Sometimes I like to take pot luck with books. Two weeks ago I decided to write “retro pulp” into the eBay search bar, for the books category, then filtered prices low to high. I spent 15 minutes browsing through listings and bought the first three books whose covers I liked. This was the first to arrive in the post.

Alien Virus

I read this 1961 edition

My brother is an avid reader and former speciality bookseller. We frequently have the same disagreement. He believes book writing has gotten better over the years whereas I think it’s gotten worse. It’ll go something like this:

“Paperbacks back then were just what daytime TV was ten years ago and YouTube is now. It’s just mass entertainment” he says.
“It’s not the same thing. The quality of books is higher than such trash, and writing for people who need the focus to read two hundred pages is a higher bar than a five minute YouTube or a half hour TV show” I reply.
“It’s the same people. Fifty years ago a man on a construction site would read a paperback in his lunch hour and now he watches a video on his smartphone. But it’s the same person.”
“That man fifty years ago was smarter, better educated, and higher-t than his equivalent now so the entertainment was better.”
“The average book reader has changed. Fifty years ago the average book reader was the average person. Now the average book reader is higher than average IQ and literacy. The average people are watching YouTube.”

Who you think is closer to the truth doesn’t matter to me for this review, but you now better understand my position towards old paperbacks and why I don’t look down on them as trash. Alan Caillou’s Alien Virus is a good example of how a bog-standard no-frills pulp paperback is, in terms of literary quality, equivalent to a considerably above-average book by today’s depressing standards of literature [1]

First things first, I have no idea why it has a title appropriate to a Sci Fi book. There are no viruses in this book. Neither real, such as bio-weapons, nor figurative, such as Marxism. It’s an espionage thriller set in Cairo following a British agent attempting to discover and then thwart a Soviet attempt to bring about the downfall of an Egyptian government favourable to UK interests. If you’re really stretching things, you could say the “alien virus” is that foreigners from multiple countries bringing their own conflicts into your country and using it as a battleground is a nasty virus brought by aliens [2]

UNCLE Ep014 Alain Caillou

This is the actual author. No joke.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how thick the local atmosphere is. It begins with a sleazy Italian informer waking up in a brothel in Egypt’s red light district and stumbling upon a list of names typed onto a sheet of paper, his theft of which kicks off the whole story. Consider the opening paragraph:

“When he awoke, the sweet sickly scent of the bordello was thick in his nostrils. The purple satin quilt had fallen to the floor so that it lay brightly close to the red plush armchair on which his clothes had been carelessly, hurriedly thrown. His jacket was too far tossed over its back so that the pockets were upside down and their contents had fallen out and were strewn untidily over the floor. A silk stocking lay beside them on the green carpet, a thin ladder in it clearly visible as if put there deliberately to disgust him with its cheapness. He was not disgusted; it was too constant an episode in his life.”

I like that. It’s not great literature but it’s highly competent. It sets the scene for the sleaze to follow as spies, agitators, hookers, informers, embezzlers and all the other riffraff in Cairo rub shoulders and figure out how to each out-scheme the other. The whole time the smells, sounds and buzz of the city is thick and alive. I’d discover later the reason everything rings so true is that the author was a spy and he’d lived in Cairo.

This book does a good job of presenting a world where everyone has an angle, nothing comes for free, and suspicion rules the day. There are bad guys (such as the scrawny weasel Arab pimp who guts a hooker on Soviet orders) and also good guys (such as the Commander of the British delegation in Cairo) but they are all tainted by the grime of the city. Nobody’s hat is truly white or black. It’s all grimy. In that sense, it’s like reading hard-boiled detective fiction.

The book’s languid pace matches the stifling North African climate and despite this it never gets dull. The plot threads weave together steadily, all the characters act believably, and except for the main protagonist you get the sense that any other character could be killed if circumstances go against them.

I quite like the Cold War atmosphere. This was written in 1957 when the Soviets really were the greatest danger to world peace. Stalin had been dead just a few years and all but the Leftist intelligentsia of the UK [3] admitted he’d murdered millions and now Khruschev had taken over. The Suez Crisis was ongoing and is relevant to the plot as the UK delegation is using discussions between Israel and the UK as a cover for their real plan. The writer (real name: Alan Samuel Lyle-Smythe M.B.E) had a very interesting life having worked in the Intelligence Corps, spoke Arabic, was almost executed in Italy, fought with the partisans in Yugoslavia in WWII and finally worked as both a professional hunter and a television actor featuring in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

There’s no special reason to read this book as it’s just one of a long long line of competent paperbacks from its era. But if the idea of a, authentic spy thriller set in the dirty streets of Cairo at the height of the Cold War grabs you, you could do a lot worse.

If you like reading books you absolutely must buy Daygame Infinite if for no other reason than I’d like the money and could put it to better use than you will.

Mens Action

I used to own a few of these Odhams editions

[1] Mainly because he’s not a faggot.
[2] So, Europe now with the 3rd World and Muslim invasions. They have to go back.
[3] All of the intelligentsia, that is. Well, perhaps not as bad as it is nowadays.