Monday, March 16, 2020

One Clear Call by Upton Sinclair

Lanny Budd invades Italy and France
One Clear Call is the ninth of eleven novels in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series. Published in 1948, this book covers the historical events of World War II from 1943 to 1944. If you’ve made it this far, then you already know that Lanny is a wealthy art dealer with socialist political views who masquerades as a Nazi sympathizer in order to gather intelligence for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the previous installment, Presidential Mission, FDR sent Lanny to Nazi-occupied North Africa to find military and civilian parties with anti-Nazi leanings to enlist them in supporting an Allied invasion of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Since Lanny did such a good job with that mission, FDR asks him to perform the same function once again, this time forming alliances with partisans and anti-Hitler Germans to help the Allies drive the Nazis out of Italy. 

Before he embarks on such an important mission, Lanny decides to perform two tasks which he has repeatedly undertaken in the previous few volumes: hold a séance and visit Hitler. Despite the fact that America is now at war with Germany, Lanny has developed quite a friendship with Hitler, who thinks that Lanny is spying for him. Lanny is also on good terms with fellow art lover Hermann Goering, who has amassed a sizable collection of masterpieces that the Nazis have looted from their conquered territories. As for the aforementioned séance, Lanny’s interests (and Sinclair’s) include such paranormal arts as telepathy and communication with the spirits of the dead. With so much action happening with the war, however, such activities are only mentioned briefly, and whatever revelations Lanny gleans from beyond the grave play little if any part in the plot. In fact, One Clear Call may be the least paranormal book in the series thus far, which definitely works in its favor.

Another factor that sets this entry apart from most of the previous volumes is that in this book Lanny finally encounters some real life-threatening dangers in his spy work. Previous volumes, including Presidential Mission, made his feats of espionage seem unconvincingly easy, whereas this novel more than once forces him to exercise his brains and derring-do to extricate himself from a potentially lethal situation. In following the events of the war, the main focus of the plot eventually moves on from Italy to France (though Lanny of course hops across the Atlantic numerous times). The Allies’ D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy takes place in this novel. As is often the case, Lanny does not witness the invasion firsthand, but Sinclair provides him with a realistically minor role to play behind the scenes. In the series as a whole, and Once Clear Call in particular, one really learns a great deal of detail about the historical events of these pivotal years, not just the military history but the political, cultural, and economic history as well. Sinclair’s leftist people’s-history approach provides a refreshing alternative perspective to the usual romanticized patriotic narratives of the period.

All in all, One Clear Call is the best book in the series thus far. The historical events are exciting, and the stakes feel higher in Lanny’s personal life as well. This novel brings together a lot of loose ends from previous novels and brings them full circle. The series sports a vast cast comprised of scores of characters, and every novel spends its fair share of time checking in on many of them, but here Sinclair does a great job of inserting the characters in realistic and purposeful ways. The suspenseful story rarely drags, and unlike some of the less compelling volumes in the series One Clear Call feels like a unified novel and not just a series of disconnected events. The Lanny Budd series is a monumental achievement in historical fiction, and this novel is Sinclair at his best.
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