Monday, June 18, 2018

Man From U.N.C.L.E. - The Ghost Riders Affair

The 'Man From U.N.C.L.E. Magazine' was published from February 1966 through January 1968 as an effort to capitalize on and cross-promote the popular TV show. Instead of merely adapting screenplays into prose, the publishers made the decision to have each issue anchored by an original 60-page novella taking place in the U.N.C.L.E. universe written under the house name of Robert Hart Davis. Presumably, the authors of these stories had free reign to have fun with the characters as long as no one essential to the franchise gets killed in the action. The magazine enlisted some talented ghostwriters to pen these novellas, including John Jakes, Dennis Lynds, Talmage Powell, Bill Pronzini, and Harry Whittington. Each issue of the digest also contained short stories unrelated to U.N.C.L.E. but consistent with the genre’s themes.

My first foray into U.N.C.L.E. fiction was the first of the 16 successful stand-alone paperbacks for the series. “Man from U.N.C.L.E. Paperback #1” was written by Michael Avallone (Interestingly, the paperbacks were all published under the authors’ real names, but the digest novellas all adopt the Davis pseudonym), and the book was fantastic - even for a reader who had never watched the TV show or movie. Harry Whittington wrote the second paperback, “The Doomsday Affair,” and it was also a monster seller that put a ton of cash in the pockets of MGM, if not the author himself. Whittington also penned four of the magazine’s U.N.C.L.E. novellas, including “The Ghost Riders Affair” from the July 1966 issue of the digest.

For the uninitiated (myself included), all you need to know before walking into a 'Man From U.N.C.L.E.' novel or story is that there is a secret International spy agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) that employs a suave American spy named Napoleon Solo and a skilled Soviet spy named Illya Kuryakin to handle missions important enough for both sides of the Cold War to collaborate for the greater good. There is an enemy organization of villains, miscreants, and subversives called THRUSH (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity) who often oppose U.N.C.L.E.’s efforts at law and order.

The central mystery of “The Ghost Riders Affair” involves the mysterious disappearance of a 15-car passenger train en route from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Meanwhile, a Wyoming rancher’s 1000 cattle apparently vanished into thin air without leaving a hoofprint behind. Soon thousands of others - famous and nobodies - also disappear without a trace. For jurisdictional reasons left unexplained, the investigation of these mysterious disappearances falls to U.N.C.L.E. who puts Solo and Kuryakin on the case.

At first glance, the investigative plan makes good sense: a duplicate train containing only Kuryakin and an engineer ride the same route on the same tracks at the same time in search of anomalies that might explain the disappearance. Meanwhile, Solo remains at the United Network Command monitoring the train’s progress on his super-advanced computer screen. When the train transporting Kuryakin also disappears, the tension deepens and the mystery intensifies. Was this a supernatural act? Could this have anything to do with THRUSH?

Unlike the full paperback novels, none of the characters get laid and the violence isn’t particularly graphic in the digest. However, you don’t really notice the PG nature of this story because Whittington’s plotting is absolutely superb. The story moves along at a great clip as Solo uncovers clues that bring him closer to discovering the truth about the mass vanishing act. Solo even gets to ride a horse through the untamed West - literary territory Whittington knows well. The story combines the spy world of James Bond with the fantastical pulp of Doc Savage in a novella that never has time to drag.

The good news is that this story is an easy recommendation. The downside is that it might be hard to acquire. MGM owns the U.N.C.L.E. intellectual property and has been disinterested in seeing the stories reprinted, digitized, or preserved for future generations. The full U.N.C.L.E. paperbacks sold well and used copies remain available at affordable prices. However, the digests containing the 60-page novellas can be hard to find and may cost you quite a bit on eBay or other outlets for vintage magazines. Happy hunting!