The Ones Nobody Knows: The 81st Site

I recently received a treasure from Abe Books: a hardcover edition of a book that I absolutely LOVED as a kid, and have never seen since.

And so I have decided to embark on a little "series" of talking about four books that have brought me intense joy, and that I sometimes think nobody but me (and maybe the folks I first read them with) have ever heard of.

We'll start with the one that just arrived, a book that I literally have never met anyone who's ever heard of it.

The 81st Site by Tony Kenrick

Yeah, I know. You've never heard of it. And given that it's been out of print for 25 years, chances are you'll never hear of it. So I'm not going to be worrying about spoilers here.

But this is the book that made me first want to make movies. The final sequence of this book is a nerve-wracking aerial action sequence that wads up every James Bond movie ever made into a neat little ball, stuffs it in its mouth and chews it into a soggy pulp. I read this book a million times at least, but I read just that sequence a MILLION MILLION times. Even before the old copy from Abe arrived, I could still recite beat-by-beat every moment of that sequence. It still makes my pulse rise, just thinking about it. I don't know anything about Mr. Kenrick, but the finale of The 81st Site puts him very high on my list of favourite writers ever.

Look, just check the premise of the book: After WW II ends, a disgruntled Nazi spends thirty years looking for the 81st V-1 launching site, the site that was never found and destroyed by the Allies after the war. His mad bad-guy dream is to wreak a final revenge on the English by restoring the site and carrying on the struggle single-handedly.

And, as the back of the edition I read as a kid said,

THIS time, the Third Reich will win.

THIS time, they will only need one rocket.

Because THIS time, they have a nuclear bomb...

Huh? Huh? That practically defines AWESOME. What a brilliant idea. And it only gets better. Much, much better. The climactic sequence is so outrageously cinematic it plays out in my head, shot for shot, with ease. Even as a twelve-year-old I could run it in my imagination, sound effects, close-ups and everything.

All that said, I kind of get why it wasn't turned into a movie. Although the final sequence is indeed mind-blowing (I'm not building this up at all, am I?), I think you could argue that the fact that none of the novel's main characters are involved at all diminishes its movie-ability. It doesn't bother me any, but me and "characters" in story-telling have a bit of a rocky relationship at best.

But other than that, I greatly admire Kenrick's construction. He runs two stories in parallel; the tale of the aforementioned disgruntled Nazi, following his decades-long struggle to find the site, assembling his team of collaborating, a bank heist, a couple of killings and such good stuff. These are BAD guys. At the same time, he intercuts with the story of an American insurance investigator in London who comes to suspect that the explosion he's been sent to review might have a more unusual cause than first believed.

As the Nazi brings his fiendish plot together, the insurance guy starts figuring out what's going on, and the two come together for their final showdown just as the last rocket is fired.

Excellent stuff, all of it, and Kenrick's precision with details makes not only the verisimilitude stronger, but allows for his clever protagonists (of course the insurance investigator has a beautiful girl by his side) to demonstrate their cleverness with mailboxes, book elevators, milk trucks and map coordinates. It's all very hectic and part of the fun is that they're basically ordinary folks who don't suddenly turn into action heroes. They spend most of the story running away from scary people, but being very charming while they do so.

Still, it's that final sequence that really blows this book into my personal stratosphere of literary good times. I have to fight desperately against the urge to actually recite the whole thing, beat-by-beat any time I start talking this book up to others. Sometimes I just recite it to myself because, well, nobody else cares. I actually starting writing it in screenplay format for this blog, but that's a little more obsessive than I'm entirely comfortable with.

But it features a shoot-out between a Focke-Wulf 190 and a Tornado jet! A Hercules cargo plane trying to catch a buzz bomb in mid-air before it plunges below 500 feet and the ATOMIC BOMB goes off over the middle of London! Crash landings! High-speed drills! Missiles! Helicopters! Parachutes! Evil Nazis! Suave British secret agents! Exploding aircraft!

If you really want to hear how it all goes down, corner me at some party (because I'm at SO MANY of those) and just say, "Hey, so how DOES The 81st Site end, anyway?" And hang on.

More "Ones Nobody Knows" to follow! Stay tuned if you like reading reviews of stuff you'll never read.