do so, and perhaps in part because she sees death as a refuge, a way of escaping from a drab and largely insupportable life.  Roddie is, despite his blindness, redeemed by her actions, finally recovering that part of himself that resonates with the rest of humanity, a discovery that even promises to reunite him with his former wife and his son.  Although Compton describes a dismal, depressing future, the novel ends on a qualified upbeat note, because the possibility that humanity can rise from the moral ashes is clearly demonstrated. 

A Usual Lunacy (1978) is also set in a dismal, repressive future. The government and civil authorities are repressive and abusive, the population is sexually repressed, crime is rampant, and things in general are looking bad. The Scholes Virus is a complex infection which causes people who have compatible strains and who are at the proper stage of infection to suddenly become sexually obsessed with one another.  We learn about this during the trial of two people who recently went through the process, although the male half – Giles Cranston – was apparently deliberately affected by a mysterious organization known to him only as Them.  The viral infection has resulted in legal and ethical problems because despite its obvious awkward consequences, it also imbues those infected with a strengthened resistance to all other diseases. It’s all a plot to get the stewardess infatuated with a man who can then manipulate her, smuggle a weapon aboard an airplane, and hijack it in order to force the government to release a political prisoner.  He is supposed to be exonerated when the rebels take over, which they do, except that they find him guilty and execute him instead.  A Usual Lunacy does not measure up to Compton’s usual standards.  Although the prose is as excellent as always, the novel feels like it should have been much shorter.   There is, for example, entirely too much irrelevant detail about the female protagonist’s job – she’s a kind of stewardess for an airline that only carries passengers who have been anaesthetized first. The satire is limited and repetitive, the characters are too exaggerated to engage the reader, and there really isn’t much plot development.   

Windows (1979) is the sequel to The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. The story picks up right where the last one ended, with Mortenhoe dead and Roddie blind.  There is an immediate new conflict.  Roddie’s ex-wife wants to take him home and care for him now that he has “come back” from the inhumane world of the media.  His boss, Vincent, wants him declared insane so that his own bosses won’t consider him responsible for the failure of an expensive experiment.  He suggests that Roddie play along with that since otherwise he might be sued for the cost of the equipment he destroyed by letting the cameras in his eyes burn themselves out. 

The sequel is far inferior to its predecessor and the least interesting of all of Compton’s SF.  The first half of the novel consists primarily of Roddie feeling sorry for himself and making things difficult for his ex-wife and son.  At the same time, they all discover that they are not free of media and outside interest, which becomes increasingly importunate until they finally decide to accept an invitation to stay in Italy with a reclusive writer who is also horrified by the form of modern news entertainment.  The invitation turns out to be a diversion.  His host actually wants to use the death of Roddie and his family to make a political statement.  Although there’s a relatively upbeat ending – they all survive and Roddie decides to accept surgery to restore his vision – there is a sense that they have still collectively sold out their integrity.  Or perhaps it’s just that none of the characters have any integrity to hang onto in the first place. 

Ascendancies (1980) is set in another depressing future.  The global energy crisis has been averted only because of the regular fall of Moondrift, an alien substance which turns out to be the perfect, clean burning fuel source, which falls from the sky at regular intervals.  It also deteriorates into a wonderful fertilizer so that barren parts of the Earth are fruitful again. The agency is, of course, an alien race, and there is a price to be paid.  Certain humans disappear after each new gift of Moondrift, and no one knows where they have gone.  The disappearances coincide with the Singing, a combination of auditory and olfactory stimuli confined to relatively small areas selected apparently at random. 

We are introduced to this world through the eyes of Richard Wallingford, a claims adjustor for an insurance company.  Since disappeared people are not legally dead, some survivors have substituted bodies in order to receive insurance settlements.  He discovers fraud in his current case, but agrees to conceal his discovery in return for a large payoff.  The quasi-widow, Caroline Trenchard, tells him that the body and supporting materials were supplied by a mysterious organization which claims to be doing so for philanthropic reasons rather than to make a profit, which strikes him as suspicious.  Wallingford will subsequently discover that they are in fact murdering people and stealing their bodies in order to substitute them for others. 

