The Man From U.N.C.L.E.Perhaps you would have to be a baby boomer to fully understand just how big a deal The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was back in the mid to late 1960s. Riding the crest of the spy-wave mania created by the seismic shock that were the James Bond films starting in 1962, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. debuted on NBC TV in September 1964 and ran for four seasons; well, actually, 3 ½, that final season having the plug pulled on it after just 16 episodes. For many of us kids back then, the show was, simply, one of the coolest things we had ever seen on TV. The program showcased the international crime-fighting organization known as U.N.C.L.E. – the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement – and its unceasing battle to fight criminals around the world, most specifically its foremost nemesis, the terrorist organization known as THRUSH (a stand-in for 007’s archenemy organization SPECTRE). Each week, in a four-chaptered, one-hour episode, U.N.C.L.E. agents Napoleon Solo (played with debonair suaveness by NYC-born actor Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (Solo’s Russian sidekick, portrayed by Scottish heartthrob David McCallum) traveled around the world to fight those would-be world dictators and criminal masterminds, in a series that only grew wilder as it proceeded, over the course of its 105 episodes.

Season 1 of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – in B&W, naturally – was a very serious-minded bunch of episodes, for the most part. As of Season 2, the program switched to color, and the seriousness was slowly leavened with a dose of pleasing humor; for many of us, this season was the finest of the four. With the beginning of Season 3, the producers decided to “camp things up,” spurred on by the success of the Batman program on ABC, and with fairly disastrous results. Finally, in the aborted Season 4, the program saw a return to the grim seriousness of the first season. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a worldwide phenomenon, as it turned out, and its six two-part episodes were even cobbled together to create theatrical films for overseas audiences. The program also generated a whole industry of subsidiary merchandise: board games, lunchboxes, fan magazines, car toys, comic books, toy guns, walkie-talkies, plastic model kits, ID badges and on and on. Oh … and paperback books, 23 of them, starting in 1965 and continuing until 1969, each one depicting a whole new and original adventure; these were not merely novelizations of episodes already shown on television. And the paperback books are the items that I would like to discuss here.

Over the years, this reader has managed to find and purchase all 23 of those 23 books in the wild. I read the first half dozen or so as a yute way back when, but never stopped buying them whenever I would come across one in a used-book shop. But just recently, the urge came over me to finally sit down and read all 23 of the books that I had managed to collect over the years. My thoughts on those books can be found below; a handy guide to U.N.C.L.E. paperbacks 1 – 23, I hope, from an admitted old fan with a sharp sense of nostalgia coloring his judgements.

(By the way, I should perhaps mention here that my references to Book #7, Book #22 and so on in the minireviews below pertain only to this Ace series. In the U.K., the order of publication was very different. Of the 23 U.N.C.L.E. books discussed in this column, only 16 were originally released in Britain by Four Square Books; the seven novels never published there are Ace Books #10 – 15 and Book #17. To make matters even more confusing, many of the U.N.C.L.E. novels were published in England before they were released in the U.S. It’s enough to make your head spin. For matters of convenience only, I have proceeded in these comments taking the Ace chronological order as canonical; a rather provincial outlook, I know.)

#1) The Man From U.N.C.L.E., by Michael Avallone The Man From U.N.C.L.E., by Michael Avallone#1) The Man From U.N.C.L.E. by Michael Avallone

Also known as The Thousand Coffins Affair, this debut U.N.C.L.E. novel is the only one in the series not to feature the name of the “Affair” on its front cover; only on the title page. In this one, a THRUSH chemist, the hideously burnt-faced Golgotha, has invented a blood catalyst that not only causes a person to lose mental and physical control of his or her body, leading to a rapid demise, but then to disintegrate shortly after death! After two entire villages – in Africa and Scotland – are wiped out, and an investigating U.N.C.L.E. chemist is himself killed, Solo goes to (the actual location of) Oberteisendorf in Germany to collect his body for autopsy. He is joined by a female operative named Geraldine “Jerry” Terry from U.S. Army Intelligence, and the two learn that Golgotha has not only perfected his lethal chemical, but has stockpiled an entire supply somewhere nearby. This first U.N.C.L.E. outing in printed form is fast moving, suspenseful and intelligent; a nice opener for the series, in all. Highlights include Solo being trapped in a sealed Parisian hotel room from which the air is slowly being vacated; the airplane battle between Solo and Jerry and a “THRUSHie” in a MIG fighter; “The Little Ease” torture that Golgotha forces Solo and Jerry to undergo (during which the two are mother-naked; pretty hot stuff for the baby-boomer boys back when!); the white-hot poker torture threatened by THRUSH colonel Denise Fairmount; and the book’s finale in a German cemetery, during which Solo and Illya go up against Golgotha and his minions. Avallone proves himself to be a very decent writer here, peppering his book with literary allusions from Shakespeare to Ellery Queen, mentioning the famous painting “September Morn,” and throwing in some fancy verbiage such as “escritoire” and “halation.” (Still, he embarrassingly uses the word “satrap” instead of “satrapy” several times, as well as the word “skeletized” instead of “skeletonized.”) The author, happily enough, though, does seem to have done his homework as regards weapons and tech matters; thus, the book’s mention of M-1 walkie-talkies, the Beechcraft Debonair, trench knives, and the C-47 plane. Golgotha makes for a very good and grotesque villain, if a bit underused, and we also get to learn something about our two U.N.C.L.E. agents that we had not known before: Illya’s middle name is Nickovetch, and Napoleon’s stated credo is “I like life, cigarettes and coffee. And girls.” A few missteps on the author’s part do crop up, sadly enough, such as when he shows us Alexander Waverly, our heroes’ boss, thinking of Solo as “the young idiot” (Leo G. Carroll’s Waverly in the TV show was never hinted at having such a thought), and when Solo fails to kill the unconscious Golgotha when he has an opportunity to do so, despite having bemoaned the fact earlier that he had failed to slay Denise Fairmount. Still, despite everything, a very fine U.N.C.L.E. novel, haunting in parts, that kick-starts this series off in a rousing manner.

#2) The Doomsday Affair by Harry WhittingtonThe Doomsday Affair by Harry Whittington#2) The Doomsday Affair by Harry Whittington

When U.N.C.L.E. gets wind of a Thrush bigwig only known as Tixe Ylno (yes, that is “Exit Only” spelled backwards) and his/her plan to cause global devastation, Napoleon and Illya endeavor to discover just what is going on. I have long been a fan of an exciting, alternating story line, and Whittington’s book gives us a doozy. Thus, in Oahu, Solo meets defecting Thrush agent Ursula Baynes-Neefirth, who is killed when an exploding lei blows her face right off! Solo then engages in a breakneck car chase around Honolulu with some minor Thrushies and later gets into a street fight with some knife-wielding thugs. Meanwhile, Illya is framed for Ursula’s murder by Thrush agent Samuel Su Yan, arrested by the cops, paralyzed in his jail cell by a Thrush chemical, breaks out somehow, and later races around Honolulu trying to escape. In Acapulco, Illya goes after Su Yan and is unfortunately paralyzed again, while Solo travels to San Francisco to interview nightclub entertainer Barbry Coast, a friend of the late Ursula. And finally, in a former insane asylum in California now covering as a Thrush base, the U.N.C.L.E. agents – reunited again – and Barbry try to stop Thrush’s plan to drop an atomic bomb somewhere in the U.S. Whittington’s only novel in the series is tough, fast moving and colorful. The author demonstrates that he has also done his homework as regards tech matters (hence, the Ian Fleming-like references to the Berns-Martin holster, the Accutron watch, the Karmann Ghia car, the Astra pistol) as well as the geography of Honolulu (Kapiolani Park and around a dozen actual street names are mentioned). Sam Su Yan and Tixe Ylno make for very acceptable villains, as does Violet Wild, a particularly nasty villainess who is sadly underused here. The book features a very suspenseful wrap-up, as that bomb is being loaded onto its jet carrier while Solo lies paralyzed, his friends equally helpless. Whittington writes well and effectively, with a gift for well-rendered dialogue. I particularly like when he has Su Yan say of the U.N.C.L.E. agents “Heroics … A kind of illness with these people,” and when Waverly is described as having “rhesus-monkey eyes.” Still, the book has its problems. Tixe Ylno’s actual identity is way too easy to figure out, Su Yan’s mysterious disappearance from an 8th floor balcony is never explained, and the fact that three separate car chases in the book end with an automobile falling over a cliff is really two too many. The book’s inclusion of the Oahu and Acapulco locales seems forced, and the number and names of the departments in the U.N.C.L.E. organization differ from what Avallone had told us in Book 1. (Granted, things might have changed during the interim.) Odd that Napoleon has no romantic dalliances in this book, as well. All told, a solid if flawed effort, but still one that kept me enthralled throughout.

#3) The Copenhagen Affair by John Oram#3) The Copenhagen Affair by John Oram

Reports of flying saucers over the area of Jutland in Denmark bring Napoleon and Illya to the area to investigate. As it turns out, Thrush is up to its old tricks again, this time using an abandoned, underground Nazi factory to build these new flying devices that can not only fly horizontally, but straight up and down … and, even worse, the evil organization is loading these new experimental craft with atomic bombs, to boot! At just 144 pages, this is one of the slimmest of the U.N.C.L.E. novels by a good 15 pages, but still manages to cram some tough action and scenic color into its taut story line. Highlights of this outing include Solo’s being captured in Copenhagen by a passel of Thrushies and no fewer than three back-to-back-to-back finales. In the first, Solo and Kuryakin, along with three of their Danish allies, attack the underground factory from above and below; in the second, our heroes must infiltrate a maternity ward being used by Thrush to rescue one of their captured female agents, Karen; and in the last, Solo and Illya attempt to apprehend the story’s main villain, Major Garbridge, racing across the wintry Jutland landscape to do so. This outing has been given some remarkable color and realistic backdrop by Oram, who obviously knew the country well or else did a prodigious amount of research before writing his book. Thus, the references to all those actual streets in Copenhagen (Vimmelskatet, Nygade, Ostergade, and on and on), the Queens cigarettes, the Politiken newspaper, the Tuborg beer, the smorrebrod sandwiches, the Cherry Heering liqueur, the Obel cigars and so much more, to the point of becoming almost a travelogue of sorts. Garbridge, an Irishman who moved to Denmark before WW2 and became a Nazi collaborator, makes for an interesting villain, and his minions make for a motley bunch; especially colorful is Sister Ingrid, a sadistic old matron in that maternity hospital who loves torturing victims in her basement chamber. Our U.N.C.L.E. agents are also given a likeable trio of allies in this outing, including Jens Johannes O’Flaherty, whose life Solo had once saved, as well as the former Danish Resistance fighters Knud Sorensen and the Viking-like Viggo Jacobsen. Oram also provides us, for the first time, with a fascinating look at the organizational setup of Thrush itself. So yes, the book is fast moving, fascinating and often grim, not to mention very well written, and its depiction of Copenhagen during the Christmas season is well drawn. But problems do unfortunately crop up. For one thing, Alexander Waverly is described as being in his early 50s in this book, whereas Leo G. Carroll was in his early to mid-70s when the program ran on NBC … and looked it. Once again, the word “satrap” is used instead of “satrapy.” Perhaps most surprising, especially for an author who seems so well versed with the country of Denmark, is the fact that Jutland is referred to repeatedly as being an island, when it is of course a European peninsula! It is unfortunate, too, that the character of Mike Stanning, an American engineer who becomes involved with a doomed female U.N.C.L.E. agent, Norah Bland, in the early chapters of the book, disappears after page 32. He seemed like a pretty tough and smooth operator himself who might have made for another good ally. Oh, well. In all, though, a very respectable entry in this series.

