Men Who Die Twice by Peter Heath
Lancer Books, 1968
Price I paid: none
A thimbleful of mutated spores that could wipe out life on this planet…
A mysterious voice on the telephone…
The voice of a man who didn’t exist…
A submarine that vanished—with sixteen 20-megaton thermonuclear missiles…
The president of the United States in protective custody…
And the one man who could save the world being hunted by half of its police forces!
Once again, Peter Heath, author of The Mind Brothers and Assassins from Tomorrow, has produced a hair-raising, thrill-a-page blend of science fiction and suspense that will astonish you. This is a novel of futuristic weapons that may exist right now; of convincingly portrayed villains who could be plotting your destruction; of fantastic events that might be happening right around the corner. It will make you shudder—but you won’t be able to stop reading once you’ve begun!
It’s finally happened! The thrilling conclusion to the Mind Brothers trilogy! First there was The Mind Brothers, then Assassins from Tomorrow, and now we’ve got book three, Men Who Die Twice. I’ve been on the lookout for this one and just decided to once again utilize interlibrary loan. This book came from the Auburn University’s Ralph Paul Draughon library, of which I know nothing. Still, big thanks to whoever sent this book over.
The cover! I love the cover! It has nothing to do with the book. Neither Wilson Fisk, nor a random member of the Byrds, nor a big yellow taxi, nor what has been known since 2012 as Elizabeth Tower (I just learned that!), make an appearance in this book.
The back cover is accurate, except for the parts that consist of praise.
It turns out that Men Who Die Twice is a disappointment. I know that’s weird to say, considering that the other two books in the series were hugely awful, but that’s what all the disappointment was about. I was hoping for more of the same, and instead I got a much more basic thriller-type novel that only has that IT COULD HAPPEN NOW element going for it and nothing else. Compared to its predecessors, this book lacked
- Time travel
- Adam Cyber
- Rampant racism
While there were some science fiction-y elements floating around, they were all portrayed as the kind of thing that might well be happening in your backyard at the moment, and they were pretty believable elements. We had germ warfare, chemical warfare, and drug warfare all rolled into one crazy secret US Defense Project, which ends up getting blown up near the beginning and I don’t think it ended up having much impact on the plot after that.
We’ve still got our old pal Jason Starr, genius, to follow around. Except we hardly do. Most of this book takes place from other people’s points of view, and I think Jason’s part in the story takes up something like thirty percent of it, if I’m being generous. Most everything we get is from the villains’ points of view, and most of that is from this guy named Steiger who has stolen a nuclear submarine.
The book starts off like we’re following Jason, though. This is probably the part that ticked me off the most. We get ten or twenty pages of lead-in, most of it detailing this guy who works at the Drug-and-Germs lab and ends up killing all his coworkers and stealing some vital information. But it seems that he’s being assisted by Jason Starr! Jason provides the getaway and at one point cold shoots a hotel clerk for, best I can tell, just being there. I guess the book did a decent job at making me go Wait a minute, Jason Starr is being a huge dick!, or it would have, if I didn’t know that already.
But part of the way through the book we find out that this isn’t Jason Starr at all. I felt cheated. It turns out that the main villain of this book, Vreelander, had plastic surgery to look just like Jason Starr so that he could do bad things and make the government come after Jason, thus preventing the remaining Mind Brother from foiling the plot too early.
What bugged me, though, is that the whole time we had fake-Jason running around doing things, the narrative was referring to him as Jason Starr and never even hinted that something was up. I can get the idea that the author wanted us to wonder what was going on and perhaps think that Jason had gone rogue or something, but in the end it just felt cheap. I was lied to.
Jason bounces around a lot and doesn’t come into the main plot until the end. Up until then he’s just getting into these little adventures. He meets some people who might have an idea what’s going on, people who give him leads and so forth, but most of his action just revolves around trying to escape from the people who are trying to find him. He’s got police on one side and minions of the enemy on the other. In fact, the minions of the enemy seem to be literally everywhere, because no matter where Jason goes he ends up being attacked. At one point he gets on a train and sits next to a nun. What could be safer than a nun? Apparently lots of things, because this nun tries to kill him within a page of sitting down. There’s no buildup, no attempt to make us think that something is up with this nun, just sudden craziness.
The villain of the piece, Vreelander, is a Nazi, because of course he is. He’s that kind of “Hitler didn’t go far enough” Nazi that we’ve all come to know and love. He also looks just like Jason Starr, because he’s been running around stirring up trouble to get Jason off his back. Vreelander’s plot is to cause a nuclear war between the two Cold War superpowers, nuking most of the Earth, and then taking over the remains so that the Aryan race can finally flourish the way it was supposed to. This is so hacky I just can’t even stand it.
