First, to clear away any misconceptions, this is not the Stan Lee that appears in all those awful Marvel movies, this is a completely different Stan Lee – an advertising man, in fact, who wrote a couple political thrillers in his spare time.
In fact, if you had to compare this Stan Lee to someone in the comics industry, the best choice would be Warren Fucking Ellis, as Dunn’s Conundrum is a tangled, blackly comedic thriller about espionage and the dangers of information.
Certainly there’s great power AND great responsibility involved, but there’s also a lot of musing about the future of technology, the danger of too much knowledge and some really kinky sex. Ellis would be pleased. Stan Spider-Lee would be greatly disapproving: not enough running around in pyjamas.
Dunn is the founder and leader of The Library, a super-duper-covert US intelligence organization that sorts through all the data gathered by everyone, everywhere. (In 1985, Lee has written the sort of organization that all the politicians really wanted after 9/11.) The Library contains 12 “librarians”, each an intellectual and an expert in a rare field of analysis – from chemicals to satellite surveillance. All twelve have access to everything. In high-powered brainstorming sessions, they come up with solutions and strategies that shape (and shake) the world. Pretty awesome.
Unfortunately for Dunn, one of his dozen eggheads is a rotten. Which leads to his conundrum… how does he find a spy in his own ranks? And how does he even start an investigation when everyone knows everything? Theory and practice collide.
The book’s protagonist is “The Garbageman”, the Librarian appointed to solve this particular issue. He’s a specialist in trash – one glimpse into a pile of garbage, and he knows all there is to know. Unfortunately, now he’s forced to specialize in another type of rubbish as well – the personal lives of his co-workers.
The plot thickens with bonkers Chinese agents, an ambitious Senator, the onset of World War 3 and a sinister Russian impersonator. For a book without a drop of action, everything moves extraordinarily quickly.
Advertiser-turned-writer, an academic hero, debates about information culture, political prescience and tongue-in-cheek humor – this ticked all the right boxes, and did so in a stylish, goofy, wonderful way. A real find.