Adventure With A Brain
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?’