Monday, December 4, 2017

Men Who Die Twice (Mind Brothers #3)

Men Who Die Twice, by Peter Heath
No month stated, 1968  Lancer Books

Okay, consider me officially confused. Supposedly the third and final volume of The Mind Brothers, Men Who Die Twice instead comes off like a standalone spy thriller, one that’s only connected to the previous two books in that it features the same protagonist, Jason Starr. Otherwise it’s as if Peter Heath (aka Peter Heath Fine, who actually died in 1995 and not 1975, as mistakenly reported in my review of the first volume) has distanced himself from the series concept.

As we’ll recall, the first volume was mostly sci-fi, about Jason Starr dying in ‘Nam and being reborn via his “mind brother” identical twin Adam Cyber, who came from 50,000 years in the future to see what the world was once like (and to also help fight the Commies, let’s not forget!). Then the second volume sort of jettisoned all that; Jason Starr was more of a regular ‘60s spy type, complete with all kinds of fancy gadgets and gear, and Cyber was relegated to supporting status, off-page for the majority of the narrative. The “Mind Brothers” concept was barely even discussed. A new character, teenager Mark Brown, was introduced – but in the climax of the book, we learned that Mark had been sent into the future by that volume’s villains, and also that Cyber had been sent to the Earth’s core “five minutes ago.” And the book ended on this dual cliffhanger.

Given this, the reader of the third volume would understandably want to know what happens next. Well folks, you can forget the hell about all that. All of it!! There is zero, zilch, nada pickup from the previous volume, or even the first volume. Neither Adam Cyber nor Mark Brown appear, and they aren’t even mentioned. The phrase “Mind Brothers” appears nowhere in the text. Again, the only tie-in to those earlier books is the appearance of Jason Starr, who here appears to be retconned into a “self-employed mathemetician,” one who has lots of Intelligence-world background.

So what the hell?? My assumption is Heath turned in the first book and got the request to turn it into a series, which he fumblingly did with the second volume. But maybe he had a hard time of it, or lost his interest. All the sci-fi wankery of the previous two books is gone in this one – honestly, it’s just your typical ‘60s spy-pulp, and not a particularly good one at that. It’s beyond frustrating for the reader of those first two novels, though. I guess we’re to assume Adam Cyber really did die in the climax of the previous book (an off-page death at that?). So much for his much-ballyhooed voyage across the millennia to come help Jason Starr.

Anyway when Men Who Die Twice opens, Jason is in a stopover in London, on his way to a vacation in Greece(!?). He’s stopped by a phone call in which some dude named Harry Brentwood pleads with Jason to come see him at some hospital. This guy somehow knows Jason and claims it’s a life or death sort of thing, etc, but when Jason gets to the place, they claim there’s no Harry Brentwood there. Plus there’s a stooge who throws Jason out on his ass. The whole place seems mysterious, and Jason tries to figure out the puzzle.

Meanwhile Heath hopscotches all over the place with random incidents and events. For example there’s a doctor named Derby in an underground research lab somewhere in the Midwest, a place where hallucinogenics and germs are being studied for warfare; Derby contaminates the area, massacring everyone, before he escapes – and we get an overlong sequence in which the military wonders if they need to nuke the area to prevent outspread of the contamination. There’s also a nuclear sub commanded by a dude who reports to Derby – who in reality turns out to be a former Nazi spy named Rudi Vreelander.

Jason, still in London, meets pretty young Moira, who claims to be Harry Brentwood’s fiance. At great length we’ll learn that Harry was a scientist at this very same underground lab we just saw – an eerie subplot has it that the scientists, upon their eventual release to the world, have their minds swapped, so that they have no memories of their research beneath the ground. Jason goes around London and over to Scotland in his research, getting in the occasional action scene, and also at one point briefly captured by a bumbling pair of CIA agents, one of whom Jason knows from his (apparent) past life with the agency.

Our hero does get to use at least one gadget this time around; captured again, midway through, Jason’s on a private plane, when he pushes his way free and jumps right out into the night sky. Turns out he’s wearing an experimental “balloon” on his back and thus makes his leisurely descent to the ground. But otherwise Jason is in pure investigative mode this time around, with none of the action-pulp of the previous two books. The majority of the novel is given over to one-off characters; even the President features in an endless subplot in which he wonders if his military commanders are trying to pressure him into what could be an unjust war against Russia – the USSR being set up by Vreelander, who hopes to spark WWIII.

The action eventually climaxes aboard that nuclear sub, which has gone rogue under the command of Vreelander’s henchman. It’s off the coast of Sardinia – where Vreelander himself has been anticlimactically dispensed with – and about to fire off a salvo of nukes. Jason alone storms the ship and tries to stop its insane commander, but here the novel does veer into sci-fi: DC gets nuked! Vreelander’s dude manages to fire off one rocket, and Heath ends the tale with DC a radioactive ruins. Jason, finally setting off for Greece, hopes that mankind “learns something” from the catastrophic event, but figures it won’t.

And that’s it – for the book and the series. Really, this novel was so unconnected to the previous two that you might as well just figure this “Jason Starr” is not the same guy who appeared in those other books. Sort of like how Daniel Craig isn’t playing James Bond, but another character of the same name. I enjoyed the first two books to some extent, but Men Who Die Twice left me cold – and confused.


Johny Malone said...

Is there a guy playing a guitar in the novel? I say by the cover :)

TiedGame said...

Jason Starr later became a well-known author of crime novels and other writings.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys -- and Johnny, I too was misled by that cover! No, there's no guitar playing to be found in "Men Who Die Twice." Ironically, it's that teenaged supporting character in the previous volume who was a folk-rock guitarist or I guess the cover artist got his wires crossed.