By Scott A. Cupp
This is the 200th in my series of Forgotten Books.
Finally, we reach review number 200. Seems odd to be there. But I have been doing this since 2010, so there have been several significant breaks in the time frame. And what to look at? I was thinking the other day about a friend I made in 1967 when I was still in high school and I had just moved to San Antonio. I knew no one and it was still a little bit until school started. One of the first guys I met was Ken B. Ken lived a couple of blocks away on Ft. Sam Houston. And, like me, he was a science fiction fan.
One day Ken gave me a book that changed my life. It was the Lancer edition of The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock. The blue Jack Gaughan cover caught my fancy and the stories brought me into the fantasy worlds that were starting to take America by storm. He followed Stealer up with Stormbringer and one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan adventures. I was hooked on this type of literature. Moorcock and Howard moved to the top of my favorite reads. How was I to ever guess that one day I would know Mike Moorcock and would buy a story from him for a book I got to co-edit called Cross Plains Universe? I got to meet Mike! I got to edit a book! I got to buy an original story from a hero! Who would ever guess such a development?
So, it has been 50 years! Yet, somehow in 200 book reviews I have not done a Moorcock title! Elric books cannot be considered a forgotten title no matter what criteria I use. And that’s true of a large portion of Mike’s work. But as I was looking over the shelves the other day, The Chinese Agent leapt off the shelf and into my hands.
Sure, I had read it in the Seventies, but that was a long, long time ago, and I have read many, many books in that time, so it might just as well have been new to me. I did not read the original version of this novel, which was called Somewhere in the Night by Bill Barclay, from a smaller British paperback publisher in 1966. Mike rewrote it and made it into a humorous spy novel starring Jeremiah “Jerry” Cornell, a lower-level British spy.
The novel begins with half-Chinese American jewel thief Arthur Hodgkiss surveying the British Crown Jewels. He is known internationally as Jewelry Jules. While casing the Tower, another man approaches him and utters a phrase that is meant to identify a spy. Hodgkiss inadvertently gives the proper countersign and receives the plans to a secret project.
The main Chinese spy in London, Kung Fu Tzu, wants those plans. British Intelligence wants the plans. A comedy of errors ensues with Kung mistaking Jerry for a master spy with the skills of a Bond or Flint. Unfortunately, Jerry is just amazingly inept or lucky or both.
Cornell became a spy because he had skills which were needed and he did not want to go to prison. He tries to find the plans, only to be led into the paths of his relations on Portobello Road. His relations would make white trash hillbillies look good, especially his Uncle Edmond, who lives in a hovel with no electricity or water. He does have a pile of stuff that may be trash or treasure — and which may be alive.
Cornell does have extraordinary luck with the ladies, who include Shirley Withers, a secretary for his company; Miss Mavis Ming, who appears in later Jerry Cornelius adventures by Moorcock; and the legendary femme fatale Lilli von Bern, who may be a little long in the tooth but can still use sex as a weapon to obtain any information needed.
I had a lot of fun with this book. I will eventually try to find Somewhere in the Night to see what changes Moorcock made. It’s not Elric or Hawkmoon or Corum, but it kept me entertained, pretty much like every Michael Moorcock book I have ever picked up. It would have made a great movie in the day of the spy thrillers. Might still make a good one. Check it out.
Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.