One of the enduring ideas about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart is the notion that her attempted around-the-world flight was a cover for some sort of covert activity… that she was a spy, essentially, and that she did not die in the ocean or on some lonely speck of land somewhere, but was in fact captured by the Japanese. That idea forms the basis for this novel, a nifty thriller set in post-war Singapore. An American intelligence operative and his wife arrive to investigate evidence that Earhart died in a nearby POW camp. But what ought to be a simple milk run turns out to be the entry into something much bigger and more dangerous. The couple quickly find themselves mired in the intrigue surrounding a priceless jade elephant stolen during the war and now sought by several powerful individuals, while long-simmering ethnic tensions threaten to boil over. The sense of place is particularly well done; the sweaty, oppressive environment is practically a character on it own. In addition, the human characters are all colorful, the action brutal, and the revelations unexpected, and underlying all of it is a plausible explanation for one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century… what really happened to Amelia Earhart? An excellent summertime hammock read.
A recent conversation about TV movies of the ’70s reminded me of this story, which I recall as a pleasantly cute film starring Robert Hays and Pam Dawber of Mork & Mindy fame. That conversation sent me questing for the original novel. Like the movie, the book is pleasantly cute: the story of a nebbishy young man named Kirby whose eccentric uncle dies and leaves him a mysterious gold watch and a big mess of trouble. It seems this watch has the ability to stop time for whoever is holding it, which was the secret behind the uncle’s unlikely success in life, and now there are unscrupulous people who want that power for themselves. In the wrong hands, the watch could unleash chaos on the world. Can Kirby uncover the secrets of the watch, outsmart the bad guys, and discover the self-confidence his uncle believed he has within him?
Written in 1962, the book is unquestionably a product of the Mad Men era, with all the pros and cons you might imagine. The recurring theme of Kirby’s sexual inadequacy, his inability to get laid and the suggestion that he’s not a real man because he doesn’t know how to score, is rather jarring to modern sensibilities, while his love interest Bonnie wouldn’t feel out of place in an Austin Powers movie. (She’s a groovy babe, you see.) Yes, this is a sexist book, but it’s made palatable by the fact that Kirby is more hapless than predatory, and the female characters are in fact the competent ones, the ones with the power to make things happen. It’s also presented in a lighthearted, broadly humorous style that’s difficult to dislike. Ultimately, if you can look past its dated elements, it’s a harmless bit of fun from another time.
And now I want to see that TV movie again…