by John Blackburn
“Gentlemen, a pestilence has broken out in the northern regions of the Soviet Union. A pestilence so terrible that if we cannot stop it we are finished. And so are you.”
Part horror, part science fiction and part crime procedural, A Scent of New-Mown Hay takes place during and slightly after World War II. A young woman, recognized as a genius since childhood but lacking any human empathy, presents to Himmler a fool-proof plan for Germany to win the war. Himmler turns her down—her plan is too drastic, and Germany has other options for victory. But within a few months, those alternative options have dried up, and the girl is given a facility to develop her weapon.
It’s out. At the very beginning of the novel it’s out. So once a few people begin to realize what’s happening and the danger the world is up against, they race to uncover past events that may allow mankind to survive the threat.
Originally published in 1958, it’s got the complexity of noir crime novels despite being populated by a small list of revolving characters. It starts a bit slowly, but inertia takes over around the third chapter, where you’ll be in for the rest of the ride.
A relatively short novel, procedural elements drive the action, but the barely-seen horror of the creatures combined with the raw panic of the good guys lends a gravitas that’s compelling. This is John Blackburn’s first novel, and it’s a great book, combining genres to create its own unique flavor.
“What is the thing that is bad enough to make people behave like that,” said Fear, through the fog.