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Every Move He Makes

Honky in the Woodpile  (Max Curfew, volume 3)

By John Brunner 

26 Mar, 2024

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1971’s Honky in the Woodpile is the third and final book in John Brunner’s Max Curfew thriller series.

Dr. Aloysius Small, on track to become the first non-white Member of Parliament since Saklatvala, is shot and killed by a sniper firing from the South African embassy. Protests are immediate. So are attacks on protestors from Britain’s thriving racist community. Unable to detain the killer, the British police turn to a show of force. They immediately begin brutalizing protestors, particularly those of sub-Saharan ancestry.

Retired international man of mystery Max Curfew intervenes to save two black men from a skinhead attack. This earns Jamaican-born Max and his new friends a brief stay in a British jail. Max emerges from the experience battered but alive, and with a new mission.

The men Max saved are brothers Fierro and Rafé Ponza, both of the Caribbean island nation of Madrugada. Fierro is the head of the Madrugadan Government or rather of its government in exile, having been recently deposed.

Britain has not been the safe haven for which the brothers hoped. The UK’s recent efforts at inclusiveness turned to be both superficial and short-lived. Nor is the UK (or the US for that matter) especially interested in reversing the coup. Even if the UK weren’t run by open racists, the inner workings of a distant island nation are seen as posing no real consequences for the UK.

Returning to Madrugada to resume running the government would be suicidal. The current regime is not only quite hostile to would-be reformers, the Ponzas in particular, but it has a well-informed mole within the Ponza inner circle. Any move to regain the government would be immediately leaked and countered.

Max’s task: journey to Madrugada under the guise of a travel writer. Investigate the members of the Ponza inner circle. Determine which of them is the mole. Relay that information to the Ponzas. The people can then rise in righteous fury against their oppressors.

Soon after arriving in the island nation, Max’s cover is blown [1]. It does not take all that long for Max to be arrested and thrown into a prison from which escape appears to be impossible. The revolution appears to be over before it has started.


The Max Curfew series was not an attempt to jump onto the Blaxploitation bandwagon. The first Max Curfew novel, A Plague on Both Your Causes, appeared in 1969, a year before Cotton Comes to Harlem (arguably the first Blaxploitation film) appeared. Judging by the fact that Honky was the last Curfew book, Brunner does not seem to have benefited from Honky appearing during the early heyday of Blaxploitation. Not benefiting from current trends was something of a running theme in Brunner’s career.

Ideally, if I were going to sample any book in the series, it would have been A Plague on Both Your Causes AKA Blacklash. I don’t own it, I have not seen a copy in decades, and it is long out of print.

Modern day readers might be astounded that a book of this vintage depicts a Britain where:

  • attempts at racial reform are short-lived performative gestures, swiftly abandoned once they are no longer politically fashionable;
  • the police are as great a menace to the non-white public as the skinheads;
  • and even well-meaning white people are incredibly annoying to persons of color.

All I can say is you have to remember the novel was written long ago, in a very different time.

As one might guess from the title of the book, the n‑word appears a number of times in this book, sometimes from Max himself. Do black characters written by white authors have n‑word privileges?

Max’s career arc is a sequence of disillusionments. Being mostly of African descent [2], Jamaican-born Max thought he had allies in the Soviet Union. When he discovered that his Russian employers were virulently racist, he switched to working for the British. Even though he had minimal expectations for the UK, the government still failed to meet them. Now Max enjoys the experience of being betrayed and abused by fellow black people. Novelty does not improve the experience.

While Brunner’s grasp of Caribbean politics might be a bit superficial [3], his jaundiced view of humanity adapts well to a series about a Jamaican man exploring the exciting world of entrenched racism as manifested in international espionage and power politics.

I was at first undecided about reviewing this. I was certain that Brunner meant well. So did Andre Norton when she wrote Voodoo Planet. On the other hand, ignoring the series because it might be incredibly problematic seems like cheating on my project to review as many Brunners as I could. Not to mention that it seems a pity to ignore one of the few series from this period with a black protagonist [4]. The novel certainly could have been worse. That said, I am curious as to what POC readers made of the book way back when. Comments?

As true of another upcoming non-genre Brunner slated for review, Honky in the Woodpile is out of print.

1: Max’s cover is blown due to a recurring Brunner trope, a protagonist’s righteous doxing turning out to have unexpected consequences. Having discovered the identity of a London-based CIA agent dabbling in Madrugadan affairs, Max phones the US embassy to reveal that the Ponzas know the man is a CIA agent. What Max does not foresee is that of course the man is reassigned to the one place the CIA does not expect to see Ponza associates. Madrugada.

Fans of such American outreach projects as the 28 Mordad coup d’état, Operation Condor, and the 1973 Chilean coup d’état might expect that the presence of a CIA agent indicates that Madrugada’s problems are of US manufacture. While the US leases a port there and does have agents active in the island nation, for the most part Madrugada’s problems appear to be locally manufactured. Brunner’s model here appears to be Haiti, or at least his understanding of Haiti.

2: To quote: five-eighths African-type black, plus maybe another eighth Indian-colored — a lot of small traders from India settled in Jamaica — and the rest is composed of assorted sixteenths of English, Scottish, Irish and French.”

3: Mind you, all this plot has to fit into a short novel.

4: The book is also notable for being a non-SFF Brunner publication. Those were rare.