Thursday, March 27, 2014

Drug Of Choice

Drug Of Choice, by John Lange
January, 1970  Signet Books

John Lange was a pseudonym Michael Crichton used between 1966 and 1972, for a total of eight novels, most of them paperback originals. I think this is the first Crichton novel I’ve read, and I really enjoyed it – however word seems to be that the “Lange” books are more pulpy than those bearing Chrichton’s name, and also that this particular novel, Drug Of Choice, is even different than the rest. But man, if all Crichton books were like this, I’d be a big fan.

This short novel, barely 200 pages, takes place right in the psychedelic late ‘60s, roping in everything from rock groups to mind control. Crichton’s writing is so economical that you barely notice it; the closest comparison I could think of would be Richard Stark. His skill with quickly setting scenes and introducing characters is pretty incredible, and you see how he used the Lange years to hone his writing style.

Our hero is Dr. Roger Clark, who works in the emergency ward at LA Memorial Hospital. His normal life is thrown off track one night by the appearance of an apparently comatose Hell’s Angel, who crashed out in front of a police witness and has been in a deep sleep ever since, with no apparent damage to his body. This is strange enough, but then Clark notices blue urine in the bottle beneath the biker’s bed. But the next morning the urine has changed to a normal color, and everyone thinks Clark is nuts. Then the biker wakes up, as if nothing’s wrong, and leaves in perfect health, with no memory of the previous night or even of the bike crash.

A few weeks later a similar case appears – this time it’s the beautiful Sharon Wilder, a famous actress. Brought into the hospital in an apparent comatose state, she too expels blue urine, and Clark of course begins to suspect something’s going on. And just like the biker, Sharon wakes up the next day in perfect health, with no memory of passing out or any other foul play. Indeed she begins hitting on Clark, asking him on a date – and takes him to bed that night.

But Clark wakes up the next morning with no memory of having spent the night with one of Hollywood’s most famous leading ladies. Sharon acts as if nothing’s odd, and asks him out again. She brings him into the jet-set world, and there follows a sequence where Clark goes to a party on a yacht one night and meets a variety of unusual characters. This portion for some reason reminded me of early Don DeLillo; in fact a lot of Drug Of Choice comes off as DeLillo-esque, with our protagonist experiencing missing time and other unexplained phenomena, all relayed in very cold, almost detached prose.

One thing Clark does learn is that Sharon’s on a special drug, a pill which he’s certain is what causes the memory lapses and blue urine. He goes about researching it, and Sharon as well. This latter research leads him to Sharon’s psychiatrist, Dr. Shine, who informs Clark that Sharon suffered delusions that some corporation was controlling her mind – a delusion, he says, that lots of Hollywood stars suffer from. It’s all very strange and very MK Ultra-esque. As for the drug, eventually Clark learns that it’s the product of Advance, Inc, a California-based corporation run by a certain Dr. Harvey Blood.

The novel continues on its weird course when Clark shows up to ask Blood questions – and ends up being asked if he wants to work for Advance! The corporation owns an island in the Caribbean, Eden Island (formerly San Cristobal island), in which they’ve built a modern and opulent resort. Blood not only wants Clark to begin working for them as a drug researcher, but also to visit the resort. And this isn’t the first he’s heard of it, as Sharon has also mentioned it – and indeed has told Clark she’ll be heading there in a few weeks.

That disconnected feel ensues as Clark next goes out with Dr. Shine’s secretary, who enthusiastically pops pills during dinner and then invites Clark home with her – and not only does he wake up alone in his own bed days later, but he once again has no memory of events. But due to his missing time he’s also missed his scheduled trip to Mexico (which his travel agent tried to talk him out of, telling him he should go to Eden Island instead)…and so, conveniently enough, he’s free to go with Sharon Wilder when she calls and asks him to go to Eden Island with her.

Advance, Inc comes off like a pretty interesting, if mysterious, organization. Founded by doctors with the express intent of using science for capital gain, the company has its tentacles in all avenues of society. Clark, researching them, discovers that they apparently got their start with the discovery of SVD, “shark venereal disease,” which they turned into a drug. From there they founded the resort community, which is claimed to be state of the art in all respects, and the answer to any vacationer’s dream. To get there though one must fly to Nassau, Florida, and then board a windowless plane, owned by the company, which flies passengers to the secret location of the island.

The novel goes further into weird psychedelia once the sunny paradise of Eden Island is revealed to be nothing more than a drug trip – and when Clark wakes up to find all his memories false, he’s further stunned to learn that he was awoken on purpose, as he’s now an employee of Advance! Apparently he signed a contract that day he visited Blood, and now they expect him to oversee the resort (which is a rundown shambles in reality), ensuring that the “customers” are not injured during their drug-induced vacation. When Clark tries to escape, Advance shows him that their drug (which has no name, and thus is just called the “drug of choice”) can be used to instill horrific pain.

It all continues to become even more joyfully weird with Clark placed in more psychic, drugged torment; eventually back in LA with Advance, he’s next tasked with picking the woman who will become Glow Girl. Looking to break into the rock market, Advance wants to promote a group that will sing about science and how beneficial it is; they’ve already recorded the LP (“Six Inch Incision” by Glow Girl and the Scientific Coming), they just need a suitably attractive girl to play the part of Glow Girl. Shortly thereafter, through more MK Ultra-esque means, Clark becomes a happy worker for Advance, and the novel just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

If there’s any problem with Drug Of Choice, it’s that it wraps up too quickly. I would’ve enjoyed seeing Crichton play out this creepy story a bit further. But as it is, Clark soon comes back to himself and begins plotting vengeance – something he finds very hard to do, given how cozy Advance is with the police and the government. Also the fate of certain characters, like brainwashed Advance drone Sharon Wilder, is left unexplored, however Clark does bump into Glow Girl in the final page.

For years Drug Of Choice was impossible to find, and the original Signet edition and 1974 Bantam reprint were super expensive (and still are). Luckily Hard Case Crime brought the book back into print in November, 2013, so it’s now easily available for those who want to check it out. And I’d recommend you do, as this is a very cool book, and so breezily and capably written that you’ll speed through it in no time. 

Here’s the cover for that 1974 Bantam reprint, which is my favorite of them all:

And here’s the 2013 Hard Case Crime edition, which stays true to the imprint’s painted-cover theme:


RJR said...

All of the Lange were good, as well as the Jeffery Hudson A CASE OF NEED.


Gary R. Peterson said...

What I found interesting is that in 1966 Crichton took the pen name "John Lange" while that very same year the real John Lange took the pen name "John Norman" and started cranking out his Gor/Counter-Earth novels. I wonder if the real Lange was told by his publisher Ballantine to adopt a pen name since "John Lange" was already in use?