The Dagger Affair by David McDaniel#4) The Dagger Affair, by David McDaniel#4) The Dagger Affair by David McDaniel

David McDaniel enjoys a reputation as being the best of the 10 authors who lent their hand at writing an U.N.C.L.E. novel for this 23-book series, and in his first of six offerings, we get a chance to see why this is so. In this very solid entry, a nihilistic “mad scientist,” Kim Keldur, has come up with an Energy Damper device with which he hopes to eliminate all life on Earth. His Dagger organization is indeed so very intimidating that Thrush, startlingly enough, proposes a temporary truce with U.N.C.L.E. until after the dire emergency is over. Highlights of this fine outing include a Thrush interrogation of Napoleon and Illya to ascertain just what they know about Dagger; a tense sequence at Boulder Dam, at which a Dagger agent is attempting to plant a miniaturized version of the Energy Damper; the retrieval of that minidevice at California’s Shaver Lake, after a Thrush attempt to steal it; a blackout at U.N.C.L.E. HQ in NYC, after that same device tamps out all power there; the stunning scene in which four Thrushies arrive at U.N.C.L.E. HQ to propose that truce … and a provisional alliance; Napoleon, Illya and Mr. Waverly’s meeting with Ward Baldwin, the head of Thrush in San Francisco, and his wife Irene; a gunfight in an electronics warehouse; the ingenious and harrowing torture of a Dagger agent utilizing the San Francisco cable car system; another firefight, this one in a Dagger workshop, followed by a San Francisco car chase sequence that gives the one in Bullitt a run for its money; the final battle in an Oakland airport hangar; and, shades of a James Bond movie, a final action coda, just when you thought things were winding down. As you can see, nonstop thrills from beginning to end! McDaniel’s book provides colorful backdrops of the Los Angeles, Boulder Dam, and Bay Area locales, as well as interesting factoids concerning Waverly’s beginnings with U.N.C.L.E., and the history of Thrush. And, for the first time, flabbergastingly enough, we learn that “Thrush” is also an acronym, and that it stands for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity! Also of interest: the fact that Napoleon is 33 years old (was this ever stated before?), and that Illya’s apartment is in Brooklyn Heights. The author also gets the bantering yet respectful relationship between Solo and Kuryakin just right here, and his book gives the reader some pleasing bits of humor to relieve the suspense. I love it when Napoleon, settling down to watch a 007 movie during a cross-country flight, is told by Illya “I’ll never understand what you see in that escapist nonsense”! Nice to have Mr. Waverly very much a part of the action in this adventure, too, rather than just giving orders from behind a desk; his relationship with Ward Baldwin, his counterpart and a man whose life he once saved during WW1, is a fascinating one. The Baldwins are wonderful characters, by the way, Ward being ruthless and urbane, and Irene sweet and proper … as well as a wicked shot with a Derringer and a holy terror behind the wheel! In all, a wonderfully entertaining installment in the U.N.C.L.E. series.

The Mad Scientist Affair by John T. Phillifent#5) The Mad Scientist Affair by John T. Phillifent#5) The Mad Scientist Affair by John T. Phillifent

McDaniel’s work in The Dagger Affair was surely a tough act to follow, but in U.N.C.L.E. book #5, The Mad Scientist Affair, author John T. Phillifent rose to the task admirably. In this one, our favorite spy organization gets wind that the Italian Thrush biochemist Vittorio Trilli, aided by the goons Angelo Schichi and Karl Foden, have arrived in County Clare, Ireland, and are showing great interest in the most recent discoveries of “King” Mike O’Rourke, a fellow biochemist and chemical researcher at a nearby beer distillery. Kuryakin is tasked to observe O’Rourke’s castle compound and the King’s wrongheaded brunette niece, Bridget, while Solo is sent to a convention in NYC where Sarah, the sweet blonde niece, is giving a lecture on chemical matters. Eventually, the two agents converge in County Clare, and the truth becomes known: Mike O’Rourke has devised two new synthetic chemical compounds, one that is able to remove a person’s sense of caution and make him or her dangerously overconfident, and one that, when placed in the ocean, turns all sea water to foamy sludge. With these two new chemicals, O’Rourke plans to send tens of thousands of cans of contaminated beer to England, as well as decimate the seacoasts of the nearby countries. Highlight sequences of this very solid U.N.C.L.E. outing include Solo getting himself out of a NYC prison after being set up for a murder by Thrush, and Illya being trapped in a quicksand bog near that Irish castle (a very harrowing sequence, indeed!). And then there are the seven back-to-back action scenes that transpire over the course of just 24 hours: Solo being given a dose of that first chemical and being forced to fight Foden in a compromised state; Illya’s underground infiltration of the castle; the pursuit of three lorries filled with that chemical-laden beer, with our agents using a “hypersonic agitator” to maximum effect; the siege of O’Rourke’s castle with guns and bazookas; the horse chase after Foden and Bridget, ending up at that same dangerous bog; the shootout at the brewery; and a sea chase after the villains as they attempt to use that second chemical. No wonder why, after 24 hours’ worth of nonstop action, Solo “felt suddenly very weary, the long hours of ceaseless activity beginning to catch up on him.” It is all highly suspenseful and fairly thrilling stuff, and Phillifent serves his imaginative material well. Still, there are some sticking points. Some of the author’s descriptions tend to be on the fuzzy side, Illya’s entry into the castle is a bit dubious, the trick whereby Sarah (a very fine ally and heroine, by the way) appears to be hanged is insufficiently explained, and the author seems to confuse the words “ingenuous” and “ingenious.” Worse, he gets the names of several U.N.C.L.E. agents wrong. Thus, on page 112 (I am referring here, as always, to the American, not British, editions of these books), we meet an agent named Patterson, and on page 117, he has become Peterson; on page 119, we meet an agent named Stevens, and 11 pages later, he has become Stephens. Still, these are fairly minor matters that most readers will probably not even notice as they become swept up in this outing’s nonstop thrill ride. A pity that O’Rourke, a colorful villain for sure, is underutilized, however, and not really encountered other than in one terrific, early scene. Bonus points, though, for the amusing name of the biochemist who is assassinated in NYC, Dr. Amazov (a tip of the hat to biochemist Isaac Asimov, of course), as well as to the inclusion of the word “caprine.” That was a new one on me! In all, a pretty terrific entry in this series!

#6) The Vampire Affair by David McDaniel#6) The Vampire Affair by David McDaniel

In the first repeat performance by an U.N.C.L.E. author, McDaniel gives us a book that has, over the years, become a fan favorite. In this one, Budapest-based U.N.C.L.E. agent Carl Endros is killed, and completely exsanguinated with a pair of puncture holes in his neck, while investigating the similar murders of a pair of peasants in Rumania’s Transylvania Mountains. His death prompts Mr. Waverly to send Solo and Kuryakin to the area to investigate, and they are assisted by a Rumanian agent, Hilda Eclary, as well as an imposing count who they happen to meet in Hungary, by name of Zoltan Dracula, scion of the legendary house. In the small village of Pokol, the agents are startled to witness the visitations of a vampirelike figure who flies through the air and is impervious to bullets; a figure who looks remarkably like Zoltan’s ancestor Tsepesh Stobolzny, dead now for over 250 years! Highlights of this outing include a street fight in Budapest that our favorite U.N.C.L.E. agents engage in, to rescue Zoltan from a superstitious crowd; Napoleon and Illya getting lost in the woods and beset by wolves; Stobolzny attacking Hilda in her hotel room; the exploration of the tunnels beneath Zoltan’s ancestral castle; Solo and Kuryakin encountering Tsepesh and the wolf pack again in the woods on a foggy night; the stomach-churning sequence in which Illya dissects one of the wolves to see what makes the animal behave so oddly; and the final battle inside that castle. But perhaps the single finest element of this adventure is the wonderful interaction between our two agents throughout, replete with many witty lines of banter as they become increasingly rattled by the supernatural proceedings. McDaniel’s book is highly atmospheric and undeniably fun … especially when he includes the character of Gutte from Book 3, The Copenhagen Affair (the first minor character to make a reappearance in the series), and even more especially so when Solo flabbergastingly bumps into no less a figure than Forrest J Ackerman, real-life editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland, in a Brazov library! So yes, the book, blending as it does horror and espionage elements, is at times a genuine hoot. But is it the very best book in the 23-book series, as many readers seem to think? Well, I don’t think so, and much prefer McDaniel’s previous offering, The Dagger Affair, for starters. This particular book just has a few too many problems for me to give it a top grade. For one thing, some of the author’s descriptions are a bit on the fuzzy side, the meeting with Forry Ackerman goes nowhere and seems to have been shoehorned in just for kicks, and there is an unconvincing explanation for all the supernatural mishegas at the novel’s end. Even worse, McDaniel gets some of his facts wrong, such as when he tells us that Attila the Hun ransacked the region that is now Rumania in the 10th century; in actuality, Attila died in 453! Also unfortunate: when Illya uses the word “vulpine” (foxlike) to describe a wolf, when in fact that word should of course be “lupine.” Still, as I say, a very solid and entertaining offering in this series, and one that has nothing at all to do with the Season 2 U.N.C.L.E. episode “The Bat Cave Affair,” with a vampirelike Thrush agent, Count Zark (Martin Landau), using radioactive bats to jam the world’s radar systems.

