Monday, November 4, 2013
Secret Orders, by H. Paul Jeffers
October, 1989 Zebra Books
The awesome cover has you expecting a horror novel, but Secret Orders is in fact a conspiracy thriller, one about a former Nazi who now lives in New York City and the group of people who try to bring him and his colleagues to justice. Another misleading thing about the novel is that the back cover and first hundred pages make you assume it takes place in 1989, the year of publication; only after page 100 does author Jeffers bother informing us that all of this occurs in 1967!
Secret Orders is also a novel in search of a protagonist. Is it young Daniel Ben Avram, who opens the tale, a young Israeli secret agent who is sent to the US to discern if wealthy and famous arts patron Peter Helder is in fact former SS concentration camp sadist August Grenier? Or is it David Hargreave, a veteran New York homicide detective who takes over the middle portion of the novel? Or finally is it Alexander Somerfield, a portly former reporter and CIA agent who now makes his living writing mysteries? (The back cover pronounces Somerfield as the hero of the tale; humorously, he doesn’t even appear until about 200 pages in.)
Another issue with the novel is that it starts off so great and then settles in to become for the most part a tepid and bland crawl. But that opening is something else. Young Daniel is summoned from Tel Aviv into Jerusalem, where he meets with his handler Ammon and a famous general, who give Daniel his mission – going undercover to New York City and finding Helder. Here we have several chapters made up of backstory provided by various witnesses, each who tells us who Helder was in the war and how he got his sordid kicks.
Before the war Helder was also into the occult, and after joining both the Thule and Vril societies he became obsessed with harnessing the “vril” power from other humans. So we learn that, while he ran the concentration camp, Helder would have young men stripped down and shackled up, hook up electrodes to their testicles, force them to masturbate, and then switch on the electricity when they orgasmed! Oh, and while doing this he’d wear a leather face mask with zipper slits for the mouth.
And it keeps on going…given that Helder’s gay and Daniel’s posing undercover, this means that Daniel has to move through the NYC underworld of gay bars. Yes, there’s even a scene where he buys leather chaps and etc to complete the look, in the hopes of sauntering into one of the clubs and catching Helder’s eye! Of course it works, and soon Daniel is hanging around with Helder, going with him to fancy restaurants and the occasional leather club; a recurring joke is Daniel’s certainity that Helder will soon make the expected pass at him, but Daniel’s not certain how he’ll react.
Just when it’s all getting nice and lurid the narrative jumps over to David Hargreave, an old cop who is close to retirement. All the lurid stuff evaporates from the novel, along with Daniel himself, who just disappears – it isn’t until nearly the very end that we discover what happened to him. Meanwhile Helder is dead, hanging nude from the secret dungeon beneath his Manhattan art gallery, a leather zipper mask covering his face.
This sequence is a bit trying. Hargreave is a fine character, but after the forward momentum of the opening several chapters with Daniel, this slower-paced police procedural stuff just brings the novel to a dead halt. Even more damning, Jeffers repeats a ton of information here, with Hargreave methodically discovering stuff about Helder that we readers already know.
There’s even an extended bit where Ammon, who has come to NYC looking for Daniel, finds Daniel’s journal, and Jeffers writes out most of the entries in the book – taken word-for-word from earlier scenes with Daniel! My assumption is that this is yet another indication of Zebra’s bizarre policy of making their paperback originals nice and long; Secret Orders could stand to loose a hundred or so pages, easy.
Another character here who gets a bunch of narrative time is a grubby reporter, who mostly serves as the impetus for getting Alexander Somerfield into the tale. Castle style, Somerfield is wealthy from his writing but still enjoys digging up real-life crimes and whatnot. A former spy, Somerfield was more along the lines of a courier, never getting into any sort of action or trouble. In fact what most draws him to the Helder case is the potential for new book material.
I bring up Castle for a reason. While it’s an okay show, I’ve noticed that, for a world-famous author, Castle never friggin writes. For that matter, the son of a bitch never even mentions books! In fact the whole show presents a misguided view of the author’s life – don’t be interested in books and seldom if ever write, and you too can be a wealthy novelist. But anyway, as it so happens Secret Orders proves how boring Castle would be if its titular character was more engaged in the act of writing and the world of books – because, my friends, Alexander Somerfield is a snoozer of a protagonist.
For one, the dude is almost a clone of Hargreave (who himself was a well-read sort prone to dropping literary allusions and esoteric quotations), but secondly, all Somerfield talks about or thinks about are books. I mean, it’s cool in a way, I myself am a book lover and all, but honestly if I was investigating a case where a former Nazi was found hanging nude with a leather mask on his face, I really don’t think I’d be walking around quoting Fitzgerald or Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
What I mean to say is, Alexander Somerfield is a boring protagonist for such a compelling plot – at least, a plot that starts off so compelling. The pulp material calls for a pulp protagonist, and Daniel fit the bill nicely. Like me you will no doubt miss him when he disappears from the text. He is much better than the overfed, Sherlock Holmes-obsessed bore who eventually takes his place. The Vril Society stuff, Helder’s occult background and interests, etc, all of it goes away and instead we get long scenes of Somerfield standing around and thinking about this or that book.
Which brings me back to the plot – it eventually develops that Helder was a member of the Atlantis Club, a global membership of the uber-wealthy which sort of seems based on the Freemasons. The back cover has you expecting a story about an underground society of former Nazis who have infiltrated the US government (ie Operation Paperclip, or even the COMCON storyline), but this is not to be – all such promise is lost as the novel settles into repetition and blandness. It becomes a simple murder mystery instead of a conspiracy thriller, as Somerfield tries to figure out who killed Helder.
Maybe Jeffers was going for something here – it’s hard not to notice how the youthful and brash Daniel is replaced by not one but two protagonists who are over-the-hill and heavyset, older men who are veteran thinkers and more prone to using their heads to solve a case. And really, bringing such “real-life” type protagonists to a pulpy spy tale is fine…as long as you don’t open the tale with talk about the Thule and Vril Societies and a dude in a leather mask who fries young men while they masturbate…I mean, that just sets the reader up for a whole different sort of novel than something “real-life.”