Sunday, 24 May 2015

Dead Man Running - John Blackburn

Blackburn was incredibly popular when I was a child.  I remember exactly the shelf where his books were ranged in my local library.  I remember aspiring to be as successful when I grew up,  Yet he was largely forgotten even before his death in 1993, and since then he has vanished entirely.  I cannot for the life of me think why that is.

In the main, and certainly to start with, Blackburn wrote in two genres, John Wyndham style sci-fi horror and Eric Ambler style thrillers.  It seems unfair to suggest that he copied two better known writers; it is better to say he worked in similar fields.  Like Wyndham, his sci-fi tends to be set in the immediate tomorrow, so similar to now that it might as well be today.  Like Ambler, his world of subterfuge is European, his protagonists ordinary men cast adrift from normality.  In both forms Blackburn anchors his narrative with a whodunnit structure.  He is very good indeed at the mystery element,

Dead Man Running is the first of his thrillers, written in 1960, before the Berlin Wall but at a time when Russia was the deadly enemy of the West.  On the face of it, it is a murder mystery: Who killed Peter Carlin's wife and where is Peter Carlin?  Carlin, it turns out, is being interrogated by KGB thugs in Moscow.  The British authorities know exactly where he is.  To the great British public Carlin is both a killer and a traitor.

The rest of the story is Carlin's attempt to prove he is neither.  The conspiracy is incredibly murky.  The cast of characters is varied and colourful - the snobbish ex-maid, the last of his line aristocrat and philanthropist, and best of all the mad man-of-action adventurer J Moldon Mott.

OK, it's old-fashioned, but it is written with great skill, admirable economy (a modern equivalent would be a padded 350 pages whereas Dead Man Running is a well-honed 158) and a healthy humanity.  Nobody here is a total villain, no hero without fault.  Blackburn is every bit as good as I assumed he was back when I was a lad.

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