The Radioactive Camel Affair, by Peter Leslie#7) The Radioactive Camel Affair by Peter Leslie#7) The Radioactive Camel Affair by Peter Leslie

A goofy title camouflages what is in actuality a serious and tough entry. In his first of five offerings in the American paperback series (his second in the British, which apparently has a different chronological order), Leslie demonstrates what an effective talent he could be. In this one, unknown personnel have been making off with quantities of uranium-235 from nuclear installations all over the world, for reasons unknown, although it is thought that there could be only one valid reason for doing so: the building of a hydrogen bomb! Clues from a deceased U.N.C.L.E. agent lead Solo and Kuryakin to Africa, where they first interview an information dealer named Habib Tufik in Casablanca, and a Mr. Mahmoud in Alexandria … both informants being brutally killed shortly after their interviews. This reader has long been a fan of the parallel-plot device in novels, and this book gives us a doozy. Thus, in the first, a disguised Solo joins a caravan headed into the southern Sudan, in which one of the camels is thought to be carrying the radioactive shipment to an unknown destination. In the other, Kuryakin travels by Landrover from Stanleyville into the war-torn Sudan; encounters a mysterious woman named Rosa Harsch who is leading a surveying team; finds a power station hidden behind a waterfall; stumbles upon a landing field in the jungle, close to some intermediate-range missile silos; and discovers an underground nuclear facility being used by Thrush. Highlights of this suspenseful outing include the street fight that Illya and Napoleon engage in in Casablanca; Napoleon fleeing for his life through the streets of Wadi Elmira; Solo escaping from the caravan on horseback; Illya’s encounter with a guard by that waterfall; Illya’s infiltration of that underground lair; the waterboarding that Solo is subjected to; and the final battle in the underground lair. Leslie writes very well, adds nice bits of local color (the Izarra liqueur that Habib is seen drinking; the descriptions of Alexandria’s Stanley Bay), and seems to have done his homework as to armaments and tech (the Mannlicher rifle that is used to kill Mahmoud; the Belgian FN rifles that the African soldiers are shown using). He also throws in a credible subplot, with the Arabs of northern Sudan being at war with the black Africans in the south; an actual state of affairs at the time. Interestingly, many of the characters on display here are not what they initially seem, although the identity of the Thrush council member in charge will come as a surprise to only the slowest of readers. The book also has a fairly high body count, with many “sacrificial lambs,” henchmen and Thrushies gone by book’s end. My only real beef: Shouldn’t Illya have known that the burning of Moscow took place in 1812, not 1813, as he tells an Arab official? But, oh…extra points for the incorporation of the word “gamboge”; that was a new one on me! On a personal note, I might add that I coincidentally finished reading The Radioactive Camel Affair on the same day that David McCallum passed away. So, RIP, and all that, to a terrific and legendary performer…

The Monster Wheel Affair #8) The Monster Wheel Affair by David McDaniel#8) The Monster Wheel Affair by David McDaniel

McDaniel shoots and scores again in his third U.N.C.L.E. offering! Here, a tramp steamer in the Indian Ocean is blown out of the water by a missile fired from an off-the-charts island. The only survivors of the disaster are young Suzie Danz, a 26-year-old American photographer on a dream vacation, and five of the sailors on board. Shortly after, a spinning space station – the “monster wheel” of the title – is observed orbiting the Earth, origin unknown, and our favorite agents set about finding some answers. In the book’s first half, the action jumps from Capetown, where Suzie has fetched up after the catastrophe, on to Rio, where Illya searches for one of the sailors, and Hong Kong, where Napoleon and Suzie look for one of the others. Finally, the three manage to track down the ship’s navigator in the Australian Outback, from whom they learn the coordinates of the mysterious island. And in the novel’s thrill-packed second half, Solo and Kuryakin manage to infiltrate that island, and then proceed on to another lonely island, this one in the South Atlantic, where their old friends from Thrush are up to their nefarious tricks once again. But what is the deal with all the Egyptian participants that our heroes keep running up against? Hmmm… Action highlights in this outing are Solo’s gun battle with a bunch of goons in Capetown; Illya’s suspenseful defusing of a bomb in his hotel room there; Illya’s knife fight with a duo of street thugs in Rio; Solo and Suzie getting kidnapped in Hong Kong; the infiltration of that Dauringa Island in the Indian Ocean; and Solo and Illya’s escape from an Egyptian aircraft carrier to infiltrate that second island. McDaniel, as usual, has done his tech homework here, and we are thus given mentions of Tennessee windage, 9mm Parabellums, and the Schmeisser gun. And, we are here offered two new gizmos in the U.N.C.L.E. arsenal: the Gyrojet pistol, which fires rocket-propelled ammo, and the Squid submarine, which is actuated by electromagnetic flux and employs no noise-producing engines! The book, as I inferred up top, is very fast moving, builds to some genuine suspense (especially as Waverly contemplates firing missiles upon the monster wheel, thus possibly provoking its thermonuclear wrath), and perfectly captures the bantering relationship between Solo and Kuryakin. And McDaniel pleasingly leavens the action with snippets of amusing humor, such as when he writes of those Capetown goons “They didn’t look as if they were selling encyclopedias … but if they were, you’d better buy,” and when Illya wonders if their new state-of-the-art submarine could possibly be repainted … yellow! Bonus points also for the inclusion of the word “concatenation”; that was a new one on me! And yet, some inevitable problems crop up with McDaniel’s work here. The book, which was released sometime in 1967, is apparently way too much in debt to the fifth James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, which had premiered in June of that year. Thus, as in the film, we get a threat from outer space, a secret volcano hideout, a gun that shoots rocket-propelled bullets, and a cigarette that fires a minimissile! The end goals of the Egyptian government are rather nebulous (I guess I have neglected to mention that the book does come with a neat plot twist around 2/3 of the way through), and the character of Suzie – one of the cuter and spunkier of the female leads thus far in the series – completely vanishes on page 78, never to be mentioned again … almost as if the author were not permitted to write a word beyond the seeming 160-page limit for these books. Oh … and McDaniel also mistakenly uses the word “appraised” instead of “apprised” repeatedly here, a fact that did not endear itself to my copy-editor heart. But quibbles aside, this is a highly entertaining entry in the U.N.C.L.E. series, and one that reaffirms McDaniel’s status as the series’ top contributor.

The Diving Dames Affair by Peter Leslie#9) The Diving Dames Affair by Peter Leslie#9) The Diving Dames Affair by Peter Leslie

Those readers who are especial fans of Illya Kuryakin will be happy to hear that the Russian agent plays the prominent role in Peter Leslie’s second contribution to the U.N.C.L.E. series. Here, two representatives from the American charitable organization known as DAMES (Daughters of America Missionary Emergency Service) are gravely wounded during a car crash in Rio. When they are discovered to be in fact merely female ex-cons posing as DAMES representatives, and are later killed in their hospital beds, Waverly sends Solo to investigate. Unfortunately, Napoleon does not get too far in his quest. After following a trail that leads to the borderland of the Matto Grosso district, he is summarily drugged and captured by Thrush nasties, and brought to their underwater base in an artificial lake that has been created following the construction of a dam and ersatz power station. Thus, Kuryakin is sent in to discover what has transpired; yes, for the second book in a row in this (American) series, Illya finds himself in Rio again. Fortunately, he is abetted by two unlikely allies (very slight spoilers here): Coralie Simone, a special investigator for DAMES, and, surprisingly, Habib Tufik, the enormously fat, wheelchair-bound, Irish/North African information dealer who had supposedly been killed in book #7. With Tufik’s resources and Coralie’s remarkable skills, Illya is ultimately able to infiltrate that underwater lair, where Thrush is … well, since their diabolical plot comes as something of a surprise here, perhaps I shouldn’t say. Highlights of this U.N.C.L.E. entry include Illya’s first meeting with Habib in Rio; the Carnaval sequence in which Kuryakin tries to escape from a female pursuer; the sight of Napoleon drugged and imprisoned in that underwater lair, and his subsequent escape and dukeout with a burly radio operator; Illya and Coralie’s failed attempt to penetrate a tunnel leading to that lair, and their nighttime flight through a forest from Thrush gunmen; their successful infiltration of the lair via minisub; the gun battle the two have in the lair’s circular corridors; and the brutal fight that Illya has with a husky Thrush in the lair’s control room. Leslie adds winning touches of color to his South American story, and his references to the feijoa meal that Solo enjoys, the pinga liqueur, the sercial wine, the Karaja Indians, the Carnaval, the Candomble and Umbanda religions, all help to add a touch of authenticity to the proceedings. Interestingly, Solo and Kuryakin share absolutely no time together in this novel, up until the final four pages, so those readers who savor the team’s bantering relationship will be missing out here. Solo, as I inferred up top, is largely absent in this book, disappearing completely from pages 40 – 92 and 111 – 155. This is pretty much Illya’s hour, and his many fans will find much to enjoy here. The book is otherwise fairly realistic and colorful, and makes pleasing references to not only book #7, but also McDaniel’s previous book, The Monster Wheel Affair. Still, this entry comes with its share of problems, the biggest of which is Leslie’s difficulty with forcefully describing many of his settings. This reader had the hardest time envisioning the countryside around the Thrush dam project, the geography of the compound surrounding the tunnel entrance, and especially that multilevel control room in the underwater lair. Your imagination may be required to work overtime in spots here and there. Another problem for me was Solo sending a message about a character named Hernando seemingly before he had ever encountered the character or had any knowledge about him; I couldn’t quite figure that out. And the silliness of the book’s final page did not exactly endear itself to me. Still, for what it is, this entry makes for some solid-enough entertainment, and is indeed thrilling in spots. It’s also far less objectionable than some other U.N.C.L.E. readers would have you believe…

The Assassination Affair by J. Hunter Holly; #10) The Assassination Affair by J. Hunter Holly#10) The Assassination Affair by J. Hunter Holly

It is perhaps ironic that the most brutal, the most violent and the most nightmarish outing in this series so far was written by a woman; namely, the science fiction author J. Hunter Holly, nee Joan Carol Holly. This was Holly’s only contribution to the series, although I believe she does have an unpublished manuscript for something called The Wolves and the Lambs Affair that may be found online. Her novel here cleaves into two discrete sections. In the first, a maniacal Thrush botanist with the unlikely Biblical handle Abel Cain Adams tries to make a, uh, name for himself by declaring war on U.N.C.L.E.’s top enforcement agents. Thus, no fewer than three assassination attempts are made on Solo, following which he is captured and forced to undergo a gruesome torture. In the book’s second half, Solo and Kuryakin wind up in rural Michigan (Holly had been born in Lansing, Michigan), searching for the lab that has been manufacturing Thrush’s latest deadly chemical; one that will wither all plants and produce. (It should be noted that the small town of Riverview in the novel is probably not meant to be the Riverview that sits near Detroit in real life.) Highlights of this memorable affair are the three assassination attempts made on Solo, two on the mean streets of NYC and one in his apartment; the plight of Illya being trapped in a tethered hot-air balloon 50 feet up in the air while Thrush goons await him below; and the final showdown in that Thrush lab. And then there are the two showstopper sequences that have apparently been giving many fans nightmares for years now. In the first, a blindfolded and trussed Solo is forced to navigate his way through a room with tumbled furniture sporting knives, hatchets, ice picks and other killing instruments. In the second, Kuryakin is made into a human scarecrow after receiving a vicious pummeling, and hung up in an empty field under the 98-degree July sun. As inferred up top, it is a very tough outing for our two favorite agents, with Solo cut up and psychologically damaged in the first section, and then getting some of that new Thrush chemical painfully thrown onto his torso in the second. And as for Illya, the poor dude not only gets shot in the arm in part 1, but is on the receiving end of that brutal treatment in part 2. No fewer than a quartet of lovelies is featured in this novel: Solo’s pretty blonde neighbor Lainy Michaels; U.N.C.L.E. file clerk Mada Adams, the niece of madman Adams; the voluptuous Michigan farmgirl Gloryanna Piper; and Thrush agent Galaxy Talbot. As for the bad guys, this novel dishes out a rogues’ gallery, including Adams’ henchmen Louie, Robard and (the 6’6” monstrosity) Julius, and, in the second section, the Thrush baddies Dr. Saturn, Barber, and the head of this particular botanical operation, Dundee. Holly, it must be said, writes simply but compellingly, with a highly readable style that does not depend on the tech talk and gadget mentions of the previous novels; don’t look for makes of guns and cars here. This book, apparently, is deemed one of the best of the series that was not written by McDaniel, and for good reason: It is at once fast moving, grim and very memorable. Still, some minor problems do crop up. Holly employs the word “careen” a few times too often, and uses the word “tirade” incorrectly at one point. The characters of Lainy and Mada disappear completely after the first section, never to be mentioned again, and the fate of the minor villain Barber is left up in the air as well. Still, these are relatively minor matters in an U.N.C.L.E. novel so very terrific. This reader looks forward now to reading more of Holly’s work, especially her 1962 novel The Flying Eyes, with its famous cover in the Ace edition. Wish me luck as I endeavor to track a copy down…

