Friday, January 13, 2017

Presidential Agent by Upton Sinclair

Lanny Budd, paranormal secret agent
Presidential Agent is the fifth book in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series, which chronicles the adventures of a wealthy American art dealer in Europe who gets actively involved in some of the most important events in 20th-century world history. (Take care not to confuse this one with the almost identically titled eighth book in the series, Presidential Mission.) Published in 1944, Presidential Agent takes place from 1937 to 1938, and covers critical events in Europe leading up to World War II, including Hitler’s forced annexations of Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Through a mutual friend, Lanny is introduced to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who grants him a private meeting in the White House. Because of Lanny’s extensive travels in Europe and his acquaintance with many world leaders and dignitaries, FDR finds him to be an invaluable source of information. He asks Lanny to be his eyes and ears in Europe and periodically report back to him on the events taking place there. He even gives Lanny a code name, Agent 103. At first Lanny functions mostly as a news service, but the more he witnesses firsthand the terrifying threat of the Nazis the more involved he becomes in active espionage. Having previously met Adolph Hitler and Hermann Göring, Lanny cultivates his friendships with these two Nazi leaders and also develops a camaraderie with Hitler’s Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess. Though a socialist at heart, Lanny must pretend to embrace the Nazi party line in order to acquire valuable intelligence. Beyond helping FDR, Lanny has personal reasons for embarking on this dangerous mission. In the last novel, he found love in the form of a German Jewish artist who works for the underground resistance. She has now gone missing, possibly held by the Nazis in a concentration camp, and Lanny will risk everything to find her.

Once again, Sinclair’s leftist view of history yields fascinating insights into the course of world events. Hitler’s taking of Austria and Czechoslovakia might be covered in a few sentences in a typical history textbook, but Sinclair really gives a detailed rendering of how these events gradually unfolded. The reader gains a clear understanding of how the Nazis came to power while many Americans and Europeans either welcomed them as saviors from communism or timidly buried their heads in the sand. The most disappointing aspect of the novel, as usual, is Sinclair’s indulgence in his fascination with the paranormal, which is even more evident here than in the previous books. One of Lanny’s hobbies is communicating with the dead through séances. Because Hitler and Hess are also interested in the occult, Lanny is able to exploit their mutual interest in spirit communication as a way to get close to them. While that is a valid way to advance the story, instances where séance revelations actually influence the course of events only thwart the credibility of what is otherwise a very intelligent, thoroughly researched historical novel.

I had ten per cent of the ebook file left when, to my surprise, the book just ended—the remainder being a preview of the next book. Presidential Agent feels like an incomplete novel meant to function as a bridge between the books before and after. By this point in the series, Sinclair seems to have stopped trying to give these novels a beginning, middle, and end, and simply treats them all as one long book. Some plot lines are resolved halfway through, while new threads are only begun. The books in this series really don’t function as independent novels, so the reader has to commit for the long haul. Though I have my reservations about each individual installment, I can’t help but admire the entire series as a monumental achievement. For those interested in 20th-century world history, the Lanny Budd series is worth the effort.
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