Howard (Melvin) Fast 1914–
(Also wrote under pseudonym E. V. Cunningham) American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and scriptwriter.
Fast's historical novels often offer a fresh and individualistic perspective on American history, and his early works especially were popular with critics and readers. Fast's writing was later influenced by his association with the Communist Party and his stories were weakened by propagandism. In the early 1950s Fast was blacklisted for his Communist activities but eventually broke with the Party, detailing his feelings in The Naked God.
Fast's best writing vividly portrays scenes and action in an uncluttered style, although his material is sometimes marred by sentimentality. His recent best-selling series of historical novels, beginning with The Immigrants, features the Lavette family amid this century's national and international crises.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; Something about the Author, Vol. 7; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9.)
The American Colonies during the days of the Revolution are the setting for [Two Valleys]….
Mr. Fast is unusually successful in conveying the mood and impression he depicts. He possesses also the knack of creating lifelike characters; his leading figures in their outlines have reality and act on their own volition, and the minor figures emerge as distinct individualities. The settled Pennsylvania village, with its Quaker meeting house and Lutheran church, is effectively contrasted with the wilderness beyond. The reader understands the spell of the wilderness…. Perhaps most characteristic of the mood of the earlier frontier America was the feeling of a future full of limitless possibilities. It is this element which Mr. Fast most vividly portrays.
"Frontier America," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1933 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 13, 1933, p. 9.
["The Last Frontier"] is something new in Americana. At first sight one recognizes that it comes out of the healthy, increasing trend to rewrite the history of our frontier with a new honesty which has tended, first, to be reasonably truthful at last about the Indians on whose dead bodies America was founded, and more recently to perceive that the Indians too, are a part of American society and that our treatment of them was and is a part of our democracy's success or failure. "The Last Frontier," a novelized history of the flight of the Northern Cheyennes from Oklahoma to Montana, and of the series of whippings they administered to the United States Army, does belong among these treatments of a vivid sector of our history. But by its unusual angle of presentation as well as the unusual quality of Mr. Fast's writing, it becomes something new, a book to be hailed with joy and read for pure pleasure and excitement….
The subject of his book is, as stated, the remnant of the Cheyennes in their terrible retreat in 1878, which sounds remote enough in all conscience; but the unique narrative method brings out clearly for even the least understanding reader the place that this incident occupies in the formation of the American scene. Mr. Fast tells his story entirely through white men. Although he gathered plenty of information for his book among the Cheyennes themselves, at no time does he enter into an Indian's mind. Thus baldly stated...
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Little has been written about the [Cheyenne Indians who defiantly journeyed from their reservation to their former homes in the Montana Territory, but in "The Last Frontier"] Howard Fast puts the story into a compact, restrained, ruthlessly pruned and tremendously dramatic novel. Even the bare records must have made a moving story, jumbled and confused as they doubtless were. As Mr. Fast has disentangled and rewoven them the tale becomes a triumph of the historical novelist's art.
Two points about "The Last Frontier" deserve special mention.
One is the exceptionally successful development of the people of the story….
The other point is the underlying significance of the author's treatment of the theme he has selected.
Mr. Fast, of course, is well aware of the importance, today particularly, of the novel in which the ideal of freedom is put forward from a fresh angle. "The Last Frontier," when all's said and done, is such a novel—a story of men who loved freedom sufficiently so that they considered themselves dead men without it. It is also a reminder, to those who have let themselves undervalue freedom, that there may be times when the desire to be free can bring about miracles. It is not stretching a point too far, I believe, to note an obvious contemporary parallel in this tale of ninety proud, fearless men, with their women and children to hamper them, standing up against the armed might of an entire nation and by hook or crook winning through.
In the end, however, Mr. Fast's novel will stand or fall upon its value as a dramatic, finely presented story. It is all of that: a model, which may easily become a classic example, of what to put in and what to leave out in the writing of a historical novel. Mr. Fast has come a long way since his Valley Forge story, "Conceived in Liberty," good as that book was. I do not believe it is saying too much to suggest that in the person of Mr. Fast we may have the next really important American historical novelist.
Joseph Henry Jackson, "An Important American Historical Novel," in New York Herald Tribune Books (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), July 27, 1941, p. 3.
