Robert L. Duncan Essay - Critical Essays


Robert L. Duncan’s novels are marked by convincing, highly detailed backgrounds, with Tokyo and resort areas in Japan a favorite, but all the Far East is familiar territory in his novels. In the Enemy Camp (1985), for example, focuses on Indonesia, its people, its politics, its past, and its present struggles. The exotic music of the gamelan, the intricately staged Balinese dance, and the lush tropical villas of the rich are set against the dangerous alleyways of Jakarta and the pencak silat fighters battling over bets. In The Queen’s Messenger (1982), the action ranges from the jungles of Thailand to the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, from Hong Kong and Bangkok to the London offices of the British intelligence service, and involves Thai police, American deserters from the Vietnam War era, Britishers gone native, and a rogue agent driven by nightmarish memories of Russian-paid Thai torturers. The hero in Brimstone (1980), in contrast, remains in the United States but flees cross-country, frequently switching cars and planes, from Pennsylvania to Nebraska, from California to Nevada, experiencing the flavor of each on his way.

Such movement allows for what Duncan says he finds most exciting: the clash of cultures. A majority of his novels involve the collision of different groups, whether members of contrasting nations or of competing cultures within one nation, such as humanists versus militarists or professional intelligence operatives. These clashes may be minor, for the sake of characterization or background information: a working-class midwesterner’s sense of inferiority and clumsiness in the face of the “snobbish grace” of San Francisco’s urbane and mannered executives; the unbridgeable gap between a twenty-year-old sex queen and her middle-aged sugar daddy; the contrast between Amish traditionalists and their modern neighbors. The clashes may also be central to the action and to the message, as is the conflict between civilian and military values in The Day the Sun Fell (1970), The February Plan (1967), and Brimstone, or that between Western and Asian logic in The Day the Sun Fell, The Queen’s Messenger, Fire Storm (1978), and China Dawn. The military logic usually involves well-intended ends but monstrous means: plots by high-level superpatriots to assure political stability or peace by using nuclear or neutron bombs. In contrast, Asian logic seems clear at first but then proves inscrutable, an illusion shielding an illusion. The hero of Fire Storm, for example, has worked in Asia for years, but he admits that he does not and never will understand the Japanese mind; he might be able to project with some accuracy what the Japanese might do, but he will never understand why they would do it. The Japanese highway system with its real police interspersed amid numerous police mannequins baffles him, as do the taxi drivers who never pay attention to addresses, and the justice system, which builds on illusion and indirection. One Japanese police inspector, who later proves corruptible, defends his system as complex and difficult for Westerners to understand but still capable of “a high batting average.” The attempt of representatives from different cultures and different value systems to understand one another’s minds and emotions, nevertheless remaining continually at odds in niggling ways, is a mainstay of Duncan’s canon.

In Temple Dogs, as in so many of Duncan’s novels, a key feature is the conflict between a single individual and the organization. In Fire Storm, another big-business novel, a Japanese port is deliberately incinerated as part of an international plot, and the American shipbuilding executive who witnesses the destruction finds himself forced to battle both corrupt Japanese officials and his own former associates. In Brimstone, a computer technician accidentally calls up maps of Russian towns, part of project Brimstone, a secret operation connected with the missing eighteen-minute segment of Richard Nixon’s White House tapes, and finds himself caught up in an ongoing military conspiracy. In The Dragons at the Gate, an honest operative in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) struggles to avoid being sacrificed by his own apparatus to assure the economic dominance of the United States. Despite imprisonment and interrogation, he ultimately forces the CIA to cancel a morally repugnant operation. This ability of one individual to make a difference in an overwhelmingly corrupt world accounts in large part for the appeal of Duncan’s novels.

At times Duncan’s descriptions border on the satiric, especially when they relates to the villains: the military “hawk” whose technical expertise exists “only in the phenomenal work of the legislative aide who wrote speeches for him,” the urbane and internationally respected British lord who conspires with terrorists, the references to genuine military and intelligence operations such as experiments with LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in the 1960’s, and the military focus on “gamesmanship” as real events transpire. One hero, in disgust, postulates that this is “the age of the accountants” and that the true autocrat is that “watchdog of the watchdogs,” the CIA, while others declaim against those who refuse to get involved, whether the bureaucrats who allow decisions by default or the ordinary citizen who lacks compassion or a sense of...

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