It's nice to read a spy story every once in a while that doesn't go off into tangents of "what it all means", or "how our side is no better/even worse than their side", a.k.a. the Le Carré syndrome. Sometimes it's just fun to read a spy story with hot babes, savage battles, and numerous active verbs. Such a novel is this.
While "The Man From U.N.C.L.E" was never as big in syndication as it could have been, it survives in the memories of fans as the most enjoyable distillation of the James Bond phenomenon on American TV. Taken from a sketch written by Bond creator Ian Fleming, the series ran from 1964-1968 and produced at least one spinoff series, "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E", as well as a series of tie-in paperbacks, of which this was the first, published in 1965.
Strange happenings are afoot. The entire populations of two small towns in different continents suddenly went mad and died. In Germany, an investigator from the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement lies dead, too; his clothes worn backwards. Back at U.N.C.L.E. command, Alexander Waverly decides there is only one man to call on to get to the bottom of things: Napoleon Solo. Unfortunately, Solo is at that moment in a Paris hotel, about to be done in by a beautiful operative of THRUSH with whom he has spent the night.
"An interesting man, Solo," thinks the enemy operative, deliriously named Denise Fairmount. "An extraordinary charmer. It was a pity that he would have to die."
The resulting confrontation, in which a hotel room turns into an oxygen-sucking deathtrap, gets this story, subtitled "The Thousand Coffins Affair", off to a fast start. Author Michael Avallone was a fast writer who catered to fast reading, and this book works just that way, two cigars and you're done, if you smoke cigars. In no time Solo is out of the death room and in the air, flying for Germany to recover the body of his U.N.C.L.E. comrade.
The characters in the book don't stand out in any special way. It's hard to read anything of Robert Vaughn's Solo characterization in Avallone's bare-bones prose. His usual companion, Illya Kuryakin, doesn't appear until the book is nearly half-over, and then only at U.N.C.L.E. HQ working on the body Solo recovered while Solo does the real work across the Atlantic. It's hard to picture David McCallum spending so much of his character's story time scraping away in a forensics lab!
Avallone develops a functional plot helmed by Golgotha, skull-faced as a result of a fire in his evil laboratory years ago. "You may die swiftly and without pain," Golgotha says at one point to a captured Solo. "Or you can die by degrees, so slowly and with such monumental agony that you will scream and beg for the peace of death which I will not give you."
Here as elsewhere the strength is in the set-up; the weakness in the resolution. Plot points either dissolve with annoying ease, or are dropped by the wayside. In the beginning, we are told how the doomed U.N.C.L.E. operative attaches a message to a pigeon and sends it aloft, yet neither the pigeon nor the message is mentioned again. Likewise, at another point, Solo and his latest lady, grievously wounded, are about to effect an escape as the narration notes a menacing truck appearing in their path. Next thing we know, Solo and the woman are back at U.N.C.L.E., her arm in a sling but otherwise unruffled.
It's not a great story, but it delivers the expected thrills and manages to wrap things up neatly enough. "U.N.C.L.E." fans don't need books like these any more to have their beloved series in hand; just pop in a DVD. No one really needs a novel like this, but imagine how bleak a world this would be if we only read the things we need to.