U.N.C.L.E. the Show
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by David M. Munsey
Below are my capsule reviews and ratings for the 23 MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. paperbacks published by Ace books. There is near unanimity among fans that David McDaniel is the best of the U.N.C.L.E. authors, and a consensus that Dagger and Vampire are his best. J. Holly Hunter's Assassination Affair is also well liked by most fans. Beyond that there is little agreement. Nearly every book would receive a few votes along with the McDaniel's and Assassination would that we were to ask for a top ten from all the readers. Below I try to give the flavor of the book, its reputation, how it does in terms of fidelity to U.N.C.L.E. and on its own as a story. I have tried to avoid spoilers. The individual ratings from excellent down to poor are my subjective judgments, with a slant towards getting U.N.C.L.E. right as opposed to writing a good story because that seems to be important to most fans and that is why one reads an U.N.C.L.E. book as opposed to Eric Ambler or Ian Fleming.
The Thousand Coffins Affair by Michael Avallone
The recently deceased Michael Avallone wrote countless paperback novels, many based on television shows including GFU and Hawaii Five-O, he also had his own series with private eye Ed Noon who appeared in his first book The Tall Dolores in 1954 and several thereafter. This effort shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of most of the early books in the series. It is a competently plotted and written story, but the author has little or no feel for the main characters or the relationships between them. Here it is worse than usual, with Napoleon reporting by telephone to Mr. Waverly who addresses him as "Solo." The plot involves a worldwide threat by THRUSH involving germ warfare, the villain is appropriately bizarre and gothic. As with the television series in the early days, Illya is very much a bit player.
The Doomsday Affair by Harry Whittington
Harry Whittington wrote quite a few westerns and hard-boiled detective novels, his only MFU entry has the feel of the latter with some James Bond twists such as an elaborate headquarters for the villain where the final spectacular confrontation tales place. Doomsday has a lot in common with its predecessor, except Illya has a larger role. The mysterious villain, Tixe Ylno is out to destroy the world and the heroes must thwart him. One of the more violent books. Supposedly this is coming out in hardcover soon, I cannot confirm it.
The Copenhagen Affair by John Oram
John Oram wrote two early MFU books, this one is well written and very good when the U.N.C.L.E. people are not on stage. Oram has no real feel for them. This one is set in Denmark over the Christmas holidays and has familiar sixties espionage themes: evil ex-Nazis, a deadly secret weapon and a showdown in a underground factory and hideout.
The Dagger Affair by David McDaniel
David McDaniel, far and away the best of the MFU authors, started off with what many consider to be one of the two best books in the series. This book shares none of the weaknesses of the first three books and is a real pleasure to read for U.N.C.L.E. fans. DAGGER is an organization so insane and murderous that THRUSH and U.N.C.L.E. join forces to combat it. A history of THRUSH is posited, with a hint that Sherlock Holmes' arch rival Professor Moriarty's European criminal syndicate was its ancestor. A possible acronym for THRUSH - the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity - is also provided. In addition to getting Napoleon and Illya just right, McDaniel often gives Mr. Waverly a large role, as he does here. Mayhap the most memorable of THRUSH villains, Ward and Irene Baldwin are introduced. The setting is mostly San Francisco and other parts of the American West.
The Mad Scientist Affair by John T. Phillifent
This is a pretty solid effort, Phillifent takes few chances here, avoiding both the successes of Corfu and the failures of Power Cube. Somewhat episodic, it has an Irish flavour and features a mad scientist, a gothic cstle and a memorable beer truck chase that is somewhat reminiscent of Moonraker (the novel that is).
The Vampire Affair by David McDaniel
By consensus, with which I agree, the best book in the series. All of McDaniel's strengths are present here in perfect balance. The characters (it is the Eastern European who is worried about vampires, not the Ivy League educated American), great atmosphere, playful yet plausible genre mixing (horror in this case), humor. Solo and Illya are in the Transylvanian Alps investigating the mysterious (unless one believes in vampires) murder of an U.N.C.L.E. agent. The Vampire angle is handled well, and real life sci-fi and horror buff Forrest J. Ackerman makes a great ally.
