Monday, October 28, 2013

The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. by Jack London and Robert L. Fish

A philosophical thriller
The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. is a novel that was begun by Jack London in 1910 but left unfinished at the time of his death. It was completed posthumously by crime fiction writer Robert L. Fish, and first published in 1963. The titular organization is led by Ivan Dragomiloff, a Russian immigrant in New York. Dragomiloff and his team of killers, all of whom hold day jobs as respected intellectuals, assassinate public figures for money. The twist, however, is that they will only kill those whom they deem harmful to society. The ultimate arbiter of this ethical verdict is Dragomiloff himself. When Winter Hall, a do-gooder sociologist, discovers the clandestine organization, he pays Dragomiloff to take out a contract on Dragomiloff himself, arguing that the Bureau has done more harm than good. After much philosophical deliberation, Dragomiloff concedes that Hall has convinced him of his own ethical error in establishing the Bureau. Deeming himself deserving of assassination, Dragomiloff orders the very organization he founded to hunt him down and kill him. In keeping with the rules of the organization, if the Bureau’s assassins do not manage to take his life within one year, the contract will be null and void. Thus begins a year-long cross country chase in which Dragomiloff not only fights for survival, but sets about destroying the organization he created.

I must confess that I did not entirely comprehend the ethical justification for Dragomiloff’s sentencing himself to death. London ends the debate pretty abruptly in order to get on with the action. It also seems the simplistic philosophy of the Bureau members could be summed up merely in one sentence: “Never break your word.” The fuzzy logic of the book, however, little hinders one’s enjoyment of its suspenseful story. The cold, calculated way in which the members of the Bureau deliberate life and death is years ahead of its time, and quite prescient in its foreshadowing of World War I. The execution of the book, however, never quite lives up to the promise of its audacious concept. Perhaps that’s why London abandoned the novel before completion. London’s writing ends at page 109, with Fish taking over until the book’s end at page 162. The writing style of the two, to Fish’s credit, is indistinguishable, but Fish greatly rescues the plot of the novel from stagnation. Up to the point where the torch is passed, London has offered the reader a repetitive series of killings, interspersed with periodic truces in which the characters gather in a spirit of mutual brotherhood and discuss philosophical matters as if they were the ancient Stoics. In the back of the book there are three pages of notes sketching how London intended to finish the novel. Fish thankfully does not slavishly defer to the master’s outline, but provides his own ending which is an improvement over London’s original plan.

The Penguin Classics edition of this book opens with an introduction by Donald E. Pease which is an almost unintelligible mess. If you absolutely feel you must read this introduction, by all means read the novel first, otherwise Pease will ruin it for you.

The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. is not one of London’s best novels, but it is certainly deserving of the resurrection so admirably accomplished by Fish. Despite its shortcomings, it does entertain, and London deserves to be commended for attempting to elevate the murder thriller genre by injecting it with a healthy dose of philosophical food-for-thought.

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