Monday, July 19, 2021

The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer

The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer, by Fritz Gordon
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

This obscure Award PBO turns out to be a light espionage comedy; not an out-and-out satire like the Man From O.R.G.Y. books, but more of a caper in which a trio of agents bumble their way through an assignment. While there is some action, it is not the focus of the novel; suspense is more of the driver, as the characters try to find the blueprints for the titular saucer. But the suspense is mostly played for laughs. 

The most interesting thing about The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer is the mystery it presents. The year after this novel was published, a film titled The Bamboo Saucer was released, directed by Frank Telford and starring Dan Duryea and John Ericson. I was under the impression the film was based on this novel, but it turns out to be a completely different story (actually, one that’s much better than the novel), and the author of the novel, Fritz Gordon, isn’t credited anywhere in the film. So either the film producers ripped off the title, or it was just a coincidence that two separate stories would have such similar titles…or maybe it’s a Blade Runner sort of thing, where William S. Burroughs came up with the title for that film adaptation of a Philip Dick story. But then, Burroughs was credited. Gordon isn’t credited. 

And that’s another mystery…as it turns out, “Fritz Gordon” is a pseudonym; the copyright page credits Fred G. Jarvis and Robert F. Van Beever as the authors of The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer. And neither of these guys are mentioned in the film credits, either. This leads me to believe that my first proposition is the correct one; the filmmakers just lifted the title without credit. And truth be told, they do a damned better job of bringing the title to life, because friends believe it or not, a “bamboo saucer” never appears in the novel! We only learn of its aftermath, and the trio of protagonists shuttle around the globe looking for its blueprints. 

Whereas the saucer in the film is of alien origin, the saucer in this novel is wholly terrestial. Indeed, there isn’t any sci-fi content in The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer, other than the saucer itself, which we learn was designed by Otto Von Arnstead, a Werner Von Braun type. The novel opens with the saucer’s brief appearance, but in each case we only learn of it after it’s passed through. We’re told that Von Arnsted’s barn in Vermont has exploded, a saucer spinning across the sky from the wreckage (at 12,000 miles per hour!), and next we know a passenger airline over the Grand Canyon runs into it with disastrous results. But even here the saucer is never seen; the entire sequence is relayed from the perspective of the pilots, who try to evade this mysterious flying object but are unable to. This will be the last we see of the saucer. 

As mentioned the focus of the novel is the hunt for the blueprints; Von Arnsted as it turns out created the saucer on the side, and kept it from the US government. A la Von Braun he was brought over from Nazi Germany to work on the space program. He also has a son in his 20s or thereabouts who worked on the saucer with him. Not that any of this matters, as both of these characters are dead before the story even begins; they are killed in the barn explosion. Oh and the title turns out to be misdirection: the saucer itself is not made of bamboo. “Bamboo saucer” just happens to be the codename a CIA officer comes up with for the project, given that Red China factors into the plot. 

Our ostensible hero is Schuyler Townsend, a sort of wealthy gaddabout publisher who happens to be a CIA agent on the side. We get our indication of the “light comedy” tone of the novel when we meet Shuyler; he is in one of those long-running chess matches with a female acquaintance, and she falls asleep while mulling over her next move. So as you can see, this isn’t even very funny. But this is the sort of “comedy” we have throughout. Again, I would’ve preferred a straight-up novelization of the pulpy Bamboo Saucer flick. Shuyler is almost asexual, more of a foppish dweeb than the action-prone protagonist you’d expect (but then possibly a more realistic portrayal of an undercover agent). That said he does shoot a guy out of a helicopter early in the book, but this will be his only action moment. 

The authors make it clear that the espionage world is mostly comprised of overgrown boys playing Cowboys and Indians on a global scale. This is most pronounced in the character of Sasha Petrov, a KGB goofball who does the heavy lifting in the sex department, though the entirety of it happens off-page. A blonde bear of a man, Petrov is a rapacious skirt-chaser and plows through sundry women in the course of the novel, to the extent that he’s constantly reprimanded for shirking his duty by his superiors. Heading up the US wing of the undercover KGB operations, Petrov also gets wind of the terrestial saucer and goes about his own scheming to get the blueprints for the USSR. 