The Radioactive Camel Affair by Peter Leslie
The second (first published in the US) of Peter Leslie's five MFU books, only McDaniel wrote more. Unlike McDaniel, Leslie was not an U.N.C.L.E. fan, but a British paperback writer along the lines of Avallone. Happily he was a lot better than Avallone. He collaborated with Patrick Macnee on two very good Avengers offerings, and also penned one of the Secret Agent paperbacks. This is probably his best MFU effort, it starts a bit slowly with Solo undercover in a caravan in the Sudan. Soon Illya joins the hunt for U-235 that THRUSH needs to develop nuclear warheads. Leslie created one of the most colorful and
memorable supporting characters in Habib Tufik, a free lance buyer and seller of secrets and official documents. There is a standard capture and escape and final battle at the villain's secret headquarters la James Bond, but it is done pretty well here. One of the better books not penned by McDaniel in the series.
The Monster Wheel Affair by David McDaniel
The closest thing to a standard MFU paperback penned by McDaniel, it is nonetheless one of the best. There is a lot of action in this episodic adventure involving an artificial satellite of no known origin. The story moves quickly and engagingly from the Indian Ocean to New York to Capetown to Rio to Hong Kong all inside of the first fifty pages. The book also introduces some new gadgets such as U.N.C.L.E.'s miraculous mini-submarine, the Coanda Squid, and the Gyrojet pistol.
The Diving Dames Affair by Peter Leslie
Leslie's worst entry and one of the poorest in the series, a lot of running around the interior of Brazil, rehashing what was done better in Radioactive Camel, even Tufik is resurrected to bad effect. Very standard fare.
The Assassination Affair by J. Hunter Holly
Generally this is the most highly regarded of the non-McDaniel books. It is definitely of the fannish variety. Psychologically it is very violent like Ms. Holly's unpublished, but available in manuscript form, The Wolves and Lambs Affair. The book is essentially two novellas, many readers find them to be not connected very smoothly. The first involves the taking of Solo prisoner and a madman's attempt to kill him slowly, painfully and horrifically; the second leaves the city for Michigan farm country and is action packed.
The Invisibility Affair by Thomas Stratton
The recently deceased Buck Coulson and Gene DeWeese wrote two fannish books with science fiction elements using "Thomas Stratton" as their pen name. This was the first and perhaps the more popular. The main weapon is an invisible dirigible which THRUSH plans to use for a nefarious scheme. It's a pretty good thriller and the authors depict the main characters well. The setting is the midwest, which is evoked nicely. Somehow the book never grabbed me, my only concrete complaint is that the failed attempts at humour were distracting.
The Mind Twisters Affair by Thomas Stratton
Better by far to me than his first effort, although many prefer Invisibility, the events of which are updated in this one. THRUSH uses the small university town of Milford, Wisconsin as a laboratory to brainwash the populace against U.N.C.L.E. via television. This one moves along at a brisk pace and has some good action and held my interest.
The Rainbow Affair by David McDaniel
This may be the ultimate fan novel, the most allusive by far in the series. If Vampire is McDaniel's Moby Dick, then Rainbow is his Confidence Man. Set in England, many famous characters, led by an ancient Sherlock Holmes, parade through this one and part of the fun is discovering who is who as virtually none are identified by name. Among those who either have cameos or are alluded to are Steed and Mrs. Peel, Simon Templer, Chief Inspector Teal, Father Brown, Fu Manchu, Miss Marple, Neddy Seagoon, and even James Bond. The story is pretty good, if somewhat choppy because of all the guest stars. There is a great scene near the climax where Solo and Illya sail through the stormy waters of the Bristol Channel to reach Johnnie Rainbow's island headquarters.
The Cross of Gold Affair by Frederic Davies
Fredric Davis is the nom de plume of Ron Ellik and Fredric Langley, friends of David McDaniel who co-authored this book. The former died a few days after having read the galleys. I have never warmed up to this one myself, but many fans enjoy it. Like McDaniel's books and those by Hunter and "Stratton"-- this is definitely of the fannish ilk. The outre villain, Porpoise, lives in pools. The setting is Coney Island and there are some enjoyable encounters on the beach between the heroes and some hippies. There is also a very suspenseful obstacle course along the lines of Doctor No that both agents get to try. This is the book with the discussion of sleep darts vs. bullets as the preferred ammo in the U.N.C.L.E. specials.
The Utopia Affair by David McDaniel
This one is number three overall on my list. It is something different, it has two complimentary story lines. Mr. Waverly is on vacation in Utopia (a unique getaway for the rich located in Australia) where Illya is keeping an eye on him, while Napoleon is in charge of U.N.C.L.E. back in New York City. THRUSH is plotting in both places; several experts have been brought in to plan the labefaction of Napoleon while two world class assassins have been dispatched down under to do in Mr. Waverly. Alexander Waverly is a great character, especially in McDaniel's hands, and his part of the story was a little more compelling to me despite the deus ex machina resolution. Seeing Solo in command of U.N.C.L.E. in a crisis is a treat, specially for those many fans who speculated that he would succeed Mr. Waverly someday.