Trenchard is promptly blackmailed by Irene, who claims to have been reconstituted after having been disappeared, a process she blames on radio waves.  Wallingford agrees to follow her and investigate, but she sees through his ruse.  Her apartment contains large amounts of cash, suggesting this isn’t her first foray into blackmail.  Trenchard attempts to get in touch with the so-called philanthropists, and receives a vaguely threatening call back.  She and Wallingford have fallen into a quasi-romantic relationship despite their antipathy toward one another and they, and the people around them, are caught up in the game they call Ascendancies, which is a subtle way of gaining prestige and power in social situations.  The problem with the game is that no one really knows the rules.  “…if we could only discover them we’d be all right.” 

More connections emerge.  Irene was released from the hospital into the custody of Mr. Fitzhenry, who was the man who threatened Trenchard on the phone and who has also been investigating Wallingford.  At his request, Irene is committed again, apparently removing the blackmail threat, although we still don’t know how she acquired knowledge of what was really happening.  Meanwhile Rose-Ann, who lives with Wallingford although they seem to be diffident lovers at best, goes to see Trenchard.  Her suspicions are justified when Wallingford and Trenchard, more through momentum than intent, agree to take a job in the country managing a pheasant farm.

Eventually their liaison collapses because neither of them has played by the rules.  In fact, neither of them even understands the rules.  Trenchard realizes that she is trapped in an unhappy life without friends, if she survives Fitzhenry’s attentions, while Wallingford has quit his job, and then tears up the check with the money he extorted.  The novel is an examination of complex human feelings, and the distances we artificially erect among ourselves. 

There was quite a gap before the appearance of Scudder’s Game (1988).  In 2039, the world is a more peaceful place thanks to Cordwainer Hardware International, which somehow engineered an almost perfect world with falling population, a redistribution of the wealth, and other niceties. The key to the change is a device which is a foolproof contraceptive that is inextricably tied to a device which amplifies sexual pleasure. Depopulated, much of the infrastructure of the world has fallen into disuse, and business is viewed as an elaborate game. 

Pete Laznett, the protagonist, is estranged from his parents, whom he believes didn’t love each other and tried to make up for it by smothering him with affection, which is why he hasn’t visited their home in the country for seventeen years.  But his last call from his mother made him curious about his father’s health so he resolves to pay a visit at long last and resolve the tensions among them for once and for all.  His father is the Scudder of the title.  Pete finds it difficult to relate to either of his parents, and initially decides they haven’t changed in the seventeen years since last he saw them, although he begins to suspect that something is up by the end of the first day. 

Laznett meets Grace, to whom he is attracted, but also discovers that there was a mysterious explosion in the area, variously attributed to the arrival of a UFO or the crash of a meteorite.  He thinks it more likely that a bomb was set off for some reason, perhaps to short out nearby electronic equipment, which his father repairs for a living.  That leads to the obvious suspicion that his father was responsible for the blast.  Scudder (and presumably the author) believes that this peaceful, self contained world isn’t as great as it thinks it is.  No one actually has to work any longer, business is mostly a meaningless game, and even parenthood is comparatively rare.  The new freedom is a “freedom from responsibility”, and it isn’t a good thing. Eventually Peter learns the truth, his father is attempting to organize a rebellion against the status quo by sabotaging the communications systems.  He does some checking and finds out the authorities are aware of it, don’t consider it particularly serious, and intend to let him alone because he poses no serious threat.  Nevertheless, Pete feels the necessity to act, to protect the world he thinks he holds most dear, and destroys the one which he actually loves. 

Ragnarok (1991) was written in collaboration with John Gribbin.  Robert Graham is a brilliant physicist and a disarmament supporter who finally decides that the situation is grave enough that he must commit an act of terrorism to frighten the world governments into taking action.  To this end, he, his daughter, and a few associates arrange to have devices planted in the ocean near Iceland, then delivers an explanation of their purpose to the scientific advisers of the US and the Soviet Union – which dates the story a bit, but not seriously. We are also introduced to a professional assassin operating in Europe and an Icelandic journalist curious about the bogus research ship. This is somewhat of a departure for Compton into the realm of the contemporary thriller, perhaps in part the result of Gribbin’s influence.   

The plot itself is somewhat unrealistic.  The conspirators want to force a partial diversion of military budgets into humanitarian areas, publicly announced, on the assumption that this will lead to enlightenment and further reductions.  It is hard to believe that the characters really believe that, given the ability of governments to reverse course quickly, to say nothing of the fact that there are numerous smaller nations who would not follow suit.  The threat is that a bomb has been set which will open a fault line near Iceland, mixing seawater and lava, causing an eruption that will bring a nuclear winter to the northern hemisphere, killing millions of people.   I can’t comment on the science of this, though it seems unlikely, and in any case they have no intention of setting it off even if their ploy fails. The ship and the bomb are booby trapped to prevent an attack, but one of the conspirators is actually an agent of the same people who employ our assassin friend.  They intend that the bomb explode so that the Mideast and North Africa can emerge as the dominant part of the world.  The agent, Kassim, sets a timer to explode the bomb and leaves the ship, and the country, just as Graham senior learns that he is a double agent. Although their safeguards make the timed explosion ineffective, the incident is followed by a fatal confrontation with disguised American soldiers and it is evident that the plan is already beginning to fall apart. 

