‘In this surreal comedy of soldiers and spies, Lieutenant James Churchill and his colleagues find themselves questioning their purpose. Are they for death or against it? These men of action travel between the barracks, the lunatic asylum and the house of an aristocratic nymphomaniac in search of answers. Few know the awful truth about Operation Apollo, the mission they are being trained for, fewer still understand the motives of the powerful psychiatrist Dr Best, who thinks he is surrounded by repressed homosexuals, and none know the identity of the secret agent among them. When the Anti-Death League is founded they are at last offered the chance to rebel and perhaps escape…’
I really enjoyed reading this book. I feel like I need to stress that early on because when I finished the novel I was left feeling a little bit mixed. There were some things I really liked about this book, and some things that didn’t sit as well with me as a reader. All in all, it was a good book but I want to make that clear now because otherwise this review will feel like a bit of a rant.
The very first few pages in the book you are introduced to two of the main characters, James Churchill and Max Hunter. We meet them in fairly interesting circumstances, Churchill, along with his friends and fellow soldiers Willie Ayscue and Moti Naidu, go to visit their chum Hunter who is at that point residing in a mental institute being treated for alcoholism. While they’re there the friends encounter Mrs Casement, a patient who Churchill immediately can’t stop thinking about and Corporal Fawkes, who introduces another key character Captain Brian Leonard through dialogue. For me, this opening chapter is incredibly important and gripping. We get to meet all of the main characters, although admittedly some of them only through dialogue, and we get an introductory sense of who they are. The most interesting insight is into Dr Best, who Hunter describes as a man who sees repressed homosexuals everywhere.
Dr Best is, for me, the character who held my interest the most. He is by far one of the most difficult characters to read about from start to finish. We first meet him in the hospital as he has a session with Mrs Catherine Casement. Unsurprisingly, he thinks Catherine is a repressed lesbian who had a psychological breakdown because she couldn’t cope with the sexuality she was suppressing. Now, if this wasn’t enough to make me roll my eyes and take an immediate dislike to the man, he then decided to warp everything she said to fit his ridiculous theory including the use of a disturbing and frankly disgusting psychological example of stresses and shocks that suggested a man having his leg touched by another man was an experience from which there was little chance of recovery whereas a ten year old girl who was raped could bounce back and move on easily enough. Yeah, he was that type of asshole. But anyway, once you get through that horror show and focus your energies on reading on, eagerly awaiting the moment someone punches Best in the face, I’m afraid you’re in for a trying wait. Best is the perfect villain in some respects, easy to despise and immediately suspicious. You want him to be the spy and you want him to be caught. But, before you can get anywhere near anything like a satisfying end for the Doctor, you have to first sit through all the nonsense that comes out of his mouth. Which unfortunately is not limited to blaming a rape victim for her abuse by implying it happened because her fear of her abuser (stemming from her repressed lesbianism) angered him to do it, his attempted rape on a woman who he visited under the guise of talking to (he even insisted on waiting until she was alone and isolated) before accusing her of lying about said attempted rape, and then attempting to have a soldier committed to an asylum for seeing spies everywhere when he was in fact a spy catcher logically looking for one spy in particular. Yeah, Best wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with and I think the most frustrating thing is that in the end he isn’t shown to be just an evil guy with a master plan and some very twisted ideas, he’s instead branded as mad and given a psychological breakdown. This might have been a satisfying end for him had it not been for the fact that he was so thoroughly an abrasive and dickish character that it just didn’t seem like justice. He didn’t feel mad before the breakdown, he just appeared like a misogynistic pig with some bloody awful ideas about psychology. But he had a logic that he followed and to take that away and make him into some random crackpot who had let the power of his position go to his head sullied the effect of his position as an antagonist and left me feeling disappointed.
The other characters didn’t provide me with much relief. Churchill’s miserable end with debilitating depression, although it did speak to me on a very real level, didn’t feel like a deserved ending for such an interesting character who had challenged the notion of blindly accepting the religious principle of the necessity of suffering. He never got the answers to his questions, yes he got a semi happy ending but one simply doesn’t get out of a severe depressive episode that has kept you bedridden for days just because your girlfriend shows up for half an hour.
Hunter was a more interesting case, although again I can’t help but feel that he wasn’t used to his full potential. The title of the book, The Anti-Death League, led me to believe the league would have a far greater impact than it actually did. A simple notice and an empty meeting that took up a few dozen pages and then is referenced half a dozen times didn’t really fulfill my expectations and left me wanting a lot more. Why didn’t we get to hear more about Hunter’s pacifist ideas and see more characters engage with the ideas behind his manifest? A simple dismissal from one or two characters and then a further two sharing their own bad experiences with loss didn’t really impact me in the way I wanted and I felt like it was more of a side plot than anything. Although his final talk with the fascinating character Jagger was possibly one of the most enlightening scenes in the book, especially as I was convinced from early on that Hunter was a spy or at the very least doing something dodgy, it left me feeling a bit disheartened. I never really got any sense that Hunter really loved Pearce and I felt like I needed more love and less lust in earlier scenes to truly give the final talk more impact. Yes Hunter wasn’t supposed to be revealing his love to Pearce but there was very little indication the interaction was more than it said on the tin, and really would it have been that difficult to make it more explicit?
Ayscue and Leonard were, for me, two characters that got more interesting the further on you got. In the beginning I honestly didn’t think much of either of them but by the beginning of part three I was completely enthralled by them. Leonard was interesting and I couldn’t help but support him and pity him, especially when the truth of Operation Apollo was revealed. Ayscue was someone that I really didn’t begin to appreciate fully until his last moments in the book when he was given the most powerful ending of all the characters. We finished on this man of God, finally beginning to form some form of faith and truly pray for Catherine’s life and the final image we get is of this man on his knees in Church while his only companion in the world, his dog Nancy, is run over by a lorry outside. It’s such an incredibly powerful and yet simple comment on the nature of suffering and death that was the books central theme that it made up for the disappointment in the rest of the characters ends- in my eyes anyway.
All in all, I did like it. I honestly did- I thought the characters were brilliantly written and I adored the interesting storyline for the search for the spy. I love spy novels and Leonard’s search for the spy really held my interest when, to be perfectly honest, other aspects of the book such as Operation Apollo and the anti-climax that was the Anti-Death League had already lost my attention. It was an interesting book and to be honest I think I might have to give it another read before I can fully make up my mind on just how I feel about it, but at this point in time I think the biggest compliment I can give it is that I would enjoy reading it again.