Jerry Pournelle (1933-2017) was primarily known as a successful science fiction author, science fact writer, and compiler of SF anthologies. However, his first published novel was a spy thriller from 1969 titled “Red Heroin” that was originally published under the pseudonym Wade Curtis and has since been reprinted under the author’s proper name. In addition to multiple paperback printings, the short novel is also available as an eBook and an audiobook from the usual suspects.
Paul Crane is a civil engineer in Seattle whose friend Danny was just named Chief of Police in the small town of Lathrop, Washington. It’s a part-time gig, and Danny wants Crane to be his part-time deputy. Neither guy has any police training, but the town’s mayor wants a couple cops on staff to arrest a drunk every now and then or ticket a speeder on weekends. The job doesn’t pay, but Crane will get a badge that can be used to get out of speeding tickets, so he agrees to help Danny. Soon thereafter they head out to Lathrop for a night of police hijinks in a small town.
It doesn’t take long for the two quasi-cops to find themselves in the middle of a real bloodbath of trouble. The violence propels Crane into the hands of the CIA who recruit him as an operative for an assignment. The upshot is that the Red Chinese are funding their U.S. intel operations by refining poppies into heroin for the American market. It’s a twofer for the Chinese: Drug sales generate U.S. dollars for espionage operations while also getting a generation of American youth hooked on the junk. The Agency wants Crane to get himself recruited as a smuggler for the Chinese while actually serving as a double agent for the CIA.
The transition from unqualified cop to unqualified spy was a bit clunky and requires some suspension of disbelief, but the payoff is great. The CIA wants Crane to ingratiate himself with a leftist student group at the local university hoping that will be the gateway to the Chinese commies. The plan is for Crane to spread the word that he’s buying a boat to attract the student radicals into utilizing him to smuggle the Chinese heroin from Canada.
Along the way, Crane meets a hot hippie chick tied into the student group. Between off-page lovemaking sessions, he really begins to fall for her. Is she just a sincere do-gooder or a tool of Chinese spies? His CIA contact agent for this assignment is a sassy young woman with real sex appeal as well, and her character was my favorite in the novel.
If Pournelle wasn’t such a well-known author, I’d really suspect that “Red Heroin” was pseudonymous work by Donald Hamilton, author of the ‘Matt Helm’ series. His knowledge of hunting rifles and their loads - along with sailing - rivals Hamilton’s own expertise, and the first-person narration has the matter-of-fact, logical self-confidence of many Hamilton protagonists. It’s likely that Pournelle was a fan of the Matt Helm books and set out to write “Red Heroin” as a Helm tribute with a very different origin story. It was also a novel steeped in realism - unlike, say, a ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’ adventure. When things get violent towards the climax, there’s a gritty realism to the carnage that made for satisfying reading.
“Red Heroin” is a thinking-man’s espionage novel rather than a high-speed action killfest, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. The sequel “Red Dragon” (unrelated to Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector novel) came out in 1970, and I will definitely check it out. This first Paul Crane adventure is an easy recommendation and probably the best book of its ilk that I’ve read in quite some time. The paperback deserved a better cover from the various publishers, but it’s what’s inside that counts.
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