What follows is fairly routine.  Graham senior gets captured and tortured.  The renegade tries to sell his information and gets killed.  The reporter tries to find out what is going on and nearly gets killed.  The authorities believe that Graham’s daughter will not set off the bomb no matter what the provocation and decide that only one person aboard the ship will do so, which means all they have to do is kill him to eliminate the threat.  Although the authors appear to have considerable sympathy for the conspirators, the impracticality of their plan is readily apparent, and the effect on innocent lives even without the explosion is sobering.  And at last a military effort is made and they discover that it was not a bluff after all.  The ensuing destruction alters the world forever.  Competently done, but with none of the distinct style and levels of meaning common to most of Compton’s other work. 

Nomansland (1993) involves a virus that makes it impossible to conceive a male baby. Forty years after its appearance, males have become less numerous but still cling to power.  Dr. Harriet Kahn-Ryder is a female scientist who has become frustrated by the government bureaucracy which seems intent upon preventing her from publishing the results of her research – a probable cure for the virus. She worked for the government on the mistaken assumption that political chicanery would be less onerous than the corporate equivalent.  Now she is determined to publish, even in the face of threats of criminal action against her, but her determination falters when a government agent appears at her house and quite deliberately kills her cat to underline the threat.  Clearly this is another of Compton’s quietly oppressive governments. 

The protagonist’s background is filled in through flashbacks to her childhood and early life, which also provides glimpses of the public reaction to the consequences of the new virus – chiefly misogyny. In the present, however, she and her lover are determined to publish her findings despite the threat, but to do so they have to find a safe haven for her teenaged daughter Anna.  Harriet is also troubled by the realization that someone among her trusted team members is actually a traitor of sorts, reporting to the ministry on her activity.  She is additionally aware of the fact that she is being monitored closely by the authorities to prevent her leaving the country clandestinely. 

Compton assumes that there would not be as radical a change in society as we might expect.  Congress, for example, is largely female but the only thing that has changed is “the pitch of their voices.”  Some women are undergoing hormone treatment to make themselves more “male” since heterosexual partners are increasingly hard to find.  We aren’t told much about the international situation, which appears to be little different from before the crisis began.  Harriet’s attempts to get around the restrictions lead her to a degree of self doubt.  Because of the absence of male children, the population is declining toward more sustainable levels and there are no active wars.  It is not clear whether Compton believes this to be a temporary reaction to the crisis or a fundamental alteration of human behavior. 

There’s a secondary plot involving Harriet’s brother Daniel, who grew up hating women because of their abusive mother and now is part of a secret group which murders women and sabotages their clinics. Her realization that Daniel is a serial killer makes her life immensely more complicated at the worst possible time. Fortunately, his secret avocation turns out to have a benefit during the climax, in which we discover that it wasn’t a government conspiracy after all, just one bureaucrat hoping to sell the cure to a corporation.  A near future thriller with some interesting observations about human society, but not nearly as inventive as his earlier novels. 

Compton’s last SF novel was Justice City (1994).  As with his other novels, this one is set in the near future.  Justice City is a futuristic prison which has become even more of a closed society than are those in the contemporary world.  Public opinion has swung to the right and the prisoners are drugged, kept in near total isolation, and are subjected to regular low level torture (termed "punishment") as part of their sentences. The key players include Peggy Landon, a psychiatric nurse, Alec Duncan, a police detective, Granny Porter, a kind of trustee, and Albert Beech, a convicted rapist and murderer.

Most of the characters are clearly dealing with ethical conflicts.  Landon and another nurse, Jake de Carteret, are uneasy about the punishment program and work in other areas of the prison.  Duncan is troubled by the brutality of the police and the lack of concern for common decency.  Since he is black, he is no stranger to prejudice and bad manners, and he impulsively rescues an injured drug addict from arrest and further mistreatment. Beech becomes pivotal more by his absence than his presence, since he dies during his initial treatment, only hours after arriving at the prison. It's an obvious murder and it appears that the only possible suspects are Landon, de Carteret, Porter, and another nurse named Serote.  Although it's not in his jurisdiction, Duncan is tapped to investigate what could potentially become a national scandal and embarrassment to the government.  There is also the question of how Beech smuggled a good deal of cash past the initial screening, which is found in his pocket during the post mortem.

