The French Atlantic Affair, by Ernest Lehman, New York: Atheneum, 1977, 468 pp., $10.95.
Aside from writing brilliant screenplays (West Side Story, The King and I, The Sound of Music, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and others) and winning six Writers Guild awards and six Academy Award nominations, Ernest Lehman is a "ham."
Not that he isn't very much a professional, but he is one of some 325,000 amateur radio operators in the United States (K6DXK). The French Atlantic Affair, his first full-length novel, promises to be a bestseller and on the movie screens before a year is passed. Lehman weaves in amateur radio, giving it a suspenseful role as the sole (and secret) means of communication between a pirated French luxury liner and the folks back home. The object: to discover the identities of 174 conspirators among the 3,000 passengers in time to prevent a disaster.
Only a "ham" could have made the radio sequences as fully authentic. The jargon, the propagation conditions, the equipment referred to, and even the not-so-tolerant wifely attitudes toward amateur radio are worked into the plot in a thoroughly "amateur" way by a true professional. Technically, one could fault Lehman only for his brief and fleeting reference to interference with a closed-circuit TV system by a commercial transceiver well-known to be "clean" in its design.
There is almost continuous action of one kind or another throughout the story. As most novels must these days since "R" and "X" movies draw the crowds, there is also almost continuous action in various bedroom environments ranging from the hotels of Paris to the staterooms of the S.S. Marseilles, the 65,000-ton liner that has been taken over by the villains. One such encounter is even late at night on the "sun deck" just before the female is pushed overboard.
Lehman has managed to convey lucid insights into the emotional disturbances, lusts, libido, and motivations of his characters, but it is rare that they become so involved in the action that they cannot take time to disrobe for some bed exercises. Much of Lehman's descriptions of these encounters, in this reviewer's opinion, detract from the central plot and would be more effective on a more subtle level. Most mature readers, given only the suggestion, can conjure imaginary sequences that are possibly more explicit and interesting.
But the bureaucratic reactions to a ransom demand for $35 million in gold, to the takeover of a ship, and to the requests for help from distant computers in analyzing the situations reported over the clandestine radio are typically realistic, typically conditioned by each official's experiences and motivations, and brilliantly suspenseful.
The French Atlantic Affair has been selected by the Literary Guild and by the Playboy Book Club, the latter presumably because of its seamier side. It is not recommended for juvenile reading (mature adults, please!), but it is engrossing and well done. You'll have trouble putting it down, so be prepared for at least an eight-hour escape, depending on your reading speed, once you start it!
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The French Atlantic Affair".