The Invisibility Affair by Thomas StrattonU.N.C.L.E. novel #11) The Invisibility Affair by Thomas Stratton#11) The Invisibility Affair by Thomas Stratton

Our favorite agents are back in the American Midwest in this, the first of two back-to-back U.N.C.L.E. novels by Thomas Stratton. When an eccentric scientist named Willard Morthley goes missing, some months after Wisconsin deputy/part-time U.N.C.L.E. agent Charlie Reed had seen the doctor’s house wink out of existence, Solo and Kuryakin are sent to investigate. Ultimately, it’s revealed that Thrush has kidnapped the scientist and stolen his novel invisibility device; with the latter, they hope to refit a 40-year-old German zeppelin and transform it into the ultimate weapon … an invisible dirigible! (Kinda rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?) Stratton, a pen name for the authors Buck Coulson and Gene DeWeese, sets his book squarely in the state of Wisconsin, as the action zips back and forth from Milwaukee to Cudahy to Richland Center to Fond du Lac to Manitowoc, all before an exciting denouement in (and over) the fictitious Central American country of San Sebastian, where a revolution is in progress. Napoleon and Illya’s allies in this outing include Reed; Kerry Griffin, the scientist’s niece; and Don Brattner, the head of U.N.C.L.E.’s Milwaukee HQ. Their foes include such Thrushes as the lean and suave Ivan Forbes; the shotgun-toting octogenarian Ezra Sanders; bald-headed and earring-sporting Hunter; and Arpad McNulty, the junior executive type who had come up with the zeppelin idea. Action highlights in this particular affair include Solo and Kuryakin’s escape from a locked car trunk and a subsequent fight utilizing 50 pounds of stick margarine (yes, you read that right); a raid on Thrush HQ in Milwaukee (actually, a modest suite in a residential apartment building); the infiltration of Thrush’s underground dirigible hangar in the Wisconsin wilderness; Illya’s impersonation of a German zeppelin captain; and the absolutely thrilling sequence in which Napoleon and Kuryakin sneak into that dirigible and commandeer it with 50+ Thrushes aboard. The authors’ book gives us an interesting look at the U.N.C.L.E. headquarters in Milwaukee (entered not through a dry-cleaning establishment, as the NYC HQ is, but rather through a record shop), and curiously makes repeated references to how budget strapped both U.N.C.L.E. and Thrush happen to be. (And all this time I thought Mr. Waverly’s budget was practically limitless!) Coulson and DeWeese obviously did their homework as regards Wisconsin (an area that they patently knew very well … so much so that a road map of the state might come in handy here!) and as regards armaments; thus, the references to the .357 magnum, Mauser, Walther P38, Smith & Wesson K-38, and the Ithaca shotgun. And in a pleasing bit of continuity from book #8, The Monster Wheel Affair, the Gyrojet pistol is even briefly mentioned. The novel features no shortage of offhand humor, too; how amusing it is when McNulty refers to Solo and Kuryakin as “the Dynamic Duo”! And bonus points for turning this reader on to the word “axolotl.” In all, another solid entry, even if the first half feels as if we are being pulled hither and yon across the state, and despite the fact that our two agents never engage in any shoot-outs or rough-and-tumble violence from beginning to end. (I suppose we can’t reasonably expect them to suffer physical abuse in every book, right?) Curiously enough, all four of those aforementioned Thrushes remain not only alive by this affair’s end, but very much at large, to boot. And the issue of Russ Wolff, an U.N.C.L.E. agent from Chicago whom we suspect (or, at least, whom I suspected) of being a double agent – because the equipment he gives to Solo and Kuryakin fails to function properly – is left unresolved, as well. Perhaps these matters will be addressed in Stratton’s next installment?

The Mind-Twisters Affair by Thomas StrattonU.N.C.L.E. #12) The Mind-Twisters Affair by Thomas Stratton#12) The Mind-Twisters Affair by Thomas Stratton

Our two agents return to the American Midwest for their third adventure in a row in Stratton’s follow-up novel, The Mind-Twisters Affair. In a direct continuation from the previous outing, this novel finds Dr. Morthley still trying to work out the kinks in his remarkable invisibility gizmo, and calling upon an old scientist friend of his, Dr. Richard Armden, for assistance. But Armden, once so supportive of the U.N.C.L.E. cause, has suddenly turned rabidly against the organization; a sentiment that, as it turns out, is shared by many of his neighbors in the small, fictitious, university town of Midford, Indiana. Solo and Kuryakin are thus dispatched there by Waverly to ascertain the reasons for this disaffection, and run smack into still another diabolical Thrush plot, this one employing a novel drug and subliminal messaging to alter people’s minds! Once again, Coulson & DeWeese impress the reader with their knowledge of armaments – the Mercox dart gun, the .455 Webley revolver, the Mossin-Nagant revolver, the .25 Walther pistol – and equip our two favorite U.N.C.L.E. agents with a computer-equipped automobile to rival 007’s Aston-Martin DB5. And although this new car for Solo and Kuryakin does not include an ejector seat, rest assured that it does feature a laser gun, flame throwers and rocket launchers! During the course of the novel, our heroes are given assistance by a health food-loving psychology professor, Sascha Curtis; his student aide, Rita Berman; a gruff farmer named Lem Thompson; and sculptress Flavia Whateley, the daughter of this affair’s chief villain, Jabez Whateley. And what a villain he is: a Thrush scientist who believes in various occult matters, wears a theatrical cape, and speaks in “sepulchral tones.” Whereas The Invisibility Affair had verged on the science fictional, this follow-up novel is a much more realistic and credible affair, although it still boasts touches of the macabre in its various references to the Sage of Providence, H. P. Lovecraft. Thus, Whateley’s belief in the Elder Gods, and Illya’s reading of a book, in the Whateley library, by an author named Alhazred; “a particularly fascinating writer,” as Kuryakin calls him. (Readers will perhaps recall that “the mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred was the author of Lovecraft’s legendary Necronomicon.) And then there’s the matter of the name “Whateley” itself, a decided homage to the Wilbur Whateley character in Lovecraft’s 1928 novella “The Dunwich Horror.” As I say, a distinct touch of the outre here. The Mind-Twisters Affair features a surprisingly low body count, as had its predecessor, but nevertheless does not skimp on the action sequences. Standouts in this regard include Napoleon and Illya doing battle with a Thrush helicopter; their nighttime raid on a Thrush chemical warehouse in (the real-life town of) Bippus, Indiana; Solo’s exploration of the secret passages in the Whateley mansion; and a protracted battle between the Thrush forces and our sextet of heroes and heroines in an old cemetery. This book #12 may actually be read independently of the previous affair, the only links between the two being the return of Dr. Morthley, a passing reference to that old German dirigible, and a brutish Thrush thug named Andy, who may or may not be the same brutish Thrush thug named Andy from book #11. Oh … and the fact that numerous mentions are again given regarding the budgetary problems of both Thrush and U.N.C.L.E. In all, another very pleasing affair, with only two slight missteps: The means of distributing that sinister chemical to the populace is too blatantly telegraphed, and the fact that U.N.C.L.E. headquarters in NYC is said to be in the “downtown” area, whereas we all know that it lies squarely in midtown. And one more thing, concerning the unusual section headings in the novel. A little research reveals their origin to be an 1877 music-hall song called “Abdullah Bulbul Amir,” by the Irishman Percy French. Don’t ask me why…

The Rainbow Affair by David McDanielU.N.C.L.E. novel #13) The Rainbow Affair by David McDaniel#13) The Rainbow Affair by David McDaniel

Hoo, boy, is this a wild one! In this U.N.C.L.E. book, lucky No. 13, David McDaniel solidifies his reputation of being the ablest of the series’ novelists, in his fourth of six offerings. Here, a master criminal with the alias Johnnie Rainbow (so no relation to Randy), once a high-ranking military man in the British Army and fresh off such daring coups as the 1963 Great Train Robbery and a Rothschild bullion heist, is being courted by Thrush to join its ranks. Thus, Waverly sends Solo and Kuryakin across the pond to (a) determine if there really is such a criminal mastermind as Johnnie Rainbow and (b) prevent him from teaming up with the evil organization if there is. But those plot points are hardly what most U.N.C.L.E. fans seem to remember today about this book. Rather, the guest cameos by a slew of Britain’s preeminent crimefighters are what make this particular outing so very memorable. OMG, those cameos … none of them named outright, but all unmistakable by their descriptions! As Solo and Illya are told by a Scotland Yard official, “…until this business is resolved one way or another, you will continue to encounter people whose concern seems serious if peripheral. Many of them you will find useful…” Thus, our U.N.C.L.E. agents, during the course of their investigation, are introduced to John Steed and Emma Peel, of TV’s The Avengers. Illya converses with the Saint himself, Simon Templar, and the two are given invaluable assistance not only by G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple, but also by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (!), now a beekeeper pushing 100 and going by the name William Escott. And oh … they are at one point kidnapped by the minions of a devil-faced Chinese fiend who can only be Sax Rohmer’s insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, who is also being pestered by the emissaries of Thrush. (Superspy James Bond is mentioned but not encountered, incidentally; “Let’s hope we don’t run into him,” Illya opines!) It is all a tremendous hoot, and such big fun! This old fan of all things Emma, Sherlock and Fu just ate it all up with a spoon while grinning happily. But McDaniel’s book also offers other pleasures besides those guest cameos. It features at least a half dozen well-done action sequences, for starters: a huge nighttime melee in the London streets between the London bobbies and our U.N.C.L.E. duo on one side, and dozens of Rainbow’s men on the other; Fu’s kidnapping of Solo and Illya, and Rainbow’s kidnappings of the two individually; the shootout near Stonehenge, after a Thrush drop-off of equipment to Rainbow’s men; and Solo and Kuryakin’s dangerous, nighttime transit, during a storm and in a small sailboat, to Rainbow’s island headquarters in the Bristol Channel. And the book provides the reader with details about the inner workings of Thrush that we’d not been privy to before, as well as some personal details about Solo (he’d been married at age 19 and lost his wife soon after in a car wreck … who knew?) and some facts about U.N.C.L.E. (it represents every nation on Earth except for … Red China and Albania). And McDaniel happily adds continuity to his story by making passing references to people and things from his previous books: to Ward Baldwin from The Dagger Affair; to the bloodsucker in The Vampire Affair; and to Dauringa Island in The Monster Wheel Affair. Not to mention Holmes’ reference to the Thrush prototype organization, which was suggested to have been formed by Prof. Moriarty in The Dagger Affair as well. And joy of joys, McDaniel for once corrects the previous U.N.C.L.E. authors in their misuse of the term “satrap” rather than “satrapy”! I was so happy to finally see this. Unfortunately, he negates this vocabulary coup by mistakenly using the word “precipitously” instead of “precipitately” in one of his chapter headings. How could the copy editor/proofreader at Ace Books have missed that? Another chapter heading error occurs in Chapter 11’s “How Napoleon and Illya Heard a Violin, and the Old Old Gentleman Spoke of Bees, Drugs, Death and Other Mysteries.” The only problem: The old old man (Holmes) does not bring up the subject of drugs once. Another oopsie. And while I’m carping, when Napoleon is fleeing from the Stonehenge melee on bicycle, heading southeast, the author mentions that the largest town near him is Shaftesbury. Look at a map … isn’t the closest large town Salisbury? But these are minor matters, and The Rainbow Affair happily remains one of the finest in this series. Oddly enough, this most British of affairs was one of those seven books not to be published in England. Their very great loss…

