One does not, perhaps, expect many writers to have been executives in shoe retailing chains, or many executives in shoe retailing chains to have been writers, but Arthur Maling (born 1923) was one such. Whether he wrote his thrillers to escape the humdrum, or was an executive in order to fund his writing, I do not know (a surprising number of writers worked in banks or insurance offices); but his books are written in a finely-chiselled style.
On the cover to the British edition of Schroeder’s Game, published in 1977, are printed in bold lettering the following words:
In the U.S.A. there is no NHS; & the background to this novel is a collection agency for hospitals’ out-patients bills – very big business indeed!
The eponymous Schroeder is the founder and chief executive of the agency, Mutual Claims, of Phoenix, Arizona, who tries to conceal losses he has made on bad real-estate investments by a system of fraudulent accounting that allow him to post bogus profits. Those who try to expose what is going on soon end up dead, shot by paid Mexican assassins. The suspense is not in the discovery of the villain, but in the means of finding his comeuppance.
Schroeder’s company has several branches, and the fact that their computers communicate with one another at a distance is relayed as a matter for astonishment. Future generations will no doubt find the concept of public telephone booths, in which the character’s calls are forever being cut short for lack of coins to insert, as mysterious as we now find technical details of the harnessing of horses. And the world of 1977 was one in which long-distance calls were not just made, they were first ‘placed.’
One of the characters who try to expose Schroeder’s defalcations is Tom Petacque, a stockbroker who raised funds for him before he realised that he was a crook. Unfortunately, Tom is psychologically rather fragile, and needs the support of a psychiatrist, Dr Balter, as does the narrator of the book, Tom’s partner in the brokerage, Brockton Potter.
In those days, of course, anyone who was anyone in New York had his psychiatrist, and Dr Balter fits the bill admirably:
He paused to light a cigar. He smoked them all day long.
The ash fell with equal regularity on to his bow tie: thirty-five years ago that was taken as an indication of Freudian wisdom and penetration rather than of slovenly indifference to his own health and that of others.
The trust placed in the ability of psychiatrists to predict and heal was as superstitious as that accorded to miracle-working icons in previous times. Yet another of the partners in the brokerage firm relates how his alcoholic mother came to a sticky end:
His father had refused to let her go to a psychiatrist. With the result that in a drunken haze she’d accidentally fallen down a flight of steps and been killed.
The inference is clear: if she’d seen a psychiatrist she would have stopped drinking and not fallen down those steps.
These days, I suspect, we are less sanguine: we have more psychiatrists, and more drinking, than ever before.
Although 1977 is not an historical epoch ago, it was a different world: of, among other things, martinis at lunch and barbiturates at night. Nowadays, we destroy ourselves differently.
Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels