Saturday, 2 February 2002
Jack London: The Assassination Bureau, Ltd (1963)
Edition: Penguin, 1995
Review number: 1058
This strange novel, left uncompleted by London in 1910, was finally published just after the assassination of J.F. Kennedy, guaranteeing that it would be a sensation of its time. It is a strange, unconvincing novel which mirrors London's concerns about law, morality and violence - particularly the idea of a society which countenances violence against itself.
The Assassination Bureau undertakes murder for payment, of men that its members are convinced are not worthy of life (the corrupt are the main examples given). When the head of the bureau, Ivan Dragomiroff, is approached by a young man and asked to take out a contract on himself, he refuses, but is eventually convinced that the work of the bureau is morally wrong and that therefore by his own rules he deserves to die. A bizarre chase across America follows, as he becomes a fugitive from his own employees (while, because of his own strict morality, continuing to allow the bureau access to its money for the expenses concerned with his own murder).
The difficulty in the novel is in believing in Dragomiroff's changing his mind, and the remorselessness with which he sticks to this decision in the face of the threat to his life. His incomprehensible character makes the rest of the novel seem arbitrary as well, and London is not a good enough writer to pick up the reader's interest in other ways. Interesting, but in the end disappointing.