Arthur Hailey’s 1962 In High Places is a near-future Canadian political thriller. Or it was near-future when it was published, long ago.
Canadian Prime Minister James McCallum Howden’s shaky majority will not allow for dramatic political innovations. Yet crises will arise with no regard for political convenience. Now, Howden must somehow convince his cabinet, his party, and the Canadian electorate to swallow the unpalatable if any part of Canada is to be saved.
In a secret communique, American President Tyler has informed Howden that nuclear war with the East is no more than a year away.
The international situation is fraught. The Russians have gone from success to success — an alliance with Japan is only the latest coup — and are threatening the rest of the world with nuclear war. The dire consequences of an all-out nuclear war should deter the Russians but will not: megadeath is simply the price of Russian global domination. Those evil commies do not value human life as the Western nations do.
In theory Canada and the US have a defense alliance. In practice, Canadian commitment to joint defense has been lackluster. Successive Canadian governments believed that geopolitical realities force the US to defend Canada whether or not Canada makes a significant contribution to joint defense. The Canadians have taken advantage of this fact and have failed to contribute. Much.
The fatal flaw in this calculation involves America’s nuclear defenses. It’s believed that Russian nuclear warheads are designed to detonate when intercepted. If the US intercepts Russian missiles in Canadian airspace, before they can reach the US, much of Canada will be contaminated with radioactive fallout.
President Tyler offers an alternative. If Canada agrees to an Act of Union, merging its armed forces with US forces, subordinating its foreign policy to American foreign policy, and embracing a customs union, then US interceptor targeting will be adjusted. No doubt some Canadian cities will perish — as will American cities, since even the best interceptors cannot save such vulnerable targets — but valuable farmland will be spared as much as possible.
Selling this to his colleagues and to the Canadian electorate will be hard but Howden believes he is up to the challenge. He will ask the US president for a substantial territorial concession1 that should placate Canadians when Howden announces the possibility of union with the USA.
The Vastervik, a 10,000-ton vessel under the command of Captain Sigurd Jaabeck, docks in Vancouver. It carries a stateless stowaway Henri Duval. Duval’s life has been a sequence of misfortunes. Having snuck on board the Vastervik, he has discovered that no nation will allow a man lacking documents to disembark. Canadian officials, like their foreign colleagues, decline to entertain Duval’s plea for indulgence.
Duval’s situation in Canada differs from his situation overseas: in Canada he finally secures a lawyer, Alan Maitland. The novice lawyer’s idealism may inadvertently spell Howden’s doom … and perhaps, Canada’s as well.
This novel belongs to an very special genre: legal thrillers in which a character’s limited bladder capacity plays a significant role, as does the era’s reluctance to publicly admitting to embarrassing medical conditions. Alan’s opponent has prostate issues that the older man sees as a humiliation: rather than explain to the judge why he has to flee the court, he sabotages his case and his career.
A detail that surprised me: Hailey, while not at all averse to exposition, spends comparatively little time explaining the peculiarities of the Canadian parliamentary system. If this novel had been aimed at Canadians or even British readers, that would not be astounding. However, the publication history suggests a US audience. Staging a political thriller in a minor nation with an arrangement unfamiliar to the readers is a bold choice.
The Duval subplot makes copious mention of the Canadian immigration system as it existed in the early 1960s. Functionally, it was an apartheid system with two desiderata.
- Maintain Protestant Anglo-Saxon supremacy in Canada
- Provide Canadians with, if not plausible deniability, then at least sufficient procedural obscurity that they need not admit what Canada is doing
Readers might think this sounds a bit racist. Let me assure it was lots racist. To quote:
[…] we have a colour bar and race quotas, and we ban Negroes and Orientals, and that’s the way it’s always been, and why should we change it? Admit we want Anglo-Saxons and we need a pool of unemployed. Let’s admit there’s a strict quota for Italians and all the rest, and we keep an eye on the Roman Catholic percentage.
Nobody with power seriously questions these goals, the alternative being seen as
House of Commons debating in Italian and a Chinaman running Government House.
The only point under debate is whether Canadians should be forced to acknowledge these goals or whether these policies should continue to be an open secret, ruthlessly enforced (with occasional exceptions for the well-connected) while the public turns a blind eye. While I understand this may come as a terrible shock to American readers, accustomed as they are to see Canadians as their moral superiors in every possible respect, it’s a pretty accurate assessment of Canadian immigration policies in that period.
One cannot help but notice that the US proposition bears all the earmarks of a scam. The claim that WWIII is less than a year away could be a lie intended to con Canada into becoming a US satrapy, with reduction to territorial status merely a matter of time. The book didn’t rate a sequel, so readers will have to make up their own minds.
As to the novel as a novel … well, it’s a decent example of this era’s political potboiler. The page count is large, the cast is far too large to mention here, the interpersonal relationships are complicated, and the sex scenes are judiciously imprecise. Viewpoint jumps from plot to plot to plot (a number of which I had to exclude due to space2), and the whole affair moves along as briskly as traffic on the 401. It’s not exactly deep reading but despite tomeish tendencies it won’t take up much of your time.
1: Alaska. Oddly, readers learn that the proposal originated with a cabal of highly-placed Alaskans.
2: There’s a certain double-think where the romantic plots are concerned: characters who profess to believe they might very well be radioactive ashes in a year nevertheless pursue long-term romantic entanglements. For that matter, government officials assert firmly the need to limit immigration to Anglo-Saxons without considering that WWIII might affect the supply of Anglo-Saxons.
Farmers on the slopes of a smouldering Vesuvius …