In the late Seventies, according to Howard Fast, who seems to have examined all the documents with the scrupulous imagination of a historical novelist, the Cheyenne Indians were the heroes and the victims of a persecution which will touch any American on one of his conscience's sorest spots. Mr. Fast tells the story in The Last Frontier. It is a great story, even if the book is something short of great. Mr. Fast is not sentimental, and the agonized sympathy with which one puts the novel down is the result of what happens in its pages, not of any tears Mr. Fast sheds himself or asks us to shed. Here is a solid and memorable addition to the vast literature about the American Indian. (p. x)
Mr. Fast tells [the story] from the white man's point of view. We see little of the Indians save as a pathetic, dwindling, infinitely courageous cloud of horsemen on the horizon. There are some battles, and many skirmishes, in which the Indians morally come off best. Always, and increasingly, do we feel on their side, longing to have them escape and reach their ancient home. Which was all that they were trying to do. The Last Frontier is a memorable lesson in humility to the aliens who broke treaty after treaty with the original Americans and justified their cruelty by saying to themselves that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. (pp. x, xii)
Robert Littell, "Outstanding Novels: 'The Last Frontier'," in The Yale Review (© 1941 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXXI, No. 1, September, 1941, pp. x, xii.
[In "The Unvanquished" Mr. Fast makes George Washington's greatness] human and credible. Describing the retreat from New York in 1776—and describing it through Washington's eyes, a feat attempted by no other novelist of our time—he presents a series of disasters never mentioned in the schoolbooks…. Without [all the necessary details that Mr. Fast supplies,] we cannot understand the meaning of ritualistic phrases like "father of his country" or "the soul of the Revolution."
Not so long ago, the apparent aim of every popular biography was to prove that great men of the past were hypocritical, stupid, drunken, fond of other men's wives and, in short, totally incapable of achieving the enlightened standards of the 1920's. Washington was treated no worse and no better than the others…. The real originality of "The Unvanquished" is that it uses the technique and even the material of the debunkers for a purpose exactly the opposite of theirs: to restore our conviction of human greatness. In these times, Mr. Fast is saying by implication, we have no less need of it than during the retreat across the Jersey meadows, when the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot were stealing back to their homes.
I don't mean to imply that "The Unvanquished" is a book for the ages or even that it is among the best novels of 1942. Mr. Fast writes with a catch in his breath and sometimes brings tears to his own eyes instead of the...
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To the ever-increasing number of books that deal with the events and the personages of our own brief American past, Howard Fast has made an interesting and valuable addition with his fictionalized biography of Thomas Paine. In Citizen Tom Paine he has succeeded, to a laudable degree, not only in sketching a vivid portrait of one of the most extraordinary figures of the eighteenth century, but in projecting it against the stormy background of the times in which he lived and played a part, whose importance has been far too little recognized. (p. 1)
[Mr. Fast] tells his story by means of a series of quick and vivid impressions, with frequent changes of locale and sudden flash-backs to Paine's...
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I propose Howard Fast as one of America's most important historical novelists. For one thing, he is almost alone in his ability to relate a historical narrative in around three hundred pages, so reading him amounts to something less than a lifework. More weighty, however, is the fact that he always penetrates to the heart of our history. His interest lies in the projection of meaningful men involved in a meaningful situation. His mind has a clarity which is almost cold at times and never charming. You cannot go to him for the warm details of historical costume, slang, or local and temporal color. He values intelligence above the picturesque. Perhaps he will never be overwhelmingly popular….
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[Thomas] Paine is a good subject for a historical novelist; a master controversialist, he lived one of the stormiest of lives, and his picturesque career ended in tragedy…. But much in Paine's mind and character remains unknown, and the historical novelist has scope for original interpretation. He can well present Paine as a hero—and Mr. Fast does so; he can with good reason paint him as one of the liberators of the human mind.
The best element in [Citizen Tom Paine] is the portrait of Paine; a portrait vigorous, consistent, and admiring. The story is a series of vividly imagined and highly dramatic scenes…. From beginning to end the novel is swift-paced, lusty-spirited, and rhetorical....
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There is neither confusion nor stylistic nonsense in Howard Fast's "Freedom Road," which has at once the virtues and the defects of a cleanly written political tract. Mr. Fast, in adding another volume to his series of American historical novels, sets out to right the balance on the Reconstruction Period in South Carolina, which, following the precedent of Pike's "The Prostrate State," has been set down in one book after another as a horrible record of Negro, Carpetbagger and Scalawag ignorance, brutality and corruption….
But Mr. Fast's account of Gideon Jackson's rise from slave to statesman and the experiment in racial and social democracy on what had been the Carwell plantation never achieves...
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I respect Howard Fast as one of the ablest and most patriotic of our novelists, and I see in … Freedom Road, a valiant effort to inform us of a period when, in the aftermath of the Civil War, blind emotionalism and black hatred defeated the very ideals for which our ablest men had been fighting….