The Cross of Gold Affair by Fredric DaviesU.N.C.L.E. novel #14) The Cross of Gold Affair by Fredric Davies#14) The Cross of Gold Affair by Fredric Davies

Fredric Davies’ only contribution to this series of U.N.C.L.E. novels is a memorable yet problematic one. Here, “Davies” (actually the pen name for the writers Fredric Langley and Ron Ellik) introduces the reader to the morbidly obese Thrush financial wizard Avery D. Porpoise, whose base is a sci-fi-themed fun house on a Coney Island pier, and who seemingly spends all his time floating in a pneumatic chair atop a heated swimming pool. But Porpoise is hardly idle, and has devised a rather fiendish plan, indeed. Thus, the sinister purpose of this sinister Porpoise is to manipulate the stocks of the Breelen’s gold company, sending secret messages via self-made crossword puzzles to thousands of Thrush operatives around the world to either buy or sell. And when Solo and Kuryakin attempt to infiltrate Porpoise’s fun house on the pier, they find themselves in the middle of one of their most physically punishing affairs to date. Action highlights in this outing include Napoleon’s escape from a trio of Thrush nasties on the Coney Island boardwalk, followed by his scaling of the Cyclone roller coaster; Solo’s harrowing experience in the fun house’s maze – which has been tricked out with mirrors, a heat zone, exploding glass, lethal shocks, poison gas, and trapdoors – and crawling underneath the splintery pier; the water torture “dunking” that Illya is forced to endure; the raid on the pier via land and sea by a team of U.N.C.L.E. enforcement agents; Solo’s mano-a-mano battle with Apis (a seemingly indestructible Thrush goon) and Arnold (Porpoise’s sadistic, electric wand-wielding, right-hand man); and Illya’s sea fight with the big Porpoise himself. During the course of this affair, our heroes are given assistance by a trio of “flower children” who live in the area, and by Lt. Cmdr. Gus Branson and his team of trained and highly intelligent harbor seals! As I say, it is a very rough outing for Solo and Kuryakin; surely the most physically grueling affair for them since Book #10, The Assassination Affair. By this story’s end, Solo lies in hospital with numerous cuts and bruises, a broken wrist and two broken ribs, while Kuryakin has been nearly drowned twice. Langley and Ellik were clearly fans of science fiction, and references to Edmond Hamilton’s CAPTAIN FUTURE stories, Harry Bates’ Space Hawk Carse, and to Kim Kinnison and the fontema of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s LENSMAN books are to be found … not to mention allusions to The Day the Earth Stood Still and Robbie the Robot of Forbidden Planet fame. And the authors here give us cool little factoids that we’d not been privy to before; the fact that Illya grew up in the Georgia S.S.R., for example; that Napoleon tools around in a Corvette Stingray; and that Mr. Waverly’s counterpart in Thrush Central is an elderly gentleman named Mr. Benedict. Other neat bits include our entering U.N.C.L.E.’s NYC headquarters not through Del Floria’s dry-cleaning establishment, for a change, but rather through the Masked Club on its other side, and the neat pun on the word “avoirdupois” that is Avery D. Porpoise’s name. Still, despite all these positive aspects, again, the novel is a problematic one. My main beef here is that too many of the scenes are rather fuzzily described by the authors. Too, the book’s central stock-manipulation scheme was a tad on the dry side for this reader; financial dummy that I am, my eyes tend to glaze over when reading about such things as “selling short,” stock dumping and so on. The crossword puzzles seem like an unlikely and unreliable means of spreading information, and those three hippie kids come off more like West Side Story delinquents than anything else. And yet, this novel seems to be fairly highly regarded by the fans, I suppose because it does come with a colorful villain and some memorable henchmen, as well as those brutal set pieces, and is surely fun enough. Perhaps it was just bad luck that Davies’ book happens to be sandwiched between two superior David McDaniel affairs…

The Utopia Affair by David McDanielU.N.C.L.E. novel #15) The Utopia Affair by David McDaniel#15) The Utopia Affair by David McDaniel

The Utopia Affair, as it turns out, is one of the very best entries in the series so far; unsurprisingly, it was written by David McDaniel, who seemed to have an unfailing knack for these thrillers. Thus, in his fifth of six offerings, the author gives his readers one of the most unusual setups of any U.N.C.L.E. novel. Here, Mr. Waverly – who has seemingly been at his command post, day or night, all along, despite being in his 70s, thus generating rumors of his actually being a robot (!) in one of the earlier books – is forced to take a six-week medical leave/vacation at an ultraposh, high-security resort called Utopia in southern Australia; a resort that caters to extremely wealthy, ailing executive types. And so, off Waverly goes, very much against his will, leaving Solo in charge of operations for U.N.C.L.E. North America. A heavily disguised Kuryakin is sent to Utopia as well, unbeknownst to his chief, to act as a bodyguard. Waverly, using the alias Leon Dodgson, soon settles in and befriends a chap named Silverthorne; his opponent in a series of simulated war games. But what Waverly seems to be unaware of is the fact that Silverthorne is a high-ranking member of Thrush, who, impressed by the elderly gent’s battle tactics, recommends him to Thrush for recruitment. But when Thrush’s Ultimate Computer recognizes Dodgson, two of the world’s most lethal assassins – the Turkish Kiazim Refet and the renegade ninja Sakuda Matsujiro – are dispatched to eliminate him. Thus, McDaniel’s novel winds up giving us no fewer than three exciting story lines: In one, Waverly pits his skills against Silverthorne’s during the mock war games; in another, Illya, under the guise of a kitchen worker, does his darnedest to discreetly keep Waverly safe and “not make waves”; and in the third, Thrush attempts to mentally break Solo by throwing a nonstop barrage of crises at him, including the murder of the pet dog of an Arabian ruler, a revolution in Central America, a 1,500-foot-tall smoke monster in the wilds of Manitoba (!), mysteriously intentioned subs off Clipperton Island in the Pacific, sabotage in a Colorado missile complex, gold smuggling in Alaska, tribal agitation in Tanzania, a planned gold heist in France, and riots in Hong Kong! As you can tell, there’s quite a bit going on in this outing, and McDaniel keeps his story percolating along at a relentless clip. It is a wonderfully well-written affair, one of the most detailed of the bunch, that allows us to learn more about the day-to-day inner workings of U.N.C.L.E. than any of the books so far. For the first time, we are made to appreciate what a crushingly high-pressure job Waverly has been dealing with for so many years; a job that Solo bungles so badly at one point that he shockingly, albeit briefly, considers suicide! If The Cross of Gold Affair was a particularly tough outing on Napoleon physically, this one proves to be every bit as grueling mentally. McDaniel manages to incorporate four very fine scenes into this novel: the extremely tense sequence in which Illya plants a “bug” in Refet and Matsujiro’s suite; the Thrush raid on U.N.C.L.E.’s NYC HQ, during which Solo gets to try out the experimental “portable visual shield,” a kind of invisibility device; Illya’s brutal fight with Refet; and his punishing treatment at the hands of that lethal ninja. The book also makes winning references to Book #11, Stratton’s The Invisibility Affair, and to McDaniel’s own Book #13, The Rainbow Affair; I believe I have expressed my admiration before for these instances of pleasing continuity. The novel even includes cameos by the so-called “Girl From U.N.C.L.E.,” April Dancer, and her partner Mark Slate; as in The Rainbow Affair, these cameos are unnamed but unmistakable. And McDaniel’s book gives us some tidbits that we’d not been privy to before: the secret of Waverly’s hidden office exit, and the names of his counterparts in South America, Europe and Africa … respectively, Jorge da Silva, Carlo Amalfi, and Shomambe. It is a suspenseful and completely triumphant affair … with the inevitable problems, of course. For one thing, despite his attempt to be discreet and “not make waves,” Illya yet leaves two dead Thrushes laying on the Utopia grounds. How is that supposed to shake out? Too, despite much emphasis being placed upon it, we never do learn who won that simulated war game … Waverly or Silverthorne. Finally, we are told that Tanzania is “almost south of Brittany, with Addis Ababa nearly between them.” Look at a map … does that strike you as being accurate? Still, these are merely quibbles, and The Utopia Affair remains a very fine contribution to this series, indeed.

The Splintered Sunglasses Affair by Peter LeslieU.N.C.L.E. novel #16) The Splintered Sunglasses Affair by Peter Leslie#16) The Splintered Sunglasses Affair by Peter Leslie

If Peter Leslie’s third of five contributions to this series demonstrates one thing, it is that the author was indeed capable of penning an U.N.C.L.E. novel that does not feature the presence of Irish/North African information dealer Habib Tufik. Leslie’s book cleaves into two fairly discrete sections. In the first, Solo is brazenly kidnapped at the very entrance of U.N.C.L.E.’s NYC HQ and spirited away to an unknown destination. He awakens in a luxurious country estate (shades of the then-popular TV series The Prisoner), its location a complete mystery, and is wined and dined and engaged in conversation by a man named Carlsen and a beautiful brunette, one Lala Eriksson … both of whom may or may not be agents of Thrush. In the book’s second half, Napoleon and Illya, now in the region of Turin, in northern Italy, team up with a lovely agent of the Italian S.I.D., Giovanna del Renzio, to search for the missing whatsit – a piece of glass, plastic, whatever – that a recently assassinated U.N.C.L.E. agent had used in the making of a holographic image; a hologram containing information on potential Thrush recruits in Europe that is unreadable without the vital missing piece. It is a clever MacGuffin on which to hang his novel, and Leslie’s book is at once credible, suspenseful and altogether gripping. He provides his readers with three outstanding set pieces here: Solo’s escape from that country estate, overcoming machine gun-toting guards, an electrified fence, and killer Dobermans; the electrified Chinese water torture that Illya and Solo are forced to undergo; and Napoleon and Kuryakin’s breakneck, cross-country escape from a gaggle of Thrush goons toward the end. Oh … not to mention the numerous attempts made on our heroes’ lives, by a bomb attempt in the NYC streets, a sabotaged car brake, a sabotaged elevator, a run-in with a pack of Italian street thugs, a bomb in a bouquet, and still another bomb in another auto. Leslie adds a patina of realism to his conceit with his mentions of various weapons (the Belgian FN machine pistol, the p. 14 rifle, the Mannlicher rifle), vehicles (the Mercedes 230 SL, Fiat 2300, Lancia Flaminia, Alfa Romeo Giulietta, Lancia Flavia, the Simca, the Gilera motorcycle), obscure Italian place names, many of which you’ll need a good atlas to find (Oulx, Sestriere, Susa, Santhia, Buronzo, Leini, Cigliano, Chivasso), and yummy-sounding French dishes (truite aux feuilles vertes, tournedos Rossini). Whether Leslie was familiar with those places by dint of personal travel or simple research (and ditto for the North Africa of his Radioactive Camel Affair and the Mato Grosso of his Diving Dames Affair), I don’t know, but the net result is a convincing one. Other things to appreciate here are a passing reference to the events in The Diving Dames Affair, as well as the inside joke when Carlsen gives Solo an appetizer of pate de grives; that is to say, pate of thrush! Readers should be aware that Leslie, an English author, employs any number of British terms here; thus, an electrical cord is a “flex,” and Solo is heard to say “We’ve rumbled your nasty little game,” instead of “tumbled.” Anyway, that’s the good news. On the other hand, Leslie, despite his plethora of Ian Fleming-like detail, can be woefully inadequate at making the reader visualize his word pictures. It is ironic, somehow, yet something that I’d noticed in his previous U.N.C.L.E. books. Other problems: He shows us Illya wondering whether or not Mr. Waverly has a secret entrance to his office, whereas he had learned of that very entrance in the previous Book #15 (granted, The Utopia Affair had not been published in the U.K.). Perhaps worst of all, he tells us that Illya was gazing, from Waverly’s office, “across the river” at the United Nations, whereas any New Yorker could tell you that from U.N.C.L.E. HQ in midtown Manhattan, the U.N. should be in front of the East River. And while I’m nitpicking, was it necessary to have the newspaper vendor across the street from that HQ be named Zimmermann, and one of the country estate goons be named … Zimmerman? In all, though, an exciting, occasionally dry, somewhat overwritten U.N.C.L.E. outing, with a trio of memorable action sequences that in themselves are worth the price of admission, as well as a couple of surprising twists regarding two of the characters. And thanks, Mr. Leslie, for turning me on to the word “scroop”!

