Adventure With A Brain

Reading & Writing

Nobody seems to remember this most unusual author anymore. Van Greenaway was a lawyer-turned-novelist who wrote topical, political, satirical thrillers. At his best he combined popular fiction with a rare passion and erudition. This kind of thought-provoking action novel was a genre all its own that now appears to have vanished entirely.

Van Greenaway started in the style he very much developed as his own over the next two decades. His first novel, ‘The Crucified City’, was an allegorical thriller about the aftermath of a nuclear attack, and the pilgrimage to Aldermaston that took place at Easter. This kind of almost-SF novel, extrapolating present-day concerns into future consequences, was very much in vogue in the 1960s. It often combined a big theme like the misuse of science or runaway government control, and a rogue human element.

Van Greenaway could work in a lighter vein, too. ‘The Destiny Man’ concerns a ham actor who seizes a last chance for stage fame when he discovers a missing Shakespeare folio left behind on a train. There is a crime involved, but the novel’s impetus derives from knowing that the hero, a man of limited talents who has wangled sole rights to the play’s performance, is going to turn the event into a hideous fiasco when he tries to rise to the role’s challenge. Van Greenaway even has the nerve to create chunks of the bard’s missing play from scratch, and pulls them off with enormous panache. The ending is a surprise and far too delightful to be given away here.

‘The Man Who Held the Queen to Ransom and Sent Parliament Packing’, published in 1968, describes a very British Victorian coup, played lightly for laughs, while scoring some nice points about British statesmanship. Greenaway excelled at cynical satire and wordplay, and we mere humans rarely come out well, especially when we’re pitted against monkeys (in ‘Manrissa Man’) or mice (in ‘Mutants’).

In Greenaway’s prescient political thrillers terrorism was a recurring theme. Astoundingly, ‘Take the War to Washington’ involved a group of Vietnam veterans who crash a passenger airliner into the Pentagon and launch a series of terrorist attacks on tall buildings in the US, in order to wreck the nation’s international status, ending its financial dominance around the world.

Van Greenaway was popular enough to see his books packaged as mass-market paperbacks, and his paranormal suspense thriller ‘The Medusa Touch’ was filmed starring a wildly overacting Sir Richard Burton. The book further developed his interest in individuals taking control of their lives by any means necessary, but this time he added a pseudo-science aspect that reflected the concerns and the righteous anger of the seventies.

Burton played a disturbed author with a ‘gift for disaster’ who survives a violent attack by an unknown assailant. While he hovers in a state between life and death, flashbacks reveal that he can influence events and remove people who stand in his way with the power of thought. Van Greenaway turns his hero’s ability to cause telekinetic catastrophes into a powerful moral tool that reflects the anti-establishment mood of the time.

The author’s peculiar talents were suited to the period in which he wrote but somehow transcended them, so that the books are still intriguing. His collections of short stories are pithy and sharp, and showcase some of his most stylish writing. Typically, they’re all out of print. The six paperbacks above are all I could find, although I also have hardback sets of his shorter fiction, and especially enjoyed his collection ‘Edgar Allen…Who?’

17 comments on “Adventure With A Brain”

  1. Brooke says:

    Congratulations! Book of Forgotten Authors (paper) became available thru A.US yesterday.
    Since you-know-who didn’t make it across the ditch, Oct. 31 is all yours–except for the witches, ghosts, etc.

    Found Van Greenway’s books on A.US–something rings a bell; probably read one of his books but dementia is setting in. I’m fond of the snake-headed old bag so will try The Medusa Touch.

  2. mike says:

    I remember getting his books from our local library.
    Enjoyed them enough to keenly await new ones.
    Still vaguely remember one of the covers. Torch of Liberty? and an airliner flying past.
    I’m going to have to search Am. now see if I can spot it

  3. mike says:

    Think I must be confusing the cover with ‘Take the War to Washington’s’

  4. admin says:

    The Medusa Touch is the only one with a paranormal element. My favourite is The Destiny Man, but very hard to find now, I believe.

  5. Colin says:

    What do you prefer Chris, the film or book of Medusa touch? I read the book after and found it hard to keep Burtons voice out of my head! Think I preferred the book. The film was also one of those ‘oh it’s him from ……etc!

  6. Brooke says:

    according to A.US, Destiny Man is available (1 reseller in UK, 2 in BC, Canada) But cannot find a synopsis.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Not attracting me, Brooke.If it was the Kidnapping the Queen one, perhaps.

    Was listening to The Current on CBC this am and found that eugenics is raising its head again. We’re getting close to being able to remove genes which create disease and should we? What if it doesn’t do what you think it will? How many books using this theme will there be? Is it a useful area to investigate or merely disastrous?

  8. Ian Luck says:

    I remember watching ‘The Medusa Touch’, and liking it’s premise – but I’m sure that Richard Burton was ‘heavily refreshed’ throughout.

  9. admin says:

    The Medusa Touch film is hammy and dreadful, from my recollection of it.

    Brooke, The Destiny Man synopsis:
    ‘Act One: The mysterious disappearance of an antiquarian bookseller, spirited away into the London fog.
    Act Two: The desecration of the tomb of the world’s greatest playwright.
    Act Three: The incrediblle discovery on the London Underground of a manuscript authenticated as a long-lost play by Shakespeare….ends with a sensational first night at Straford.’

  10. Andrew Holme says:

    The Medusa Touch was a pretty awful film. In the Seventies Burton seemed to alternate between good performances to paying the rent/ buying the diamond performances. Excellent in Equus, so-so in Exorcist II. Awful in The Medusa Touch. Flying off the screen in 1984 – Burton is O’Brien, a truly wonderful performance.

  11. Brooke says:

    Thanks! Destiny Man sounds like my kind of read. On my buy list–yet another hit to dividend check.

  12. Brooke says:

    @Helen: We’re aldready there. Did you miss annoucement of birth of girls whose CCR5 gene was altered using CRISPR technolgy?. Supposedly to prevent transmission of HIV which their dad carries. Lots of science and ethics discussions on line, BBC Science, about consequences, as CCR5 is also involved in brain functions.
    Many stories/novels about gene editing. I’m not a fan of sci-fi (or in this case science realism) but will ask those in the know.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    ‘The Medusa Touch’ is very probably hammy and dreadful – but I liked the idea behind it.
    The movie is so straight-laced, and overwrought, it becomes funny, rather than thrilling, in a similar way to ‘The Exorcist’, which is a movie I’ve never found frightening, but funny, long before it was used as a gag on the movie ‘The Naked Gun’.

  14. Philip Linfield says:

    I still have my paperback copy of ‘Crucified City’ somewhere (Pan wasn’t it?) which I haven’t read for 52 years. By the way the 20th century Richard Burton was the most famous British actor NOT knighted. That’s probably an easy slip, but ‘Edgar Allen’!? Let’s look at it all together everyone: Edgar Allan Poe. But I do love your books Admin and your blog.

  15. John Howard says:

    Yes it was Pan Philip. I did try to re-read mine but gave up. Not sure if it was his style for his first book or just me. I have been able to re-read the others I have and really enjoyed them.

  16. Ken Mann says:

    A thing that puzzled me about the film is that they changed the ending to make it less apocalyptic, which seemed like an odd artistic choice.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Brooke – Yes, I did hear about the girls at the time but have lost track since. The debate seems to be advancing to the how to address it in legalese stage.That is a matter for each legal jurisdiction, of course. Still scary, especially as they don’t seem to be sure that even with the greatest accuracy there is no guarantee that the operation will have the desired effect and no guarantee that it won’t have any undesired effects.

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