For political reasons, the authorities want Duncan to arrest Serote.  They have suppressed news of the death in order to protect the reputation of Justice City lest it be thought a failing of their procedures.  Certainly it appears that one of the three medical staff members must be the killer.  No one seems to think of Porter, whom the reader knows worked for the dead man in years past and recognized him when he was delivered to the prison.  The mystery doesn't last long, however, as we switch to Landon's viewpoint again and discover that she killed Beech, that she had also known him in the past when she was involved with illegal drug sales.

Landon makes an unconvincing argument that they are not inflicting torture.  "Not torture - punishment.  A better word is retribution."  The difference, she asserts, is that no one gains anything from the process - no information, no pleasure. It is simply their duty and society's requirement for revenge against those who break the law.  Her assertions are contradicted to a degree by her use of the term "treatment:" rather than "punishment" unless forced to do so. A prison official is more candid, stating that "justice is revenge legitimized."  He also points out that the crime rate was not affected by the stricter prison system; it simply appealed to the public's desire for vengeance.  Through Duncan, Comption poses the question of why we continue to send more and more people to prison for longer and longer sentences when if anything it raises the crime rate by introducing minor criminals to professional ones.  When he discovers that the prison's research department is working on a medically induced temporary blindness as a new solution, he is driven to assault and resigns from the police force.  The ultimate irony is that the prison covers up the murder - denying justice - and Landon is allowed to resume her duties.

Compton's most recently published novel, Back of Town Blues (1996) is essentially a sequel to Justice City but is a straightforward crime novel with no science fiction content.


I recently learned that D.G. Compton wrote romantic adventure stories under the name Frances Lynch, so I’ve been trying to track down copies.  The first of these that I read was In the House of Dark Music (1979), which turns out to be genuinely supernatural as well, with a ghost and a clairvoyant.  The story opens with the murder of a musician in London in 1856.  We’re pretty certain that he was killed by one of two German nobleman, both connected to the violin making business, but it’s not clear which one.  The first was formerly an employee of the dead man, whose violin was stolen following the murder, and he is currently courting the widow.  The other is more reclusive.   There are several subplots.  The widow and her young daughter have moved in with her parents, and there is considerable tension there.  A street urchin witnessed the murder, but his fear of any involvement with the police leads to a series of exciting chases and escapes – and at what point he even encounters the widow, though neither knows the other’s identity.  We also have glimpses of an elderly woman living in Germany, mother of the first German in London, who is haunted – literally – by the ghost of her daughter and who experiences visions of her son’s activities during her dreams.  There is also a paid companion who fears the woman but who is overwhelmed by some strange mental compulsion to remain with her.  Lastly we have a Scotland Yard inspector determined to discover the truth about the murder. The crime remains unsolved and the widow marries one of the Germans and moves to his castle on the continent.  There we are introduced to a convoluted tale of insanity, family feuds, ghostly apparitions, and eventually the solution to the original murder, but not until after the protagonist finds her life in jeopardy and her young daughter subject to the imposed will of a woman with more than human powers.  A little slow in the middle but otherwise quite suspenseful.

A Dangerous Magic (1978) is less intense.  A penniless young woman in Edwardian England goes to live with a great aunt she never knew.  The aunt, who is writing her memoirs, is apparently an alcoholic, but there are darker tensions among the family.  When an automobile accidentally runs wild and nearly runs down the visitor and one of the family members, the reader will understandably conclude that someone has murder on the mind.  The plot develops from there in a fairly conventional manner as tensions among the various family members grow more obvious and as we come to realize that something in the older woman's past is the cause of the current problems. Eventually there is a death and more secrets to unravel, and our heroine falls in love, but comes to suspect that the man she loves might be concealing a sinister secret.  This was a much less satisfying novel than the previous book, a fairly standard romantic potboiler in the style which Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and others did far more effectively. 

The Fine and Handsome Captain (1975) is less interesting, a straightforward historical romance.  An orphaned woman in Victorian England aspires to be self supporting and gets involved with a balloonist adventurer and some other oddball characters.  Has its moments, but I'm afraid the story really isn't strong enough to support an entire novel.