The Hollow Crown Affair by David McDanielU.N.C.L.E. novel #17) The Hollow Crown Affair by David McDaniel#17) The Hollow Crown Affair by David McDaniel

I wish I could say that David McDaniel went out with a bang in his final published U.N.C.L.E. novel, but sadly, that is not the case, and indeed, The Hollow Crown Affair might just be the least impressive of the author’s six contributions to the series. In this one, the head of Thrush’s San Francisco satrap, Ward Baldwin (whom we hadn’t seen since Book #4), enters Waverly’s NYC HQ to report that one Joseph King, U.N.C.L.E.’s former Lab Chief who had died while conducting tests on his Particle Accelerator Rifle three years before, had actually survived, gone over to Thrush, and is now in the middle of a power play to raise himself to the Thrush Central Council. As part of his campaign, King has spread lies about Baldwin, even going so far as to call him an U.N.C.L.E. collaborator, which lies bring the evil organization into full-on conflict with both Baldwin and U.N.C.L.E., resulting in another temporary alliance between Waverly, Solo, Kuryakin and the Baldwins, Ward and Irene. Much of the book transpires at the University of Vermont in Burlington, at which Baldwin doubles as a lecturer in chemistry, and in the wilds of Maine, to which the Baldwins, Solo and Illya are forced to flee when the forces of Thrush catch up with them. Action sequences in the book are sporadic and somehow not always terribly exciting: Napoleon and Illya employing an antitank gun on a truckload of Thrushes on the streets of Manhattan; Solo battling a lance-wielding horseman in the woods of northern Vermont; an enormous brawl on the UVM campus, with dozens of college kids on one side and 15 Thrush toughs on the other; the escape that Solo, Illya and the Baldwins engage in from that same campus, with Irene behind the wheel of a seemingly bulletproof Mercedes 580-K; King using his PAR gun on the Maine hotel where our heroes are staying; and Solo and Kuryakin doing battle with King and his weapon at the book’s conclusion. McDaniel, as usual, has done his homework here, down to the inclusion of the (real-life) Bove’s Italian restaurant in Burlington, the Youth Triumphant statue in Barre, and the secondary roads in Maine (some good maps of both Vermont and Maine will prove useful here, by the way). His descriptions of Burlington, on Lake Champlain, will surely make you want to visit, and his capsule bios of Ward Baldwin and Joseph King are both convincing and fascinating. And pleasingly, he makes references not only to his Book #4, but also to Solo’s researches into Baldwin in Book #13, Waverly’s compulsory “vacation” in Book #15, and even the vampiric doings of Book #6. And speaking of vampires, how amusing is it that the town in Maine where they stay at that motel is Collinsport, the locale in the then-popular daytime soap Dark Shadows … and that engraved on a tree, they see the words “Barnabas loves Josette”? I also enjoyed the offhand reference that is made to Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, one of this reader’s favorite horror novels. Still, as I inferred up top, the book has problems … lots of them. It is occasionally dry, with many slow patches, and with numerous instances of fuzzy writing. The raid on Thrush’s HQ in Philly is very poorly described, as is that final battle. The PAR gun comes off seeming more like a bazooka than anything else, and Baldwin’s right-hand gal Chandra Reynolds (not a member of Thrush but still wholly dedicated to Ward and Irene) fails to convince. The Baldwins’ escape from that motel attack, and their sudden appearance in Millinocket, over 100 miles away, is never explained. And the book’s title and section headings, all nods to Shakespeare’s Richard II, come off as forced and borderline pretentious. But perhaps worst of all are the inconsistencies that McDaniel is guilty of here. On the book’s first page, we’re told that there are four steps leading from the sidewalk down to Del Floria’s; a little later, we’re told that that number is six. Early on, we’re told that King had supposedly perished three years earlier; at the book’s conclusion, we’re told it was four years. We’re even told that U.N.C.L.E.’s NYC HQ is on 54th St., whereas in previous books, Waverly had been able to look out of his office window directly at the U.N., placing the HQ from 42nd St. to 48th St., tops. I realize that this U.N.C.L.E. novel is highly regarded by many fans, and although I did enjoy it, must report that it was a bit of a slog at times, and something of a disappointment for me. The novel’s single best feature, though, far and away, is the return of Ward and Irene Baldwin, two wonderful and ever-resourceful characters. Incidentally, I see that David McDaniel actually wrote a seventh U.N.C.L.E. novel, the regrettably unpublished affair called The Final Affair, which is supposedly available for perusal online. Despite my disappointment with his last-published U.N.C.L.E. book, I would still agree that he was indeed the finest of the 10 contributors to this series, and would love to check out that final affair one day…

The Unfair Fare Affair by Peter LeslieU.N.C.L.E. novel #18) The Unfair Fare Affair by Peter Leslie#18) The Unfair Fare Affair by Peter Leslie

A whimsical, practically inevitable title for what turns out to be a tough and credible entry in this series. In his fourth of five contributions, Leslie does what has not been done so far … write an U.N.C.L.E. novel that does not involve Thrush in a major role. Yes, the evil organization is mentioned, and does eventually raise its ugly bird head, but only in a very subsidiary way. Rather, the story line in this outing involves a shadowy European group that arranges escapes for criminals on the lam. Waverly himself stumbles on to the group when he is taken away, in a case of mistaken identity, after a stroll in the Dutch Flevoland. Solo is later sent in to investigate, and runs into one dead end after another while interviewing the authorities in many European cities. Even his old friend Habib Tufik, here appearing for the third time and using the alias Hendrik Van Der Lee, is unable to help him. But Kuryakin is a lot more successful when he impersonates a Czech bank robber and murderer, and is contacted by the mysterious organization with an escape proposal… Action and suspense highlights in this affair include Waverly’s early abduction; the several assassination attempts made on Solo’s life; Napoleon’s escape from a van after having been kidnapped himself; Illya’s bar fight in Prague; Illya’s experience with the Corsican Emilo Bartoluzzi, who conveys him from Prague to the Swiss border; Bartoluzzi’s fascinating backstory; the magneto torture that Kuryakin is forced to undergo; and the thrilling sequence in which Napoleon climbs up the side of a rickety, 150-foot-high viaduct, in a drenching downpour, to rescue Illya. Once again, Leslie’s homework and/or his abundant knowledge of Europe pays off in a big way. Thus, the impressive mentions of obscure vehicles (the Minerva taxi, the Czech Tatra and Skoda Octavia, the Citroen DS21, the British Austin Gipsy, the East German Wartburg truck, the Fiat 850, the Austrian Steyr), weapons (the Belgian FN pistol), and especially small Czech, German and Dutch towns. A good atlas will surely come in handy while reading this book, let me tell you! By now, you’re well aware of how much I appreciate references to previous entries in the series, and Leslie does here refer to Tufik’s appearances in Books # 7 and 9, as well as reintroducing the Italian Commendatore from Book #16. And pleasingly, April Dancer, aka “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.,” and her partner Mark Slate (an unfortunate typo renders his name “Slade” here) are mentioned by Solo as currently being in Manila. And for those who might be interested, we also learn what Solo’s aftershave of choice is … Lanvin’s (real-life) Monsieur Figaro. Leslie’s book is suspenseful, well written and, with its superabundance of Ian Fleming-like detail, quite compelling. Its relegating of Thrush to a minor position makes for a refreshing change of pace, resulting in a very distinctive addition to the series. Indeed, I was about to give this one a 4½-star rating until some post-read reflection made me realize how many minor problems the book contains. For one thing, I still can’t understand how the mysterious organization got wind of Solo’s investigations early on, leading to those assassination attempts in Paris and The Hague. The distance from Bergeijk (see what I mean about obscure place names?) to The Hague is said to be “13 miles,” whereas a cursory look at a map will show that it is more like 100. Solo is said to have seen Tufik’s office setup in Rio, and met his right-hand man Raoul, in Book #9, but in fact he never did; that was Illya, while Napoleon was in another part of Brazil entirely! And in retrospect, Solo’s heroic climb up that viaduct, thrilling as it is, turns out to have been useless. Napoleon ultimately plays no part in Kuryakin’s rescue, and he might just as well have stayed in the valley below, for all the assistance he ultimately renders. But what is perhaps most egregious of all are the multiple coincidences that the author employs here to move his story along. Thus, Waverly absentmindedly mentions a “Section One,” which is coincidentally the password that leads to the case of mistaken identity. Solo coincidentally bumps into Tufik while in The Hague. Solo coincidentally encounters Annike, Tufik’s pretty blonde assistant, on the Swiss-French frontier. And Napoleon coincidentally turns on his communicator pen just at the precise moment that Illya is calling for help. Still, all these stumbling blocks aren’t enough to prevent this book from being Leslie’s finest contribution thus far, and a hugely entertaining addition to the U.N.C.L.E. series. And oh … bonus points for the book’s turning me on to the words “revetment” and “psephology”!

