New York. Dissatisfied and bored wealthy middle-aged banker Wilson acts on a telephone call from an old college friend and visits an organisation based at an address written on a scrap of paper in the hope of gaining an apparent second chance at life. A random gesture from a rude young man on the street outside the building seems to propel him through the doors and once inside, he is cruelly duped into acquiescing to their services. So, the weary overweight man who enters is replaced by a youthful alter-ego who emerges. A life which seemingly seemed beyond WIlson's reach is now within his grasp, including the availability of compliant young women. However, has Wilson's second chance at life allowed him to enter a Garden of Eden or a Circle of Hell?
David Ely's 1963 novel about rebirth and identity was highly praised at the time by eminent thriller writers Eric Ambler and Ian Fleming (whose favourable quote appears on the cover of this UK paperback edition) and was famously subsequently filmed by director John Frankenheimer. The film was a dark, dystopian science-fiction tale whose stark black and white images, often distorted by fish-eye camera lenses, presented the story more as a horror film with its star Rock Hudson cast against type as the dissatisfied protagonist upon whom it gradually dawns that the grass isn't necessarily greener in the other man's garden.
The novel works more as a dark satire, with its shadowy organisation peopled by ground-down salarymen and run by those with an eye to the bottom line similar to the world that Wilson has left for a seemingly better life.
Concealing its horrors and leaving Wilson's ultimate fate to be discovered by the man himself, the book is in its own way just as chilling as the film adaptation. By locating of its horror in the banal, mundane and everyday, and featuring characters whose voices barely rise above the conversational and whose manners are generally unfailingly polite, the novel conveys a genuine frisson of terror and features a final despairing line that subtly twists its message home like a knife in the guts. Recommended reading, even to those who have seen the film and therefore know the outcome.
AFTERWORD: Unfortunately, my seemingly elusive copy of the UK paperback edition will not be experiencing the rebirth of the novel's characters as the age-darkened pages have almost all fluttered free from the dried-out spine - which seems rather appropriate. Based on this novel, author David Ely's other novels should be well-worth tracking down. At the time of writing he is seemingly still alive and his latest novel, A Journal Of The Flood Year, was published in 2009.