In the writing of Freedom Road, Mr. Fast the historian has sometimes been outmaneuvered by Mr. Fast the moralist…. The moralist in Mr. Fast reminds me at times of John Bunyan. His Gideon is a paragon whose integrity and courage are spotless white; his anti-christs, the planter Stephan Holms and Jason Hugar, are blacker than hell. What redeems this book is the sure narrative skill of the...
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Mr. Fast gives us a liberal mixture [of stories in "Departure and Other Stories,"] and every time you might think you have him summed up the next story will be something different again. But let it be said that he never fails to be fluently readable and that always (or almost always) he has a story to tell.
Out of these nineteen stories, though, certain groupings can be discerned. There are three, for instance, that deal with the frontier. I think it is a true accomplishment to be able to give the reader the feeling, as economically as Mr. Fast does, that he is in another time. Mr. Fast doesn't use the sort of trick common to many historical novelists: no costume description or bits of Americana. He...
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Once it was possible to distinguish the creative writer from the pamphleteer in the works of Howard Fast. Unfortunately for his success in the field of the novel, his steady shift to the left has cast an increasingly hectic fever-flush on each of his recent productions…. ["Spartacus"] is a far cry from such notable books as "The Unvanquished," a dreary proof that polemics and fiction cannot mix.
This time, Mr. Fast has gone back two thousand years in history—to the last century of the pagan era and the famous gladiators' revolt against the empire. As always, his heroes (the revolting slaves) are more than merely heroic. From their leader down, they are saints in shining armor, ready to level the...
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As material for ["Spartacus"], Howard Fast has taken the slave revolts that troubled the Roman Empire just before the coming of Christ…. As an historian Mr. Fast is, as usual, persuasive. He has supplied all the homely details and evidences of careful research which, a few years back, called forth the critical encomium "one of America's finest writers of historical novels." As a polemicist he has happily restrained the tendency to the orotund phrase, the too sophomoric declamation of his political faith which marred many of his earlier works….
"Spartacus" is peopled with roundly realized characters. We know not only the nobilities and strengths of Mr. Fast's heroes but also their weaknesses. More...
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[The impact of "Spartacus"] is diffused and scattered, and it is to be doubted that readers will carry away a coherent memory of the sequence of events that led to Spartacus and the slaves becoming masters for a time of all southern Italy. What they will remember with some vividness is Mr. Fast's description of crucified slaves along the Roman highways, of gladiatorial combat, of pitched battles against the Roman legions.
Mr. Fast's conception of history is not really much different from that of Cecil B. DeMille. His technicolor characters are determinedly banal, stubbornly refusing to speak in any other accents than those we have come to expect from the heroes and heroines of the movie epics....
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If [Upton] Sinclair's chief contribution to modern American fiction was to help establish the novel of contemporary history, Fast's has been to show how an already established form, the traditional historical novel, may be used for radical ends. The conception basic to most of his work is a dialectic of revolutionary development whereby certain past events are viewed as acts in the extended drama of mankind's struggle toward a classless society. Fasts's type-story is that of a revolt of the oppressed against their oppressors—Washington and his starving troops against the power of England, Spartacus and the gladiators or the Maccabees and their people against the power of Rome. Each of these struggles, Fast...
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Mr. Fast's repentance [for his support of Communism is set forth in The Naked God,] a tiny masterpiece of urgent, diamond-hard prose. He tells of the gradual destruction of a writer's personality by the Party, and of his slow and agonised remaking of himself. Once again we see how Communism works to stamp out the last trace of individuality in its adherents in those lands where it is unable to take their lives; once again we see the parade of inbred lunacy that is the American, as it is the British, Communist Party….
Howard Fast's book leaves one with hope for man's collective wisdom even as one marvels at the depth and breadth of his individual folly. For, after reading it, one is reminded...
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The vision of a utopian future guided Fast through fiction and communism….
Fast never has been clear about how to attain this utopia. At first, he assumed that the example of early America would lead the world there, and he set out to glorify the American Revolution in a series of novels. Misunderstanding much of its character, he viewed the Revolution solely as the beginning of a world struggle for liberty. Later, dissatisfied with the state of political freedom in twentieth-century America, he also grew dissatisfied with his interpretation of her early history. He started to look elsewhere for examples to inspire more struggles for liberty.
Significantly, he never used the...
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E. V. Cunningham tackles a world-shaking theme in the manner of a slick romance in Phyllis…. Why is Sgt. Tom Clancy, N.Y.P.D. posing as an assistant professor of physics at Knickerbocker University? The answer, gradually revealed, is startling, and the ensuing action effective. There are the ingredients of a superior (if hardly credible) thriller here—if only so much of the dialogue did not seem to have escaped from a women's magazine or even from daytime television. (p. 22)
Anthony Boucher, "Criminals at Large," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 4, 1962, pp. 20, 22.∗...