The Power Cube Affair U.N.C.L.E. novel #19) The Power Cube Affair by John T. Phillifent#19) The Power Cube Affair by John T. Phillifent

Here, John T. Phillifent returns for the first time since Book #5, in his second of three contributions to the series. His Mad Scientist Affair had been one of this reader’s favorite U.N.C.L.E. novels thus far (probably my favorite that was not written by David McDaniel), and so I went into this one with high hopes, indeed. And if this book is not quite as fine as that earlier work had been, it still has much to offer. It is an unusual entry in that Mr. Waverly makes no appearance in it at all; indeed, the affair is not even an officially sanctioned U.N.C.L.E. assignment. Rather, it is a case in which Solo and Kuryakin, while on vacation in England, investigate the shooting attempt on the life of a retired U.N.C.L.E. agent, John Guard, who’d found a dying woman on the beach near his home in Kent. The woman had been brutally beaten and had jumped off of a yacht to escape, carrying a cassette tape that she’d planted on board. Napoleon and Illya are soon contacted by a shadowy, nongovernmental organization with no official standing; a group that yet seeks to bring to justice those criminals seemingly outside the reach of the law. With one of the operatives from that group, the beautiful blonde Nan Perrell (nonpareil?), our U.N.C.L.E. agents pursue a trail that leads them to the realization that an archcriminal has somehow managed to collect 25 of the 27 crystals that a former Thrush scientist had created; crystals that, individually, are capable of magnifying an individual’s mental abilities, and combined could be a weapon of supreme power. Highlights of this particular outing include a street fight that Solo and Kuryakin engage in with a dozen thugs; Illya’s wrestling and knife fight with Nan, a neurotic gal who’s constantly trying to demonstrate her superiority over men; Napoleon and Illya being bound and gassed in an apartment kitchen, followed by a vicious dukeout with three heavies; Solo and Kuryakin almost being buried in cement, and the subsequent fights atop a crane and in a construction yard; the rescue of Nan off of that yacht in the middle of the North Sea; and the reemergence of the book’s chief villain (whose name I won’t reveal here) at the book’s tail end, after we thought that person had already met his/her demise (a tip of the hat to the 007 movies here, perhaps). It is a rather grueling investigation for our two U.N.C.L.E. agents, from a physical standpoint; during the course of this affair, they are chain whipped, knifed, bitten by vicious dogs, gassed and beaten, and knocked out several times. This book features a lot more nudity than any of the others – Nan is continually flaunting herself, as is the beautiful redhead Louise Thompson of British Naval Intelligence (who ultimately turns out to be not very intelligent at all!) – although nothing in the way of actual sex. Solo and Kuryakin even get to attend an upper-crust orgy in the book, but leave before the actual fun begins. And this leads to Illya’s interesting question as to why he and Solo prefer to engage in dangerous activities, to which Napoleon replies “If I ever stopped to think about things like that I’d never draw my wages…” The book manages to capture the bantering rapport between the two agents quite well – “This is a fine mess you’ve got me into,” Kuryakin mutters to Solo in that kitchen – and even offers some pleasing bursts of humor, such as when Illya says, of Nan’s physique, “Strategic arrangement of adipose tissue can create quite an effective diversion.” We are also provided with some nasty henchmen, Absalom Green and the sadistic Rambo, and the reference to the rocket guns in Book #8, McDaniel’s The Monster Wheel Affair, is a welcome one. Phillifent’s novel is fun enough, I suppose, but still, there are problems. For one thing, the author is again guilty of occasional fuzzy writing. During that sequence in the construction yard, for example, I couldn’t tell half the time whether the action was transpiring atop a building, on a crane, or on the ground. The entire story line regarding the 27 crystals of the titular power cube seems to have been shoehorned in after the novel’s midpoint, and is unconvincing besides. Personally, I would’ve been happier with a simple tale of smuggling or drug trafficking or something more realistic of that ilk. And just how the main villain of this story was ever able to lay hands on 25 of the widely scattered crystals is never explained. The entire Taming of the Shrew subplot with Nan being put in her place is kind of icky, I couldn’t help feeling, and the explanation of how John Guard managed to escape being killed by a double shotgun blast to the chest – a heart on the right side of his body, as well as similarly rearranged organs – fails to satisfy. In all, a rather middling U.N.C.L.E. novel that only stands out from its fellows by dint of Waverly’s exclusion and the inclusion of its abundant risqué elements…

U.N.C.L.E. novel #20) The Corfu Affair by John T. Phillifent#20) The Corfu Affair by John T. Phillifent

A significantly more entertaining effort than the author’s previous offering, The Corfu Affair finds Phillifent delivering in spades in this, his third of three U.N.C.L.E. novels. Featuring a rather unique geographical backdrop as well as one of the more memorable Thrush nasties that we’ve encountered so far, this outing really is a genuine winner from start to finish! Here, persons unknown have been stealing linked radio modules from U.S. Army research installations. And remarkably, one of the slain thieves is later identified as missing U.N.C.L.E. agent Frank Stanton, who had been sent, many months earlier, to the Grecian island of Corfu to investigate cosmetic surgeon/Thrush bigwig Countess Anne-Marie Louise de St.-Denis! And so, in a diverging story line, Solo is sent off to Corfu to find out just what the countess has been up to, while Illya is dispatched to her clinic and labs in Paris, France. As we ultimately learn, Louise has not only discovered a means of growing her own perfect humans from mere “cell-sections,” but can also control them with those radio modules, which are surgically implanted in her creations’ skulls. But that is not all that the impossibly beautiful countess has in mind, as she intends to soon make herself the supreme leader of Thrush itself! Napoleon and Illya’s friends in this affair (and trust me, they need all the help they can get in this one!) are Dr. Susan Harvey, an U.N.C.L.E. biochemist who trains Illya to pass muster at that Parisian lab, and the countess’ cook/companion, a pretty blonde American gal named Katherine Winter, who is secretly working as a freelancer for the C.I.A. Action highlights in this fast-moving outing include Solo infiltrating a meeting of Thrush bigwigs at Louise’s palace; his dukeout with Adam, the first, herculean result of the countess’ efforts; and the climactic second meeting of Thrush brass, followed by a whizbang shoot-out, a massive conflagration, and the sight of the wicked countess going absolutely bonkers as she slips into insanity. But of course, the most unforgettable sequence in this novel – and perhaps of the entire series – occurs in Illya’s Parisian hotel room, when Solo, with a radio module implanted in his noggin and under coercive orders to kill his best friend, makes a very real attempt to do so. The resultant mano a mano between the two equally matched and identically trained agents is one for the books, indeed! Solo and Kuryakin are subjected to a good deal of physical abuse in this affair, what with the former being turned into a helpless automaton and the latter getting shot in the leg and receiving a bullet crease on his scalp. As in the previous novel, this outing features copious amounts of nudity – the countess is either half dressed or flauntingly naked in every scene, and poor Katherine must resort to disrobing to pass herself off as a statue – but, strangely enough, not the slightest suggestion of actual sex. But what really puts this story over is its picturesque, unusual and exotic locale – the island of Corfu – and the countess herself, one of the most intelligent, diabolical and ambitious of all the Thrush villains yet. No wonder Mr. Waverly refers to her, early on, as “the most dangerous person alive.” And the countess, a four-time widow and brilliant scientist, who uses her looks to both bedazzle and ensnare men, ultimately does live up to that description. As you may have discerned, this is one of the more science fiction-oriented U.N.C.L.E. novels, and in that regard may be lumped in with previous outings such as The Invisibility Affair, The Mind Twisters Affair and yes, Phillifent’s Power Cube Affair. Another factor to savor here is the fact that we get to meet so many of Thrush’s upper-echelon members, such as the heads of Thrush Madrid, Rome, Hanoi and Scandinavia … all of whom are happily made defunct by the novel’s end. I suppose the bottom line here is that The Corfu Affair is just flat-out fun! As a matter of fact, I cannot think of another U.N.C.L.E. novel that so cries out for a big-screen adaptation. Perhaps for the next U.N.C.L.E. movie … if there ever is one? (A very big “if” at this point, apparently.) Indeed, I have only one quibble to raise with John T. Phillifent’s otherwise very fine work here, and that is Napoleon’s explanation to Kuryakin after that module has been removed from his skull. He tells Illya that he couldn’t prevent himself from trying to kill his best friend; that the pain would grow too great if he resisted. But the Napoleon whom I thought I knew would likely have done anything, even sacrifice himself, rather than shoot down his fellow agent. Of course, it’s easy for me to talk, never having been in a similar situation. (If an evil countess ever surgically operates on my cranium and inserts an electronic control device, perhaps I’ll be in a better position to judge!) But this minor misgiving in no wise prevents this Book #20 from being one of the very best of the bunch. And it’s almost worth the price of admission just for this Illya line to the countess: “Madame, you do well to discard all clothing. Primitive animals have no need of it.”

The Thinking Machine Affair by Joel BernardU.N.C.L.E. novel #21) The Thinking Machine Affair by Joel Bernard#21) The Thinking Machine Affair by Joel Bernard

From the heights of Book #20, The Corfu Affair – easily one of the best of the 23 Man From U.N.C.L.E. novels – the Ace series plummets precipitously in Book #21, The Thinking Machine Affair, which is surely the weakest offering thus far. Here, Joel Bernard, in his only published U.N.C.L.E. novel, gives his readers a rather poorly written and inadequately fleshed-out affair; one that reveals more than a whiff of the amateurish about it. The plot this time concerns Czech scientist Karel Novak, whose ingenious thought-transference device is, he feels, the key to future world peace. Once its effective radius can be increased, the kindly professor hopes to broadcast his feelings of goodwill and positive vibrations to all the world’s people, thus ushering in a new era of universal brotherhood. Or something like that, anyway; I really wasn’t too clear on that part. Of course, when Thrush gets wind of the professor’s gizmo, he, his daughter Vlasta, and the invention itself are forcefully brought to the evil organization’s hidden European Center E in Prague. Thrush, of course, purposes to use the device to first take over U.N.C.L.E. HQ in NYC, and then … the world! Okay, let’s start with the good news, little enough of it as there is. Bernard seems to have done his homework here as regards the beautiful city of Prague, either via firsthand experience or by perusing travel books on the subject. And so, a good many of the city’s most famous landmarks are name-checked, and the AXA Hotel where Solo stays, and the Paris Hotel where Illya stops, actually do exist to this day. Curiously, the city’s Wenceslas Square features prominently in the novel, just as it had in Book #18, The Unfair Fare Affair! We get to see a lot of the behind-the-scenes planning at Thrush HQ, so much so that the early section of the book might remind some readers of SMERSH’s lengthy planning discussions that comprise the first third of the James Bond thriller From Russia, With Love (1957); granted, comparing Joel Bernard with the great Ian Fleming is a patently ridiculous exercise. The book is another one of the U.N.C.L.E. novels that leans heavily toward sci-fi, and besides Professor Novak’s device, we are given a Thrush listening beam and death-ray screen (whatever that is), as well as Napoleon’s handkerchief bombs. Supposed action highlights include Solo eliminating two Thrushes in his Prague hotel room; Illya placing a listening device in the NYC apartment of another Thrush goon (not nearly as suspenseful as the similar scene in Book #15, The Utopia Affair, however); Napoleon’s infiltration of Thrush’s hidden HQ on the Moldau River; and the big finale, in which U.N.C.L.E. agents and Czech State Security commandos raid that same HQ. Unfortunately, nothing here is very credibly presented, and the book lacks the convincing details that might have helped put it over. Again, this is a distinctly amateurish effort, and it is hard to believe that a better choice could not have been made from all the U.N.C.L.E. fan fiction out there. I scarcely know where to begin. The professor’s plan for world peace seems half-baked, and even smacks of mental coercion/hypnosis. Napoleon and Illya don’t really get into gear until the book is half over! The novel itself, what with its large-print typeface in this Ace edition, easily has a smaller word count than its 20 predecessors, and the reader does feel that skimpiness in terms of the plotting, characterizations and descriptions. Bernard, sorry to say, is not a very good writer (at least, he wasn’t here). Besides any number of instances of faulty grammar (“pen and paper was brought to her”), his book shows every sign of being hastily and indifferently written (“He was alarmed that this entrance door was operated by electronic eyes, knowing this could set off an alarm.”). Indeed, Bernard’s descriptions of Thrush HQ are so sketchy that I could not even tell if we were aboveground or below much of the time. Perhaps most egregiously, he even gets some of the basic facts about U.N.C.L.E. incorrect. Alexander Waverly, we are told, is a “man in his early fifties,” whereas anyone who has read the previous books or watched the classic television program knows that Waverly was a good 20 years older than that. (Leo G. Carroll, who played Waverly, was pushing 78 when the series debuted in 1964!) But perhaps worst of all, Bernard even gets the U.N.C.L.E. acronym wrong! He tells us that it stands for “United Network Command of Law and Enforcement,” instead of “for Law and Enforcement.” In a word, oy! As I say, this is a decidedly nonprofessional effort; a slapdash outlier in a series that had been surprisingly well written up to this point. If there were one U.N.C.L.E. book that you had to skip, I would say that it’s this one. No Thrush Ultimate Computer or Czech thinking machine needed … this is a no-brainer: The Thinking Machine Affair is one for U.N.C.L.E. completists only!