The third spy in this group is Major Jasper, a Brit who acts as the chief of undercover intelligence for the Chinese – or Red Chinese, as they’re most often referred to. He actually turns out to be the prime mover of the plot, and perhaps the closest we get to a villain, but the authors don’t present him that way. Jasper has his own share of the narrative, which has him working for the Chinese so as to get revenge on his countrymen, and as the novel proceeds he actually takes up more of the plot. So too does Madame Sun Loo, one of Jasper’s agents; her age is never disclosed, but she has two college-age sons and yet is still beautiful enough to stop a few of the male characters in their tracks. She runs a Chinese restaurant, which is part of a network of similar restaurants around the world that are really fronts for Chinese spies. I’ll remember this the next time I go into a Panda Express! 

Early in the assignment Shuyler is attacked by some Russian goons in a helicopter in Vermont, and he shoots a few of them in spectacularly bloodless fashion. But as mentioned this will be it for the action. Instead the authors just focus on the espionage, with the Commie agents plotting and counterplotting; Jasper and Petrov in particular have a bitter rivalry. The first half of the book really features Sun Loo, whose son suffers for her espionage; working as Von Arnsted’s apprentice, he’s stolen the blueprints, only for Major Jasper to plan the poor kid’s death when he is captured by Shuyler and looks like he’s about to blab everything. This leads to Shuyler thinking that Sun Loo plotted her own son’s death, and he confronts her in her restaurant, calling her a “monster.” This whole scene is very much at odds with anything else I’ve read in spy fiction, especially given that Sun Loo is innocent…and runs back to her room to cry! 

She has another son, though, of the same age, and she just as eagerly involves him in the Commie planning of Major Jasper. But the plotting is overly complicated; the blueprints are mailed to Venice, and the three agents rush off in pursuit. It’s all played as a light comedy, like if Ernst Lubitsch did a spy thriller, only with none of the sex appeal – Madame Loo is the only main female character in the novel, and she has no real interraction with any of the characters. Eventually we also meet Major Jasper’s estranged wife, who factors into the plot in that she’s dedicated to her causes and willing to sacrifice herself for them. 

But to tell the truth, folks, I just wanted to read about that damn saucer. And sad to say, it’s nowhere to be found. The title of this book is misdrection of the lowest order. The “flight” of the bamboo saucer happens on the first few pages, and that’s it! Instead it’s a bumbling affair as these three agents go around the world looking for the blueprints, all the while plotting against one another – even having to ride the same airplane at one point – as they go through Europe, into India, and finally into Bali, chasing after the blueprints. It’s just all so boring and lackluster, honestly, as you care about none of these characters, or the Maguffin of the blueprints. 

I guess Sasha Petrov is the character who most comes to life, as he’s a loafer who is more interested in chasing women and constantly shirks his duties. But even his material isn’t very risque; we have sequences of him meeting various women, but it’s all left off page, and the authors don’t even do much to exploit the ample charms of Petrov’s many conquests. It’s all just very tame, and it’s another one of those books where I wonder why it even exists. 

There isn’t even a big climax; the blueprints make their way into a particular coffin in Bali and Shuyler watches as Jasper and Petrov make fools of themselves. It’s easy to see why this paperback original didn’t make much of an impact, and has been forgotten by the ages. Again the only thing really interesting about it is the apparent aspect that it’s title was lifted for a film – a much superior film. But be aware if you ever come across this novel that there is no “bamboo saucer” and the majority of the book is composed of various secret agents flying in airplanes and plotting against one another.

1 comment:

Marty McKee said...

Thanks for the heads-up, because if I had seen this book in a store, I would have naturally assumed the film was based on it. THE BAMBOO SAUCER is not a good movie, btw, despite Dan Duryea being in it.