By Vincent Cuddihy
Stan Lee, Marvel Comics’ legendary creative genius, died last month, so I thought it would it would be appropriate to review one of his books. Although Lee is best known for co-creating many of Marvel’s best loved characters such as Spider Man and Iron man, as well as establishing Marvel as a powerhouse in the production of blockbuster films, he did write a few books along the way. Most of them are graphic novels and how-to books about cartooning. But he did author at least one very clever and amusing novel.
Dunn’s Conundrum (1985) is a mix of detective story, spy thriller and political satire. Harry Dunn is the boss of an intelligence group known as the Library. There are only twelve agents, referred to as Librarians, each of whom is a specialist in a particular field, but all of whom have access to all the information the other eleven have. Unlike the CIA’s policy of making information available to agents on a need-to-know basis, the Library functions on a need-to-know-everything basis. And that “everything” includes whatever the CIA, the NSA and all the other US intelligence agencies know. Lee presents a world where all the Librarians operate like Tim McGee in NCIS or Penelope Garcia in Criminal Minds. They spend their time mining all the data bases in the country, including police records, prison records, phone records, as well as the tapes from all operative surveillance cameras.
There has been a break-in at the Library Reference Room while it was undergoing repairs. All systems had been shut down, but one of the burglars seemed to know how to reconnect them. This leads Harry to think that the putative thieves had inside help from one of the Librarians. He needs to ferret out the culprit before more damage is done. But how can you uncover the source of the leak when all the suspects know everything you know? That is Dunn’s conundrum.
Harry assigns Walter Coolidge to find the mole, known to his outside contacts by the code name of the Doctor. Coolidge is an archaeologist by training. His academic papers on the study of garbage as a means of learning about daily life in ancient civilizations had attracted the Library’s attention. If he can learn that much about people’s behaviour from 2000 year-old garbage, think what he can learn from this week’s trash! Coolidge’s official title is Trashman, but all the other Librarians refer to him as the Garbageman. In addition to spending his time sifting through waste bins, Coolidge is also carrying on a torrid affair with Vera Bishop, the photo analyst. It is her work on satellite pictures that leads Lee to forecast the development of Google Maps and Google Earth.
Walter’s inquiries lead him to believe that the break-in was staged by a group that call themselves the Emersons and they are looking for information about O.F.F. Walter struggles to learn what O.F.F. stands for. Judging by the comportment in their personal lives of those who are at the top of the pecking order, which Walter is privy to because of all the microcams the Library has distributed around DC, and by how excited they all get when the percent for O.F.F. goes up, Walter starts to believe it refers to Opportunities For F—ing. Later on he will learn that it represents something much more sinister.
There are some very funny passages, such as this rant by Senator Garvey’s assistant Davey Reed. “You see, ladies and gentlemen, the politics of this great republic of ours can be described with only one word. My fellow citizens, that word is vodka. American politics is straight, pure vodka…Tasteless, of course. Odorless, perhaps. Colourless, certainly. And yet, in spite of all, having the power to intoxicate.”
But there also some very alarming parts. The Doctor’s clinical description of how WWIII is going to unfold over a 30 minute period with only 25 to 28 million American deaths, mostly from cancers triggered by the increase in radiation, is truly frightening. One wonders whether Ronald Reagan had read this book when he decided to restart negotiations with the USSR that led to the treaty that eliminated short and medium range nuclear missiles along with their warheads.
In some ways, Dunn’s Conundrum, seems badly dated with no cellphones, no internet and no 9/11 with its consequences. But the following analysis still seems relevant in the dystrumpian world of current American politics. “You know what it’s like out there. John Doe has anticommunism in his gut; it’s in the water he drinks, the food he eats. He’s touched with fear and righteousness and fanaticism and hate. You’re going to tell this man that the arms race is our fault?….But you still refuse to deal with the problem that John Doe doesn’t want to know. He enjoys his hate. It makes him feel superior. All any president has to do is go out to the country and rattle John Doe’s cage every few years and he gets all the money he needs for the latest weapons systems.”
Dunn’s Conundrum is still in print. Or perhaps you can find a copy in someone else’s trash.