Keith Laumer, A Plague of Demons (Paperback Library, 1965)
[originally posted 20Dec2001]
Keith Laumer may be a science fiction writer, but don’t let that fool you. I’d bet a week’s pay the guy was sitting there at his typewriter in a trenchcoat and fedora, unfiltered Lucky hanging from his lip, reading back his prose in a Bogart voice. The first two-thirds of this book is straight out of the world of hardboiled detective fiction. Well, okay, as long as you leave out the dog-faced aliens, invisibility suits, anti-gravity devices, you get the idea.
The scene is present-day Algeria, where your basic world war has come down to a seemingly endless conflict between Algeria and Tunisia, with the rest of the world powers backing one side or the other. Jack Bravais, an American general, is sent to observe the fighting and report back to his superiors, or so we think. His best friend, an operative for a secret government espionage agency, has different orders for him and a cover that’s bound to stir up trouble—make Bravais look like he’s plotting against the UN, and a fellow American general in particular. As if that isn’t enough for Bravais to get himself into, he very quickly finds out that his real mission (find out why the estimated casualty numbers for battles dating all the way back to WWI don’t match the actual body counts) involves proving the existence of aliens. Well, alrighty then.
The book’s got a slow beginning, but it takes off around chapter three, and never looks back. The tone changes, inexplicably, about two-thirds of the way through and the book becomes much more a hard SF novel (one can almost hear the publisher screaming “there aren’t enough damn robots in here!” at the first draft), but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment to be found in Bravais and his dimwit sidekick Joel (no last name). If you’re a sci-fi fan looking for a good mystery, or a mystery fan looking for some aliens to play with, this is right up your alley. Have fun. ***