In Red Heroin [Amazon affiliate link], a thrilling tale of espionage set in late Sixties Seattle, engineer Paul Crane finds himself sucked into a plot involving drug smuggling, student activists, fast cars, and hot women. This was Jerry Pournelle’s first novel, and it is a remarkable start to a very long career. While this isn’t the Campbelline science fiction that Jerry would come to be known for, you can definitely see the same interests at play, as well as quite a bit about Jerry himself.
While it is commonplace for authors to put a bit of themselves, intentionally or not, into their books, I came away from Red Heroin thinking that Paul Crane was very much Jerry himself. I suspect so more strongly than I otherwise would have after reading the recent eulogy by Jennifer Pournelle, Jerry’s oldest, given at Roberta Pournelle’s graveside service.
I hadn’t known that Jerry’s second child died in infancy, or that his first wife left him in despair. At the beginning of Red Heroin, Paul Crane is a bachelor living in Seattle, eking out a meager existence as a civil engineer. We gradually learn that his only child died in infancy, and his wife left him shortly afterward. Those events happened to Jerry nearly a decade earlier, but I can understand working through such things by writing about them. However, there is more to this story than just this concordance personal trauma.
When this book was written, it was under the pseudonym Wade Curtis, as Jerry was leaving the aerospace business, and used a pseudonym to maintain his security clearance. However, as Steve Sailer at least has told stories that Jerry wasn’t just a cog in the machine of Boeing, but a spy himself, I wonder whether Paul Crane’s dead son wasn’t the only bit of himself that Jerry put into this book. I regret that Jerry never wrote his memoirs, but if my suspicions are true, maybe he couldn’t tell all the good parts.
The Kindle edition includes an afterword by Jerry, so maybe we get some of the good stuff there.
For a first book, Red Heroin was pretty good. It was action packed, and I’ve at least been around Seattle enough myself to recognize the landmarks that Jerry put into the book. The Communist-adjacent student politics of the anti-war characters are a preview of ideas that Jerry would expand on in later books. There is also a fair bit of technical detail around sailing, which now that I think about it does actually fall into the John J. Reilly definition of hard science fiction, leaving the reader usefully instructed in some technical subject in the midst of an adventure story.
This was a brief book, 156 pages in the paperback edition I have, but I appreciate brevity more and more in my stories. I don’t want long, self-indulgent doorstops. I want a story that is fast-paced, full of action, and fun, and that is exactly what I got here. As a long-time fan of Jerry’s work, I was pleased by this, and I would gladly recommend it to either Pournelle fans, or anyone who appreciates adventure.
Other books by Jerry Pournelle
There Will Be War