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Millennial Review XXII: Dover Beach by Richard Bowker (1987)

Dover Beach  (The Last P. I., volume 1)

By Richard Bowker 

6 Feb, 2000

Millennial Reviews


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Dover Beach
Richard Bowker
Spectra 1987
265 pages

Technically, this is set as late as 2010 but 10 meg HD were standard equipment 22 years earlier.

Synopsis: 22 years after a limited nuclear war devastated the US, young Wally Sands is trying to set himself up as a private eye. Postwar Boston has little demand for detectives, and he does no business until Dr Charles Winfield hires him to find Professor Cornwall. Winfield believes Cornwall cloned himself pre-war and that Winfield is the clone.

There are some scenes with Sands’ nonbiological family, including Gwen, who he has known since they were both teenagers surviving in the ruins of Boston’s suburbs and who he obviously loves. There are other scenes showing how devastated even Boston, which was never bombed [The targets were Washington and counter-force targets] is due to the break down of the social order after the war.

Sands has criminal connections: through one of them he tracks down evidence that the British picked up Cornwall right after the war. The British grabbed a lot of top scientists in those days, taking advantage of the fact that the war somehow passed them by, leaving them relatively powerful in the new order. Winfield is ecstatic: he is willing to buy both of them tickets to the UK to go look for Cornwall.

Sands seriously intends to go to the UK and not return, abandoning his friends back in the US. One lesson he learned as a kid after the war was that survival comes before anything else and life in the UK is far better than in the US, even under the current somewhat luddite government in the United Kingdom.

In the UK, they eventually track Cornwall down through newspaper accounts of a pre-election scandal involving research. What kind of research is not stated and the party who blew the whistle on it dropped the matter when they came into power. The postwar era is one of low birth rates and chronic illness: new reproductive technologies, no matter how morally dubious the new government might have found them, are not to be casually abandoned.

Sands and Winfield first meet Cornwall’s daughter Kathy, who is an attractive actress. She introduces them to Cornwall. The meeting goes horribly: despite the very strong physical similarity, Cornwall denies that Winfield is his clone or that he had gotten cloning to work for humans pre-war or even post-war. Winfield attacks Cornwall and when stopped by Sands storms out, vowing to uncover the truth [This puts Sands in an awkward position, as Winfield has all the money]. Soon after Sands leaves for the train station, Cornwall disappears, and someone sets fire to his house. The police begin to search for both Winfield and Cornwall.

Kathy and Sands spend some time together and become romantically involved, despite a disastrous dinner with Kathy’s mother. Despite serious financial difficulties, Sands manages to survive the few days until Winfield turns up, having gone to ground on the assumption the police would be looking for him. Sands realises while reading a paper that Cornwall is travelling across the UK, tracking down and murdering the clones he created 15 years earlier, so he, Winfield and Kathy deduce who the new victim is going to be and intercept Cornwall before he can murder the boy.

Cornwall explains his motives: life is a disappointment and will be for any iteration of him. His clones are a waste of time. Winfield, whose entire self-worth is tied up in being the clone of a genius, murders Cornwall. Winfield is arrested.

Sands then realises that Kathy set the fire and that she knew her father was committing the murders. She has known about the clones for years and resented them because her father, a cold unfeeling oik, invested all of the paltry positive emotions he was capable of in them and not her. Their murders were a good thing in her eyes. Sands leaves her and the UK to return to the US.

Two more deductions follow: his criminal friend had given him a document which was forged but which contained information which was correct. Therefore, his friend had to have been involved in the program to round up and export US scientists. As well, most of his friends are semi-literate at best. The person who wrote the document was not and he realises that Gwen, his lover since 15, must have helped to give him a chance to escape to the UK. Sands and Gwen reunite.

Not a bad book. If you are familiar with the forms of the detective novels Sands reads, and with The Maltese Falcon , it’s obvious Kathy is up to something. It’s also likely that he will return home in the end, loyalty being a powerful virtue in PI novels.

The Dover Beach version of the early 21st century is quite different from ours. No nukewar in the 1980s, which on the whole I think is a fine thing. The US in Dover Beach probably has a century of recovery in front of it and won’t soon, if ever, be a major power again.

Oddly enough, the Soviet Union survived WWIII. Not well and they are in danger of collapse a generation later, but they did survive. The UK’s position is a fluke: somehow in the exchange the missiles aimed at them never got launched so they only had to deal with the indirect effects of WWIII. Even without being hit, they are a lot poorer a generation later than they were pre-war.

Dover Beach is out of print and Bowker doesn’t seem to have written a lot of SF after DB: all of his books I own pre-date it, I think, and DB is the best of the lot. There’s one title I have not seen called The Summit , but I have no idea what it is about.