In the last of these columns, I compared (after saying I wouldn’t) an excellent work of noir fiction with a film that was made from its story. This time around I’m covering a book that simply reminds me of a favorite film. There are significant differences between the 1974 movie The Parallax View and Adam Kennedy’s 1975 novel The Domino Principle, but there are also striking resemblances. Both are sinister, tense, horrifying tales involving secret organizations who recruit assassins. Both are paranoia-inducing yarns that can make you feel like any of us could have our willpower taken away from us if certain entities decided they needed us. Both are of supremely high quality.
But we’re here to discuss Kennedy’s book. In addition to being a riveting thriller, it has some essential noir elements: it’s short and tight – not a wasted word from cover to cover. Its language is basic. It’s utterly devoid of romanticized notions. It’s angering and terrifying. It’s as suspenseful as it is hardboiled.
The story involves and is told by a guy named Roy Tucker. He’s doing time for killing his wife’s first husband, who’d also been his employer. He sometimes says he was innocent and that the guy offed himself and made it look like Tucker did it in an act of vengeance, Tucker having stolen his wife’s heart. Other times, you start the think Tucker may have committed that crime. In any case, he got convicted and now he’s in the pen, wasting away on a life sentence. But suuddenly, the warden has him in for a couple of strange meetings, and then introduces him to some gentlemen from the outside that appear to have some interest in him. Soon enough it becomes clear that these men have some kind of use for Tucker. They need his help so bad, they’re willing to get him out of prison. If gaining freedom from his cell isn’t enough motivation for Tucker to agree to their deal (whatever that might be – they’re not saying what he has to do for them), they throw in the add-on bait that they will reunite him with his wife. It’s clear that these men have the power to make all these things happen. And somebody that powerful must have some big plans for Tucker if they’re willing to do all that for him, right? Right.
Tucker’s cell-mate isn’t buying in to this plan. The two men are discussing the development at one point and the other guy is trying to warn Tucker off from agreeing to participate:
. . . Nobody ever knows who ‘they’ are. You don’t usually even see them. But when you do, they wear good clothes and talk like professors and look as if they go to the barber twice a week. They’re never black or Puerto Rican or Italian. They’re never anything you can identify. They’re just ‘they.’ They stay out of sight, mostly, and eat lunch together, I guess, and talk on the phone a lot. What they do in manage things. Money and wars and people. They know how to get the job done, no matter what it is, and they know how to cover it up, once it’s done, mostly because they’ve got dumb bastards like you and me to do the dirty work.
Seems a good bet the guy is on the right track in assessing the characters of Tucker’s would-be benefactors. And the thing is, Tucker knows he’s right. He’s fully aware of the fact that these men are not getting him out of prison and pairing him up with his wife because they decided to do a good deed for humanity that month. He realizes they’ll have a job for him on the outside, and although he doesn’t know what that’ll be, he gets that it will be something dangerous. But here’s the thing about these type of organizations: once they decide you’re their man, you never really have any choice but to bend to their will. Try and resist all you want. They’ve already anticipated that you’ll do that, and they have several layers of contingency plans in place as to how to break your spirit if you attempt to hold them off. One of the men from the group lays it all out for Tucker, once they’re actually into the early stages of the plan:
A lot of people are involved and you’re one of them. But you’re only as valuable as your contribution. You understand that? We made a bargain with you and I’ll assure you we’ll keep it. But you are also expected to keep your end of it. I won’t mince words with you. For the next few weeks of your life, we own you. You’re bought and paid for. If you accept that and do as you’re told, everything will go smoothly. You’ll be surprised at how easily things will work out. But if you don’t accept it, if you have any ideas of changing the rules on us, there is no measure too severe for us to take.
Yow. What makes the happenings of The Domino Principle so gravely frightening is that this man, Tucker, is no easy pickings to become a pawn in somebody’s game. Tucker is a hard man, hard as people like Dan J. Marlowe’s Drake character or Richard Stark’s Parker. Just listen to the guy reflect on the nature of human relationships and such:
It’s hard to dredge up people from your life who bring nothing with them but good memories. It’s always a mix. Even when you can’t remember the bad things, even when you assure yourself they were never there, deep down, if you stir enough, you’ll find sand in the lemonade. . . . There’s no shortage of good intentions in the world. It’s the follow-through that’s difficult, when you’re faced with a choice between what’s convenient and comfortable and what isn’t. That’s the sluff-off point. A lot of people don’t show up for roll call after that.
Tucker is a man who’s long since been absent of any illusions about there being a happily ever after. He’s resigned to serving his time in the pen and is happy to be given any little job the warden wants to let him do to pass the unending days. He never expected to see his wife again, in fact cut off their lettered correspondence as a means of breaking the pointless (as he sees it) attachment between them. He’s resolved to live out his joyless days and then just perish coldly. All that, and yet these men have reason to believe they can make him do what they want. Game on.
Adam Kennedy (1922-97) was originally a movie and TV actor who later turned novelist and screenwriter. He was also a celebrated visual artist. In The Domino Principle, he authored a novel that is both a standout Cold War-era thriller and a lost classic of noir fiction.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.