PHILIP ATLEE – The Last Domino Contract. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback original; 1st printing, 1976.

PHILIP ATLEE The Last Domino Contract

   The title has a double meaning. Number one, most of CIA agent Joe Gall’s work in Last Domino takes place in South Korea, swarming with corruption, from President Park on down. It is also a country described on page 68 as “the last Asian domino still standing, for U.S. purposes.”

   Number two, though, and maybe even more importantly, Joe Gall is very bitter at the end of this book, and on page 175 he says, “No, Neal. It’s turned into a dirty business, and I’ve finished with it.” And he meant it. This was the last Joe Gall adventure to date.

   And so I may have made a bad mistake in picking this one up to read. I’ve not read many of the earlier Joe Gall spy novels, and I don’t believe I’ve read any of them in the past 15 years. Whatever changes have occurred to the character over his fictional career, I wasn’t aware of any of them while I was reading this book.

   Trying to summarize how I’d categorize it, before I started this one, I had the series placed solidly between the Matt Helm books and the terminally mediocre Nick Carter stories (the modern ones, not the guy from the dime novels). I wish I’d read more of the Gall series. If I had, then there’s a good chance his final adventure would have meant more to me.

   But standing on its own, as it ought to anyway, I found Last Domino barely worth reading. Atlee’s writing style, at least in this book, carries with it a strange air of unreality, one difficult to explain without delving into his purpose in writing the book, which I am totally averse to doing, even if I were able.

   One does wonder, though, how serious his intentions might be — a thought immediately contradicted , however, by the plot itself, a plot against the entire free world that Gall is trying to uncover and stop, if he can. This is not a light-hearted, semi-mocking James Bondian movie adventure. In many ways it is a chaotic, wholly dreamlike sort of fabrication instead.

   In the early chapters, for example, the scene shifts in a moment from a fatal car accident in eastern Oklahoma, to Gall’s home — a castle nestled somewhere in the Ozarks — and immediately off to Korea, and all of this somehow connected to some missing plutonium. How, it is not at all clear, and somehow it is page 85 before your realize that nothing of any substance has happened.

   Not being a fan of spy fiction in general, I need a little more than this to keep my mind occupied. Authors, beware of wandering minds!

   But I’m not you, you who are reading this review. You may be more experienced with spy fiction than I, and you may be of another mind altogether. At any rate, I think you can safely say that this is not your usual spy adventure story.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 28,
  February 1991 (considerably revised).

[UPDATE] 08-22-12.   I don’t usually revise these old reviews as much as I did this one, but I can assure you I have not changed anything of significance. I could tell I was struggling to put into words what I felt about the book the first time, and not quite coming to grips with it.

   I know I didn’t say very much about the story itself when I first reviewed it, and now over 20 years later, I wasn’t able to add anything in that regard. All I’ve done tonight was to improve the writing (one hopes), change some words and indifferent phrasing, chop out some stuff that no longer seemed relevant, and so on, without trying in any way to second-guess my younger self. This, then, is the result.