Originally Published 1955
The Sleeper was one of the two books I received in my first Coffee and Crime shipment and after a quick skim of the blurb it immediately leapt to the top of my TBR pile.
The novel is a Cold War-era spy-thriller from the American author Holly Roth. Writer Robert Kendall is surprised when representatives of the FBI and Counter Intelligence Corps turn up to investigate an attempted robbery at his home. As he is questioned he becomes certain that the thieves were seeking notes he may have made relating to a series of articles he is writing for The Courier about an army lieutenant who had been sentenced for treason.
The nature of the crimes committed by Lieutenant Hollister were not known to the public. After receiving heavy criticism for its handling of the affair, the army agreed to allow a journalist of their choosing to write a general profile of the man on the condition that the article would not touch on any specifics of the case.
This conversation begins a cagey game played between Kendall and the two agents throughout the novel as they each attempt to extract some information from the other party. This leads Kendall to follow up on some leads from his article as he attempts to understand what the attempted burglars hoped to find hidden in his notes and what crime Hollister had committed.
Perhaps the weakest part of the book is the question concerning the nature of Hollister’s crime. Roth basically tells the reader what he is accused of in the title and so the revelation will hardly come as a surprise to most. Fortunately it doesn’t take long to get to that point and once this information is broken however, deeper and more complex questions and puzzles follow. There is some really clever and thoughtful plotting and I was pleasantly surprised by how many opportunities Roth provides for the reader to engage in ratiocination – a far from typical feature in the spy thriller genre.
One of the cleverest aspects of Roth’s story is the way she constructs the narrative, starting us at the point at which Kendall learns about the government’s suspicions. This produces a slightly disorienting effect as we wait to learn more details about Kendall’s circumstances but it does allow Roth to focus on providing us with the most important information up front, filling in the details once the reader has been hooked with the promise of detecting some sort of conspiracy or cracking a code. In essence it enables Roth to compact her narrative, creating an intriguing situation where Hollister is much talked about but never actually present.
This choice also highlights the importance of the characters of the two agents, Gregory and Windham, and the tension that is created with Kendall. The relationships between these three men really dominate the rest of the story, providing it with much of its intrigue and tension, and it is interesting to ponder whether this is an aspect of the book that would be read differently today by modern readers than its contemporary audience. I certainly was struck by how hard it is to get a solid read on the men and their intentions and while I do not think that Roth’s presentation of these two government officials would register as provocative today, there is a certain cynicism in the way they are attempting to manage things that I find fascinating and ahead of its time.
The character of Marta Wentwirth is also quite curious, appearing quite enigmatically throughout much of the story. I appreciated that Roth writes her as being intelligent and acting independently of the other characters, in part because her interests in the case are quite different (she feels her reputation was damaged by Kendall’s article). Roth does a good job of keeping characters’ allegiances ambiguous, helping to build that sense of mystery as to just what is going on. If there is an issue it is with the attempts to build up the character as a sort of love interest, though the lack of depth to that relationship is perhaps inevitable given the length of the novel and the extreme circumstances in which the characters are thrown together.
While I would describe Roth’s story as a thriller, I suppose it should be said that the emphasis here is on understanding situations rather than action sequences. There is only one sequence in the whole book that really fits that description and even that is kept quite short with the emphasis falling on the discovering the reasons for that situation rather than describing the action. Regardless I found the work to be very effective at building tension, particularly as Kendall spends so much of the story acting instinctively without all of the information he needs to make informed decisions.
Roth’s story builds to a really strong, dramatic conclusion that I mostly liked. Here, once again, I think that the book reflects the time it was written in and while it wasn’t necessarily the ending I would have written, I still found it made for a striking conclusion to a story that I had found thoroughly engaging and entertaining.
Overall, my first experience of Holly Roth was an overwhelmingly positive one. I was impressed by how compact this story was, feeling that not a page was wasted and that everything served the narrative and its themes well. While the overall direction of the story will probably be anticipated by most modern readers, I think it is executed quite brilliantly and dramatically, building some clever puzzles and proving interesting thematically.
If you can track down an affordable copy, I would thoroughly recommend this.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Out of your comfort zone (Why)