Thursday, October 27, 2011

Book Review: 'A Scent of New-Mown Hay' by John Blackburn

 3 / 5 Stars

John Blackburn (1923 – 1993)  was the British author of a number of well-received thriller and horror novels published from the 1950s on into the early 1980s. ‘A Scent of New-Mown Hay’ (hardbound, M. S. Mill and Co., 192 pp.) was issued in 1958.

The story starts with General Kirk – a British intelligence service director, and a recurring character in Blackburn’s novels – concluding that something worrisome has happened in a remote area of the Soviet Union. The population of the area has been evacuated, there is a quarantine, and the White Sea ports closed to all shipping.

The action shifts to a British freighter, the ‘Gadshill’, whose crew find themselves in dire straits in the White Sea. It gradually becomes clear that a mysterious epidemic has broken out along the northern coast of the USSR, but the nature of the disease has not been disclosed to the West.

Halfway around the world, in the small university town of Durford, England, a young biologist named Tony Heath is summoned to a classified meeting with General Kirk and his team. There he learns some disturbing news: the pathogen responsible for the outbreak in the USSR is beyond the capacity of the Soviets to successfully combat it. Unless the UK investigative team can learn more about the origins of the plague, there is a danger it will infect every man, woman, and child on the entire planet….

‘Scent’ is a very well-written novel; Blackburn’s prose style is crisp, fast-moving, and devoid of unnecessary verbage. 

In many ways the book reads more like a detective or crime novel than a horror tale per se; there are disclosures and revelations, and some skillful misdirecting, so that these revelations are a genuine surprise to the reader.

Compared to modern horror or thriller novels, ‘Scent’ is more subdued in the grue department, reflecting the more restrained attitudes of the 50s. But ‘Scent’ remains a good read, and it’s worth searching out among the used bookstore shelves.

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