Microfilm concealed in a pack of cigarettes exposes strange goings-on in Denmark. Is THRUSH building flying saucers as part of their latest world-conquest scheme? It's up to the men from U.N.C.L.E., Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, to don their anoraks and find out.
This third of the "Man From U.N.C.L.E." tie-in novels, published in 1965 just as the TV series was hitting its peak, is a good example of an adventure story which manages to please and entertain in every way except in terms of the adventure itself.
Author John Oram makes a lot of effort to use the Danish setting to its fullest potential. Whether it's an opening action sequence set in the wilds of Seeland, a standoff in a seedy Copenhagen neighborhood, or a snowy finale amid the steep cliffs of Jutland, Oram works hard to ground the story in this colorful but often-overlooked (for Americans) coastal nation.
Oram sets one scene thusly: "There's no traffic problem in Stroget. It has long been closed to all traffic on wheels except baby carriages. So you can stroll around at leisure, crossing from side to side of the street with no risk to life and limb. Oddly, this security takes some getting used to. You can always pick out an Englishman or an American by the way he stays grimly on the sidewalk while the Danes parade happily along the middle of the road."
For "U.N.C.L.E." fans, Napoleon and Illya as presented here may not connect up with the TV series characters, but they come across as three-dimensional characters more than they did in the first two books, with Napoleon showing spleen and temper. They are aided by several Danes who the author takes pains to give individuality to. Even the bad guys are given color and vigor.
In a book as short as this one, such attention to setting and character means something has to give. In this case, that something is the plot. What exactly THRUSH is up to with the flying saucers is never really addressed. What few moments there are of suspense are brushed aside too quickly. If not for a couple of ludicrous enemy escapes, the story would be wrapped up even quicker than it is. Too often, a description of some plot point, say preparations made for an assault on a THRUSH fortress, are interrupted so people can have some Christmas punch and aquavit and soak in the ambiance of Denmark one more time.
The one part of the book involving the most suspense ironically features neither Solo nor Kuryakin, but an opening chase showcasing a faceoff between a salesman who stumbles onto the scene and THRUSH's head satrap in Denmark. I give Oram credit for not resolving this in the expected way, and additional points for having the THRUSH leader come across as something other than diabolically efficient and ruthless without scotching the plot.
Mostly I enjoyed this novel a great deal as a kind of time-capsule travelogue with shootouts and occasional call-outs in the direction of a fondly-remembered 1960s television show. I'm not sure I can recommend it to someone not interested in the same things, but I wouldn't mind again experiencing Oram's singular style with a spy novel - compelling characters, deep settings - in addition to just a bit stronger plot.
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