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The Spanish inquisition, and the Grand Inquisitor himself, are the subjects of Torquemada, a brief, intense, and thoroughly disappointing novel….
Mr. Fast is here confronting powerful themes: the passions that lead men to do evil in the name of God and the Good, the meaning of freedom of conscience. But the treatment is heavy-handed, rigid, portentous, abstract. Mr. Fast does not appear to be at home in the Spanish milieu…. In art, impossibilities that are made to seem likely are much more effective than anomalous truths…. In the case of Torquemada, Mr. Fast may have no more than the facts on his side.
Emile Capouya, "Evil in the Name of...
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To be effective, Torquemada would have to do either (preferably both) of two things: document in full the spiritual shame and social inanition of late 15th-century Spain or guess its way into the mind of Thomas the Grand Inquisitor himself. Unaccountably, it does neither, and the resulting narrative—thin without austerity, superficial without even the pomp of surfaces—is curiously flavorless.
Perhaps Mr. Fast is trying for a bleak epitome, a skeletal slap in the face. His plot suggests as much….
The whole thing—subsidiary characters who are mere props, timeless and insipid conversations, hackneyed ironies with pigeons and unclad children—reads as if Mr. Fast were...
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Before I reached the midpoint of Howard Fast's new novel [Torquemada] I was prepared to subhead this review "For Ages 12 to 16." Most of the paragraphs could be used verbatim as captions in a children's encyclopedia. The excursion into Spain, when the Dominican prior Tomás de Torquemada (1420–1498) served as generalissimo of the Inquisition, the cardboard cutouts used as "set pieces," the grimly-telegraphed story-line, seemed parts of the same pattern, illustrating the eternal theme that Man plays God at his peril.
Later, of course, it is apparent that this book is a tract for our times, for all ages. "He is a righteous man, your Torquemada," says the wise Rabbi Mendoza. "Out of his...
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Howard Fast is a historical novelist known for "Spartacus," "Citizen Tom Paine," "Freedom Road," "The American." If he is a chronicler of some of mankind's most glorious moments, he is also a register of some of our more senseless deeds.
His newest novel, "The Hessian," is a hard flint chip of a story, a shard preserved from the American Revolution. Mr. Fast holds up his flint to the present and says, in effect, this is what war does to men, this is the insane inflexiblity that war induces, that induces war.
As a result of a chain of singularly pigheaded circumstances, a Hessian boy is wounded and pursued into the swamps of colonial Connecticut. He is found and given shelter by a...
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Choose a well-worn homily ("God works in strange ways"); mix in a headline from the morning's newspaper ("Public Works Kickback Revealed, Four City Councilmen Implicated"); add a twist of the fantastic ("I propose to buy off God"); and blend carefully into a light, tasty dish; alter the ingredients slightly and blend again; repeat eleven more times and serve. The result is a thirteen-course dinner, each course a dessert—Howard Fast's "A Touch Of Infinity: Thirteen New Stories of Fantasy and Science Fiction."
More fantasy than hard-core science fiction, Fast's short stories cleverly detail one man's sadly ironic view of the twentieth-century world…. Fast's men and women, each caught in some...
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[The Immigrants] slides down easily, like a friendly if unexceptional Napa wine. All the elements of popular American mythology are offered up for tasting….
The characters of this novel are doers, as Fast never tires of pointing out, and are little given to introspection. The mildly annoying conceit that people "do what they do" because they "are what they are" serves ultimately as a rationalization for the fact that the first generation parvenus are wrecked financially, while the entrenched class of Seldons survives….
This is almost a nineteenth-century European vision of America: Lavette sought to rise above his economically and ancestrally determined place. He...
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Howard Fast's "The Immigrants" concerns French, Italian, Irish and Chinese immigrants in turn-of-the-century San Francisco…. Fast never parades his research, but each scene stands on firm detail. One of his best novels (he's produced about 60 books), it spans 40 years. It's also the opener of a [series] that is likely to be Fast's big bid for recognition as an artist. He does a lot of things right in this novel…. I always fear that a Fast novel is proving a thesis, even though his deep story-hooks keep me reading. And "The Immigrants," I'm sure, has some overriding social purpose, but happily it never gets in front of the relentless pace of events. In short, you can enjoy this book without a thought in your...
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[E. V. Cunningham's "The Case of the One-Penny Orange"] is the first of a series with a Nisei detective…. [An] investigation takes him into the world of rare stamps…. The trail leads back to World War II and the Gestapo, and there is plenty of excitement before Masuto wraps everything up.
