RUSS WINTERBOTHAM – The Red Planet. Monarch #270, paperback original, 1962. Armchair Fiction Double Novel, trade paperback, 2012; published in combo with The Shining City, by Rena M. Vale.

   This is the goods.

   I know I’ve used that term of incisive critical analysis before, but there’s no better way to describe a book packed with action, suspense, and characters just a bit deeper than they had to be. Call it Space Opera, call it Sci-Fi, but The Red Planet is an undeniably fast and thrilling ride.

   It’s also a bit of a murder mystery as first-person narrator astronaut Bill Drake describes the preparations for the first manned Mars expedition, commanded by Dr. Spartan, a brilliant egomaniac who seems averse to sharing the gory for what he considers his personal achievement.

   Dr. Spartan’s mania first manifests itself in a training accident that takes the life of an intended crew member. With no time to spare, the doctor decrees that the fallen comrade will be replaced by a qualified woman in the team, Gail Loring, and to allay outcries of moral impropriety (this was written in 1962, remember, when even the mild sex in the James Bond books raised eyebrows) she will marry him before take-off. Gail is a gal who knows her own mind however, and she decides Bill Drake would make a better husband-in-name-only — thus sealing Bill’s fate.

   The ensuing journey to the red planet (hence the title, huh?) is neatly done as author Winterbotham fleshes out the characters, throws in another mysterious death, and ratchets up the tension with personality conflicts till our party lands on Mars — which is where things really get exciting.

   Because it seems Dr. Spartan’s megalomania extends to his attitude towards the Martians: small but nasty plant/animal hybrids whom he regards as manifestly a lower life form who should be made acquainted with their new rulers. This naturally leads to a certain amount of bother, and the rousing finale is a pitched battle, rousingly-described, with the surviving crew members fighting for their lives as much against Dr. Spartan as against the Martian hordes.

   Winterbotham was apparently a very busy writer of westerns, horror and big-little books, and he keeps things moving right to the finish, in approved pulp-fashion. I can recommend this unreservedly to readers who like a fun, fast space adventure.

   The biggest surprise for me, however, was on the blurb page, where I read:

   “The Author’s son-in-law is a member of the team developing the plasma space motor which is planned to carry men to Mars within the next ten years.”

   Did I miss a meeting?