The Stone-Cold Dead in the Market Affair by John OramU.N.C.L.E. novel #22) The Stone-Cold Dead in the Market Affair by John Oram#22) The Stone-Cold Dead in the Market Affair by John Oram

For some strange reason, the title of this novel had made me worriedly assume that this was to be another affair centering on the world’s stock markets, a la the events in Book #14, and I think you already know what a dunce I happen to be regarding high-stakes financial matters. But no. Rather, John Oram’s first offering since The Copenhagen Affair (all the way back to Book #3) presents us with a story line of a wholly different nature. That unusual title instead refers to a minor Thrush operative who is struck dead by a lorry in the marketplace of Newport, in southern Wales, and is found to be carrying a load of nearly flawless counterfeit money, in various currencies, on his person. A young, female U.N.C.L.E. agent named Blodwen happens to witness the event, and her report to Mr. Waverly in NYC leads to Illya and later Solo being sent to investigate. The trail leads Kuryakin and Blodwen to the farmstead of a mysterious philanthropist and criminal reformer named Price Hughes near Corwen, in northern Wales, and later to a London nightclub run by the Chinese woman Anna Soo Lee, ultimately revealing a Thrush scheme to disrupt the world’s economies by releasing 100 million pounds’ worth of the funny monies. This novel is a taut, tough and relatively brief affair (a good 20 pages shorter than the usual U.N.C.L.E. novel) that marks a huge return to form after the slapdash, amateurish effort that had been Book #21. Oram, a British author, obviously knew his Wales and London very well, and he fills the Welsh section of his novel with a wealth of convincing detail; thus, the descriptions of Belle Vue Park, Royal Gwent Hospital, and St. Woollo’s Cathedral in Newport. And his realistic word pictures of all the London locales (trust me, a good street map of the city will prove invaluable here), and the passing references to Worthing Prison and to Dr. Beeching, could only have come from a native’s experience. More convincing detail, a la Ian Fleming, is given as regards weapons (the Walther P38, the 7.63 Mauser, the Browning automatic, and the Commando Dagger), as well as the various makes of car that are driven (a Humber Hawk, a Cortina). Our two favorite U.N.C.L.E. enforcement agents are here supplied with two more-than-helpful allies: Blodwen, one of the coolest female agents ever encountered, and an alcoholic crime reporter named Solly Gold, who seemingly knows everything that is to be known about every lowlife character in London. Like a few of the earlier U.N.C.L.E. novels, this one cleaves evenly into two discrete sections – the Welsh section and the London section – and is very interesting in that all the villains and henchmen whom we’d assumed to be major players lie dead by the book’s halfway point. One bit of oddness in Oram’s novel, whether deliberate or not, is the fact that it begins in Newport, Wales and concludes at Anna Soo Lee’s nightclub in Newport Street, London. A bit of ironic closure there, perhaps? Readers going into this particular affair should also prepare themselves for a lot of British slang words (or perhaps you already know what a “young tearaway” is, and what the line “If he thought I’d grassed on him, he’d cut my heart out” pertains to). So yes, with its interesting and credible story line, a roster of nasty opponents, and a few well-done action sequences (Illya and Blodwen kidnapped, and then interviewed at and escaping from Price Hughes’ farm; Solo’s brutal fight in his hotel suite; Blodwen going up against a cretinous henchman), this is a surprisingly good effort, indeed. Still, the seemingly inevitable flaws do crop up. For example, we have the same darn mistake that had popped up in the previous novel; namely, “U.N.C.L.E.” standing for “The United Network Command of Law and Enforcement,” instead of “for Law and Enforcement.” I don’t know why that particular error frustrates the bejeebers out of me so much, but it does. We are also told somewhere that tortoises are crustaceans, which they simply are not. And then there’s the matter of Illya taking a cab from his apartment (in what had previously been established as Brooklyn Heights) and making it to Waverly’s office in midtown Manhattan in 10 minutes. I’m sorry, but any native New Yorker will tell you that that amount of time is simply impossible, even under the most optimal conditions. But quibbles aside, The Stone-Cold Dead in the Market Affair remains a most solid entry indeed, especially coming as it does this late in the series…

The Finger in the Sky Affair U.N.C.L.E. novel #23) The Finger in the Sky Affair by Peter Leslie#23) The Finger in the Sky Affair by Peter Leslie

The Finger in the Sky Affair was another U.N.C.L.E. title whose meaning I misconstrued. I mean, as a native New Yorker, a “finger in the sky” generally has only one meaning … and not a terribly polite one, at that! But no. All levity aside, this final outing in the now-classic Ace series, Peter Leslie’s fifth Man From U.N.C.L.E. book out of five, is a rather serious, even grim, often unpleasantly violent affair, with not the slightest bit of humor to be found in it anywhere. In this one, Transcontinental Airways has suffered five calamitous plane crashes in just a couple of months … far, far above the statistical average. Suspecting Thrush involvement, Waverly sends Solo and Kuryakin to Nice – the scene of three of those disasters – to investigate. Can the revolutionary Murchison-Spears automatic landing system on board the doomed jets be at fault, or are outside forces to blame? Only a handful of survivors from the five crashes remain alive, and as they are all brutally slain, one by one, before Napoleon and Illya can interview them, the certainty grows that something quite dastardly is afoot. Leslie’s previous Man From U.N.C.L.E. titles – The Radioactive Camel Affair, The Diving Dames Affair, The Splintered Sunglasses Affair and The Unfair Fare Affair – had all been copiously detailed books that evinced a thorough knowledge of the locales in question, but this final Leslie offering may be his most exquisitely detailed piece of work yet. This is the type of book in which a character doesn’t just sit in a chair; he sits in a “wheelback cottage chair.” He doesn’t creep across a roof, but rather across a “pantiled Provencal roof.” You get the idea. Leslie here seems to be trying to outdo even Ian Fleming, overwhelming the reader with a ton of convincing detail to add a patina of verisimilitude to his conceit, and you know what? It works. Nice and its neighboring towns are meticulously depicted, obviously by a man who knew the area well. Leslie’s book reserves most of its action set pieces for its final 30 pages, for the most part concentrating on the investigation into those air disasters. This focus was reminiscent, for this reader, of the film Fate Is the Hunter, which had been released two years earlier, in 1964; could it have been an influence on Leslie here? Still, the reader’s patience is rewarded by several bursts of action: a Mustang trying to run down Solo on the sidewalks of NYC; a tense shoot-out at a Nice hospital where a recent crash survivor is being treated; Solo and Kuryakin testing out the Murchison-Spears device while in flight; Napoleon and Illya climbing the ramparts of St.-Paul-de-Vence to gain access to a Thrush base (a harrowing ascent a bit reminiscent of the one at the tail end of The Unfair Fare Affair); our two favorite U.N.C.L.E. agents busting into that Thrush base to prevent another air disaster, as the clock ticks; and the desperate chase after this book’s chief evildoer, through a nighttime crowd of merrymakers. Once again, a good map of the locales in question will prove invaluable, and once again, a slew of British slang words crop up to throw the American reader (or perhaps you do know what are meant by “prang,” “long chalk,” “gubbins” and “gen”). Curiously, Solo is heard to uncharacteristically exclaim “God damn it” during the course of this story; a natural reaction, I suppose, to the uncommonly violent tactics that Thrush employs here in the silencing of its enemies. Oh … and bonus points for the author’s use of the word “rumbustious” herein. Still, as you might have expected, the seemingly inevitable sticking points do manage to crop up. For the third book in a row, the acronym for “U.N.C.L.E.” is given as “United Network Command of Law and Enforcement,” instead of “for Law and Enforcement.” Grrrr! Illya manages to make it from his Brooklyn Heights apartment to U.N.C.L.E. HQ in midtown Manhattan by cab in 12 minutes. Hah! Good luck with that! Mr. Waverly, a septuagenarian, is described as having “middle-aged features.” The book’s chief bad guy (whose identity, as in Book #2’s The Doomsday Affair, is way too easy to figure out) fires five shots at Illya, who later claims that the number was six. And while I’m caviling, how does that chief Thrush baddie expect to possibly climb down the St.-Paul-de-Vence rampart, when Solo and Kuryakin had made the ascent, with full climbing gear, with such difficulty? Still, quibbles aside, this is a fairly solid U.N.C.L.E. novel, and one that brings the curtain down on a generally wonderful series. It’s almost worth the price of admission just for Illya’s description of Thrush itself: “…It is an organization, a way of existence, a dedication to evil … it is almost a nation, although you will not find its name on any maps. And yet, again, if you looked at a globe, there would hardly be a country you could touch which was not in some way or another under its influence…”

Anyway, that’s the rundown of the 23 Ace originals that today are both fondly remembered and highly collectable. But wait … that’s hardly the end of the story regarding the U.N.C.L.E. organization in print! For those readers who wish to continue the journey, there are the five Girl From U.N.C.L.E. books from the late 1960s, detailing the exploits of agents April Dancer and Mark Slate. Those books are The Birds of a Feather Affair and The Blazing Affair, both by Michael Avallone; The Cornish Pixie Affair by Peter Leslie; and, uh, latterly, The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair and The Golden Globules Affair, both by Simon Latter. I would certainly not mind investigating this quintet one day in the future. And oh … wonder of wonders! Like the proverbial phoenix rising from its ashes, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. still lives today! In the last year, a new publisher has started to release original U.N.C.L.E. novels with covers very reminiscent of those beloved Ace books from over a half century earlier! Four books have so far been issued, all written by the team of L. Lazarus and A. Morrisett: The Cerro Negro Affair, The Deadly Deception Affair, The Sedona Affair and The Time Keeper Affair. U.N.C.L.E. fans will thus perhaps understand me when I say that Channel D shows every sign of staying open for a long time to come…


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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