Masuto is an interesting addition to the current crop of detectives. He is a very modern Oriental, generations removed from Charlie Chan (though he does murmur "Ah, so" at frequent intervals). Smart, intuitive, mixing well with his American colleagues, Masuto is a well-conceived character whose further exploits should gain him a wide audience.
Newgate Callendar, "Crime:...
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[In "The Immigrants"] Fast charts the rise of a poor boy—in this case second generation Italian-French immigrant Dan Lavette—to the top of corporate power and money and back down again….
"The Immigrants" moves fast. Several of the characters are stock and predictable, such as Dan's wife, the wealthy, beautiful, but frigid Jean. Yet the action drives along at such a pace that the reader is entertained by events, if not always by the characters involved in them:
Fast's novel is set in San Francisco during the first three decades of this century. It traces the lives of four families—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Chinese—and shows how the lives of these families are shaped...
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[Detective Masao Masuto is back again in E. V. Cunningham's "The Case of the Russian Diplomat"] and this book is every bit as good as its predecessor.
The case involves a dead man in the swimming pool of a posh Beverly Hills hotel…. Masuto, a Zen Buddhist and karate expert, a super-efficient cop, can be as tough as they come. Mr. Cunningham wastes no time with extraneous materials. He sticks close to the plot, builds up the action suspensefully and gleefully knocks down a clay pigeon in the form of a pompous F.B.I. man. This is a smart, exciting, rather original procedural.
Newgate Callendar, "Crime: 'The Case of the Russian Diplomat'," in The New York...
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Cunningham writes a lean prose—remarkably like Howard Fast's—and in The Case of the Russian Diplomat he … turns to kidnapping, hostages, and the way in which irrational acts can be seen to be utterly rational. Masao Masuto, another of the growing ranks of ethnically-identified detectives, is highly competent, and Cunningham uses him well to make several muted points about racism in America. (pp. 54-5)
Robin Winks, "Mysteries: 'The Case of the Russian Diplomat'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, No. 19, November 4, 1978, pp. 53-5.∗
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Lucid characterizations, with an enthralling, if somewhat imitative plot, describe Second Generation,… [which traces] the lives, loves and tragedies of various California families in this century. A sequel to The Immigrants, the years comprising this novel—1934–46—lend to the direct and indirect hardships suffered among the Lavettes, the Levys, the Casalas, and their kin….
What makes this book enjoyable is Fast's development of the supporting characters while keeping Barbara as the main protagonist. A confused girl who is initially incapable of loving anyone, Barbara discovers herself in womanhood through others.
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[E. V. Cunningham's] "The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs" presents Sergeant Masuto with a case in which somebody is handing out poison goodies…. Masuto solves this case as he has solved the others in the past—through footwork, intuition, Zen philosophy and meditation. It also helps that he has Japanese friends and relatives all over the place, all of them wise, subtle and as intuitive as Masuto himself. Masuto gets into his usual trouble with his superiors and with the Los Angeles Police Department. Can he help it if he is smarter than they are? As before, Masuto's wife is a member of the cast, and there are some delightful asides about her and her investigations into the women's liberation movement....
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"The Immigrants" and "Second Generation" were best sellers, and Fast hasn't changed his recipe for this latest volume ["The Establishment"] in the chronicle of the San Francisco Lavettes. There's the same smooth blending of individual and socio-political history, the same firm story line with crises neatly spaced along it, almost the same cast of characters…. The story lacks real punch, but it will certainly entertain those who are entertained by its two predecessors.
"Fiction: 'The Establishment'," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the August 6, 1979 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1979 by Xerox...
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[Ultimately, The Establishment] seems to be a story about values and about the way people function in the modern world. At one point Barbara reflects that she has "done her share to make this snake pit men call civilization a little more tolerable." In various ways this is what the people of good will in this book seek to do. Against them we have the Establishment, "those who are so enormously rich and powerful that they control the state." A politician named Drake and a group of wealthy businessmen are among these.
Mr. Fast has written a readable book that holds the interest. He suggests that being part of the human race—in the best and truest sense—is important.
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A Nisei detective in his oriental inscrutability miraculously solves four related murders the day after they are committed in this dull novel [by E. V. Cunningham, The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs,] whose only redeeming social value is its brevity. No wonder that the author, who is an asserted distinguished writer, has used a pseudonym in penning this dreary mystery story which purports to have been written as a suspense thriller.
"Notes on Current Books: 'The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs'," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1980, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 56, No. 1 (Winter, 1980), p. 14....
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