The Splintered Sunglasses Affair by Peter Leslie
This is one of Leslie's best, if not his best U.N.C.L.E. effort. It begins with a kidnapping of Napoleon Solo in U.N.C.L.E.'s New York HQ which is very nicely done (I must object to the practice of addressing Mr. Del Floria as "Del" however, a fault from which even McDaniel is not entirely free), and the plot is well executed and includes some real detective work. The most noteworthy aspect of this entry is the very early (1968) use of holographic technology as the cynosure of the story.
The Hollow Crown Affair by David McDaniel
This is the last of the originals printed by Ace Books, the remaining numbers in the series were reprints of the British series. McDaniel's last U.N.C.L.E. manuscript, The Final Affair, was rejected because Ace was no longer printing originals because sales were way down, the series was off the air, and the reprints were cheaper. This is a very good story, in most people's top five. Ward and Irene Baldwin return from The Dagger Affair, and once again they are in a marriage of convenience with U.N.C.L.E. The Baldwin's inform U.N.C.L.E. that one Joseph King, former U.N.C.L.E. weapons research scientist was not killed by his last invention, but went into the dark and defected to THRUSH where he is using the deadly new weapon to gain power in that organization. Much of the action takes place on a New England college campus, there is also a look at THRUSH Central in Philadelphia on moving day.
The Unfair Fare Affair by Peter Leslie
After a very promising start in which Mr. Waverly fortuitously stumbles into an elaborate escape ring (somewhat along the lines of John Huston's The Macintosh Man) during a stroll in Holland, this one degenerates into a confused and choppy, but nonetheless readable adventure story. Solo advised against involvement, and was mayhap more wise than the author who plunged ahead. THRUSH shows up in this one, but is not the lone foe. This one also features the third and final appearance of the overworked Habib Tufik. Trivia: Mr. Waverly refers to April Dancer and Mark Slate (although Mark's last name is given as "Slade" in my edition).
The Power Cube Affair by John T. Phillifent
This is the weakest of Phillifent's three contributions. His grasp of Napoleon and Illya is adequate for the most part. In this one there is a hunt to find and assemble 27 parts of a power cube that would give the possessor-what else?- world domination. This is familiar enough, it reminds one of Dr. Who's hunt for the six segments of the Key to Time and the Red Skull's quest for the Cosmic Cube. Another old theme is the woman sidekick who has to be put in her (inferior) place by the men, in this case "a lady tiger, with a chip on each shoulder." It is done neither subtly nor well.
The Corfu Affair by John T. Phillifent
Once again Phillifent's inability to portray women successfully mars one of his books. Here the "exquisite Countess Anne-Marie Louise de St.-Denis" is a sex goddess and malevolent mastermind who has not only killed a top U.N.C.L.E. agent, but apparently also turned him. Solo must penetrate her palace on the Greek island of Corfu. The author appeared to be writing under guidelines that allowed for nudity, but not sex to be depicted, a formula more suited to cinema than prose, and Phillifent is not Nabokov when it comes to writing erotica. The conclusion is either apocalyptic or farcical depending on your mood. All in all, this one is an improvement over its predecessor and has its good moments along with the rocky ones.
The Thinking Machine Affair by Joel Bernard
A science fiction plot about an Eastern European scientist with a machine to control people's minds and a race between U.N.C.L.E. and THRUSH to get their hands on it. The scientist's lovely young daughter becomes a pawn in the game. It's not too bad, but it lacks the really good feel of the series present in the novels penned by fans.
The Stone Cold Dead in the Market Affair by John Oram
This is the thinnest of books, both in number of words and substance. It reads more like a precis or an extended treatment for a novel, of course all of the books are heavy on plot and action with very little digression, but this is anemic. The setting is South Wales and the atmosphere good, had the author fleshed it out it could have been an above average entry, but as it is, it must rank near the bottom of the heap.
The Finger in the Sky Affair by Peter Leslie
One of Leslie's better plots (THRUSH is causing commercial airliners to crash), and his evocation of the South of France is excellent (he wrote a non-fiction account of the French Resistance in the area, called The Liberation of the Riviera). As with other early books, Napoleon and Illya are mishandled, especially with regard to women. Solo's womanizing lacks his subtlety and class, Illya is put in a bizarre position that makes him psychologically unrecognizable.