The 10 best adventure novels from 1965
Joshua Glenn shows why 1965 was a very good year for science fiction, comic books, and spy novels.
The year 1965 was half a century ago, as of next month.
The years 1963 and 1964 were cusp years between the eras we think of as the Nineteen-Fifties and Sixties; by ’65 the Sixties were fully underway, building steam as the era headed towards its 1968–69 apex. In the best adventure novels of 1965, we find few relics of the Fifties: things are falling apart; the center isn’t holding.
In 1965, the science fiction and fantasy adventure genres begin to be ambitious, self-consciously artistic, proto-psychedelic. The espionage and mystery adventure genres, meanwhile, have become self-reflexive and sardonic.
Philip K. Dick’s science fiction adventure The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Via an odyssey of nested hallucinations, Dick burns the Gnostic idea that the world is the creation not of God, but of an evil, lesser deity, forever into the reader’s mind. The title character is a demiurge who brings to mankind a “negative trinity” of “alienation, blurred reality, and despair.” Probably my favorite PKD novel, after A Scanner Darkly.
Frank Herbert’s science fiction adventure Dune. A potboiler about one family’s declining empire, a mythology-saturated fantasy about the founding of a new social order, and a band-of-brothers yarn (Thufir Hawat, the human computer; Gurney Halleck, the troubadour warrior; Duncan Idaho, master swordsman), Dune is also a criticism of humankind’s despoliation of nature in the name of progress. Plus: Alia, a telepathic four-year-old girl, who roams the battlefields of Arrakis slitting the throats of imperial stormtroopers! The Bene Gesserit, who subtly guide humanity’s development! The worm-riding Fremen! Dune was adapted into David Lynch’s cult 1984 movie of that title.
Sol Yurick’s hunted-man adventure The Warriors. After an assembly of New York gangs devolves into chaos, the Coney Island Dominators, a black/Hispanic gang of murderers and rapists, must trek home from the Bronx — all the while defending their thuggish sense of manhood — through gang turfs. It’s loosely based on Xenophon’s Anabasis (c. 370 BC), which recounts the travails of Greek mercenaries betrayed and stranded deep within enemy territory. The Warriors was adapted into a cult 1979 movie of that title.
John Le Carré’s espionage adventure The Looking Glass War. A nearly defunct WWII-era British Intelligence agency (“The Department”) suspects that Soviet missiles are being placed near the West German border, and although they have no evidence that this is the case (shades of George W. Bush’s 2003 Iraq invasion), because they long to get back into the game they recruit one of their former wartime agents to infiltrate East Germany. A tragicomedy of errors ensues, and the unlucky agent is in the end abandoned to the mercies of the other side. The Looking Glass War was adapted into a 1969 movie starring Christopher Jones.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s November 1965 – March 1966 issues of Fantastic Four, featuring The Inhumans. Prior to the Sixties (1964–73), Lee and Kirby created superhero teams who’d develop into beloved, enduring franchises: The Fantastic Four in ’61, The X-Men in ’63, The Avengers in ’63. But the Inhumans were a different kettle of fish: misfits and outsiders even among mutant superheroes, a superior race living in the shadows. Black Bolt, Crystal, Karnak, Medusa, Gorgon aren’t lovable; in fact, they’re slightly villainous. But that just makes them an all the more romantic version of the Argonaut Folly mytheme.
Susan Cooper’s YA fantasy adventure Over Sea, Under Stone. This is the first installment in The Dark is Rising: the best YA fantasy series ever, not to mention one of the best “Matter of Britain” (i.e., medieval Arthurian legend) adventure series. This particular installment is not particularly fantastical: It’s a treasure-hunt thriller featuring three siblings on holiday in Cornwall. However, although the story begins in this Famous Five/Swallows and Amazons vein, soon enough we discover that the treasure the children (and some creepy adults) are seeking is in fact an artifact of the Light: a faction, that is to say, in an ancient, ongoing, worldwide struggle of free will and order vs. subservience and chaos!
Michael Moorcock’s fantasy adventure Stormbringer. Even though Stormbringer, which takes its title from the name of Elric’s cursed sword (which confers upon the user health and fighting prowess, but must be fed souls in return), is a “fix up” combining four novellas from the early 1960s, it was ahead of its time even when reissued as part of DAW’s canonical 1970s Elric series. Moorcock’s albino, drug-addicted protagonist Elric of Melniboné was influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s amoral, antiheroic criminal character Macheath; even when Elric tries to do the right thing, he ends up destroying those about whom he cares most.
Lloyd Alexander’s YA fantasy adventure The Black Cauldron. The second in a series of Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain books, which use Welsh mythology (Prydain is the medieval Welsh term for the Brittonic parts of the island of Britain), particularly the Mabinogion, for inspiration, The Black Cauldron is my favorite. The antiheroic Prince Ellidyr, who loves only his horse, sickly Gwystyl of the Fair Folk, the sorceresses Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, and the doomed minstrel Adaon are tremendous characters. It’s like Moorcock’s Elric series without the sex, drugs, and despair.
Agatha Christie’s hunted-man thriller At Bertram’s Hotel. Or perhaps it’s a crime adventure? The fact that it’s impossible to say which is precisely what’s so rewarding about Christie’s tenth, often overlooked Miss Marple yarn. The elderly amateur sleuth takes a holiday at a London hotel whose guests include a famous adventuress, a forgetful clergyman, and a wealthy young heiress traveling with her guardian. An Irish Mail train is robbed, the clergyman is abducted (or is he?), shots are fired, a body is discovered: What happened? In the end, it turns out, the story’s mise en scène is all that matters.
Adam Hall’s espionage adventure The Berlin Memorandum. This is the first of nearly 20 Quiller novels, which have been disparagingly described as “a hybrid of glamour and dirt, Fleming and Le Carré” — which, to this reader, is no disparagement at all. Like Fleming’s Bond character, Quiller is a skilled driver, pilot, and diver; however, he doesn’t carry a gun. His mission, like that of Alec Leamas in Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is to be captured by the enemy, be tortured, then reveal false information! The book was adapted in 1966 as The Quiller Memorandum, starring George Segal and Alec Guinness.
- Ian Fleming’s James Bond espionage adventure The Man with the Golden Gun.
- Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)’s Parker crime adventure The Jugger.
- Gavin Lyall’s hunted-man adventure Midnight Plus One concerns a couple of crackerjacks — one ex-French Resistance, the other ex-Secret Service — hired to protect a businessman from assassins who pursue him across Europe.
- Desmond Bagley’s extreme-conditions adventure High Citadel, in which a passenger plane is hijacked over the Andes causing a crash. The pilot attempts to lead the survivors down the mountain but the way is blocked by a damaged bridge, the opposing end of which is… held by soldiers who want at least some of them dead!
- Alan Garner’s YA fantasy adventure Elidor.
- Andrew Garve’s adventure The Ashes of Loda.
- John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee crime adventure A Deadly Shade of Gold.
- Jim Thompson’s crime adventure Texas By the Tail.
- John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee crime adventure Bright Orange for the Shroud.
- Geoffrey Household’s adventure Olura.
- Desmond Cory’s crime adventure Deadfall.
- Ronald Johnston’s island adventure Danger at Bravo Key takes place on an uninhabited Caribbean island.
- Philip K. Dick’s science fiction adventure Dr. Bloodmoney.
- Fritz Leiber’s science fiction adventure The Wanderer.
Much as I enjoy adventure from the Nineteenth Century through the Fifties, the books listed above are the adventures that I read as an adolescent in the late ’70s and early ’80s. So this stuff has a special place in my heart.
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