It’s funny how, over time, the idea of a Fourth Reich has turned from a credible threat in a fiction novel to a huge joke. I wonder what event marked the turnaround.
Jason bums around Europe for a while. He gets into danger. At one point he steals a hang-glider and crosses the Alps. He does all sorts of things like that before anything happens.
In the meantime, a guy named Steiger, who is working for Vreelander, has managed to hijack a nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Monroe. He uses some drugs and gas and germs, stuff we met at the beginning of the book, making the crew have hallucinations before becoming suggestible enough to kill themselves.
Back in the U.S. government, people are starting to get antsy. They know that the Monroe is missing and that, in all likelihood, somebody is going to use it to launch nuclear missiles at somebody else. The problem is that they don’t know what’s going to happen. The Joint Chiefs of Staff decide that the only proper thing to do is to pre-emptively launch their own nuclear missiles at the Russians, because this is how these kinds of things work. They capture the president and put him in protective custody. They end up killing the Secretary of Defense. It’s a total meltdown on the highest levels of the military, and it was all so cartoonish I couldn’t help but laugh at it.
A lot of this book feels like it’s trying to build up tension and failing.
The president escapes from protective custody. Jason Starr figures out who is behind the whole mess. Things get rolling.
Jason confronts Vreelander and, in classic Jason Starr fashion, is not the person to finally stop him. That honor belongs to Moira, Vreelander’s lady friend. When J-Starr and Vreelander get into a fight on the top of the submarine, Moira, whose name I keep spelling “Moria,” shoots Vreelander in the head, which explodes. This happens not because Moira has a turn-of-heart or anything like that. It’s all because she couldn’t tell the two men apart. The day is saved by accident.
The president, who is never named, stops the mad general who is trying to launch a preemptive strike against the Russians. He does so with a phone call. Said general then shoots himself in the head.
Jason heads down into the submarine, squares off against Steiger, and manages to stop the missiles from launching…except he doesn’t. One missile heads out to its destination.
And so, the day being saved, the president sits back and relaxes for a moment before being told that a nuclear missile is headed straight for Washington D.C. Nothing stops it. This book ends with our nation’s capitol going up in radioactive smoke.
Except it doesn’t end there, because this damn book has one more trick up its sleeve, something that neither of the other two books did. I was starting to think that Men Who Die Twice was just a simple dumb thriller without all the more ridiculous elements of The Mind Brothers, but no, it had to pull this one last little trick on me, one of the things I hate most when it happens.
This book ends with two unseen figures talking to one another cryptically.
I HATE THAT
They pull the standard
Has the thing been done?
Yes, the thing has been done.
Let’s do the next thing.
kind of crap that is SO IRRITATING BECAUSE IT SERVES NO PURPOSE.
Since it’s the very last thing in the book, it doesn’t advance the plot. All it does is make some halfassed attempt to get the audience to go “Oh, there must have been some higher forces at work all along! How cryptic!” And what’s that supposed to do? Maybe if it was setting up for a sequel I’d understand, but this is the last book in the series. I have no idea if Peter Heath intended to write any more Mind Brothers books, but he didn’t, and he chose to end the series on a piece of trite pseudo-mysterious bullcrap and it just kills me.
Like the other two books, Men Who Die Twice was also full of typos, some of them hilarious, and just plain bad editing. There were section breaks that never happened, thus making it look like suddenly Jason Starr and the villain are facing off at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. This has become a common element in the more cheaply-produced books I’ve read, and it never ceases to amaze me. Surely somebody could have proofread this thing before it went to press. Surely.
On the flip side, the book did progress at a pretty quick pace. Perhaps that’s because I was racing through the pages hoping that we’d find out that the bad guys were from the future (again) or that our old pal Adam Cyber would manage to come back. Perhaps its because I was hoping that Jason Starr would say or think something so phenomenally stupid that I’d get to laugh and laugh and laugh about it. But none of those things happened. While Jason Starr is still a pretty dumb hero, there weren’t any of the hilarious turns of phrase and factual errors that the previous books had, nor was there any outright racism. The bad guys were just plain old Nazis, and Adam Cyber was never even mentioned.
So that’s the major disappointment. I went from two books that were wonderfully bad, the kinds of things I’d tell people about as examples of the kinds of bad writing I love to seek out, to one that was seriously meh. This was a cheap, tawdry, IT COULD HAPPEN TODAY kind of story that didn’t have any kind of bite, good or bad, and that hurts me on the inside. I feel let down.