China Strike, by William Chamberlain
No month stated, 1967 Fawcett Gold Medal
William Chamberlain, who I believe passed away shortly after this was published, delivers basically a paperback original variation of the bestselling “near future” thrillers of the day, like Fail-Safe and Seven Days In May. China Strike is also very similar in plot to Richard Tresgaskis’s China Bomb, published in hardcover that same year, so it would appear that around 1966 a big concern was China destroying America with an atomic bomb sometime in the near future. Little did anyone realize that China would just be destroying American jobs.
The book takes place in some unspecified future that is still unmistakably “1960s” in its makeup; the US has apparently been at war with “the Zulu Nations” of Africa, which are secretly funded by the “Chincoms,” aka Red China (I thought it was just “Chicoms,” no n?). As for the USSR, we’re briefly informed that the US and Russia are “on the best terms in over a decade,” which might be indication that this takes place in the ‘70s. The action opens with one of those Zulu Nations officials ranting on the UN floor that his country has the atom bomb – and will damned well use it.
From here we cut to the Takla Makan desert of China, where the Chincoms do all of their atomic bomb testing and research; familiar haunts around here from Operation Starvation and Flight To Takla-Ma. Dr. Martin Shu, a Chinese-American physicist, has been here for the past several years, helping the Chinese perfect “cobalt alloy” bombs, which are basically thermonukes, I guess. Shu isn’t a turncoat, though; he’s secretly CIA, and his somewhat-confusing mission has him monitoring the Chincom A-Bomb progress…while helping them acquire it, or something. But now his assignment is complete, and it’s time to take off.
Chamberlain proves here from the outset that he’ll get us invested in characters and then drop them from the narrative fold. Shu for example is more than your average scientist; he kills the sadist in charge of the massive nuke-research complex with a karate blow to the face, sending a shard of bone into the bastard’s brain. From there it’s to a tense escape from the compound while Shu frets that his desert nomad contact won’t be there to smuggle him to safety. But after this Shu is demoted to supporting character status; when next we see him, he’s telling a secret Pentagon council, led by hardbitten vet General Alonzo Kennedy, about the cobalt bombs.
China, we’re told, will doubtless use these weapons of mass destruction, caring little for human life – the only question is whether they really have it. Chamberlain introduces another (somewhat time-wasting) subplot where an Atomic Energy Commission dude named Schuler claims Shu’s story is bullshit. Then a Red Chinese hit squad almost takes out Shu – he’s in a coma for almost the rest of the novel – and everyone realizes his story was legit. The damn Chincoms really have a cobalt alloy bomb – in fact a whole arsenal of them – and they’re going to destroy the West.
Well, there’s only one thing to do: take an “experimental airborne unit” with no field experience and drop it into Takla Makan! Seriously, this is the course of action General Kennedy decides upon, after discussing the matter with his top aide, Colonel Frank Starr – the man who created this experimental unit, dubbed Zorro Battle Group. Starr says so long to the wife and kids – the book is completely free of the maudlin sap of today’s thrillers, in which Starr’s wife and kid would be given their own tear-jerker of a subplot – and heads down to Puerto Rico, where Zorro is currently located. There follows lots of “military red tape” stuff where Starr busts the head of Colonel Holm, the twit who has been put in charge of Zorro.
The novel really is a streamlined thriller; there’s also a “Washington politics” subplot in which an eager young congressman named Heath hooks up with a muckracking journalist. The two have gotten wind that something big is going on in China, something being held from the public, and strike up a partnership to uncover it. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s even a bit of Bond-esque action, as Starr learns that a freelance spy named Pairvent has been monitoring Zorro Battle Group’s activities from his yacht – like a regular Goldfinger, Pairvent briefly captures Starr, giving him a Flemingesque speech, before Zorro Group shows up to save the day.
Chamberlain equips his fictional battle group with some crazy stuff. Most importantly there are “flying jeeps,” which look like “oversize manhole covers” and are like these flying wedges (with only a metal railing to protect the drivers!). These things fire compressed needles – thousands of needles that wipe out anything in their path. Chamberlain shows these in effect in a few instances and the horrific carnage is well captured. Zorro Group infantry wears body armor and big helmets that feature night vision binoculars and face plates; they carry a “combination ray rifle and grenade launcher.” The soldiers also wear “grasshopper harnesses,” which feature twin jets at the waist that allow the men to fly. The sci-fi weaponry extends to the Air Force; C304 transport planes unleash “ray guns” on attackers late in the novel, incinerating them out of the sky.
Other than the “needle gun run” which saves Starr from Pairvent, there isn’t much action until around page 165, which is when the assault on the Takla Makan complex begins. There isn’t even much in the way of adult shenanigans; this is very much a Boy’s Own adventure, with the only female character being a hooker/freelance spy named Monica who is hired to screw Starr and set him up for the kill via Pairvent, but she gets second thoughts, realizing how in deep she truly is, and she instead tries to save Starr. She ends up striking a deal to turn over all the info she’s gleaned from her traitorous actions, even scoring an off-page meeting with the President.
The climactic assault upon the nuclear complex is effectively done, if a bit threadbare at times. Indeed Chamberlain ends one chapter with Zorro Battle Group about to parachute out of the C304 transport planes to begin the attack, Starr in the lead in his own flying jeep, but next chapter the assault is already well under way. Given the amount of tension leading up to the attack, I thought it would’ve made sense for us readers to actually witness the opening moments of it. Chamberlain cuts around his large cast of military characters, showing the experimental weaponry in play. The needle guns do the usual gory damage, and there’s also something called “flashpalm” which sets off holocaustal flames.
Chamberlain is gifted enough that, despite the overwhelming amount of characters who compete for attention in a 190-page book, you still care enough when some of them bite the bullet. Zorro Battle Group suffers losses in the fight, and Chamberlain succinctly captures Starr’s remorse, brief as it may be – again, the novel is shorn of the sap that would be mandatory today, with Starr sticking to a military resolve, which is necessary in combat. No time for hysterics. Hell, there’s a part where he meets with General Kennedy shortly before shipping out to begin the assault; Kennedy offers Starr the night off to go be with his wife and kids, and Starr says no thanks – they’d just affect his mental resolve!
All told, China Strike is pretty entertaining, and certainly has the feel of a men’s adventure magazine story of the day. In fact I’d bet it was excerpted in one of them, just like China Bomb was. This one’s a good example of how to write a military-style thriller but still retain the immediacy of men’s adventure action-pulp. If anything I wish there had been a bit more action in it, and less about the preparation side of things, but that’s just a minor complaint.