A World to Win, Upton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published in 1946).
Summary: Presidential Agent 103, in the guise of an art dealer, embarks on a series of journeys, planned and unplanned, in which he gathers significant intelligence for the Allied cause in its fight against Nazism.
Most of us know Upton Sinclair as the author of The Jungle, an expose’ of conditions in Chicago meat packing plants at the beginning of the twentieth century. I was unaware that he was author of the Lanny Budd series of eleven novels, named after the primary character, the son of an American arms dealer, a gentleman of tact and insight who moves among the major figures of the first half of the twentieth century, and eventually becomes Presidential Agent 103, using the cover of a fine art dealer to travel into occupied France and Germany to gather intelligence against the Nazis critical to the allied threat. The third book in the series, Dragon’s Teeth won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Novel. The series went out of print for years only to recently be resurrected by Open Road Media.
Some of you may remember The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. The main character of that book “Pug” Henry was also an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and met with a number of world leaders. Reading A World to Win, I couldn’t help but wonder if Wouk had drawn his inspiration, consciously or not, from this work, published 25 years earlier. In the course of this novel, Budd meets with Marshal Petain, Hermann Goering, Rudolph Hess, Adolph Hitler, alludes to meetings with Churchill, hobnobs with William Randolph Hearst, is entertained by the widow of Sun Yat-sen, meets Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong), and finally, at the end of the novel, Joseph Stalin.
After each of his forays, including a kidnapping by underground forces who suspected him of Nazi ties when he was actually on their side, escapes from Luftwaffe bombings, and other perils including a near fatal plane crash, he has late evening meetings in the bedroom of Franklin Roosevelt where P. A. 103 is debriefed. During one of these, he even gives Roosevelt the words, “the arsenal of democracy,” that Roosevelt used in one of his famous speeches! This incident underscores Budd’s singular ability to endear himself to whoever he is with, even those he inwardly despises, like Hitler, and keep them persuaded that he is nothing other than a disinterested art dealer.
At the same time, Budd’s endearing qualities draw him into affairs of the heart with two women. Lizbeth is the young daughter of a Baltimore industrialist, beautiful but incapable of anything beyond conventional conversation on conventional subjects. Laurel Creston, her cousin is a socialist-leaning anti-Nazi journalist who Lanny helped escape from the Gestapo, and easily his intellectual equal. While on his “missions” for the president, he refuses to consider either, given his dangerous lifestyle. But when “furloughed” after the plane crash, which also destroyed his “cover,” he finds himself in a different place.
Things get even more interesting when Lanny gets invited on a cruise to Hong Kong (where a psychic had predicted Lanny would die) by Lizbeth’s father. Laurel also manages an invitation, leading to an interesting predicament. Who he ends up with, how they escape the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, and how they end up meeting Mao and Stalin, I will leave you to discover.
One detects in the book Sinclair’s life and interests–Baltimore where he grew up, interests in psychics and spiritualism, and socialist leanings, which characterize Laurel, and in a more chastened form, Lanny himself, despite his loyalty to Roosevelt and to his arms manufacturer father.
While the idea stretches credulity that Budd could somehow manage to meet all these great personages in one novel, and end up traveling around the world, the journey is rip-roaring good fun. The closest this seemed to me to get to a plot was the recurring allusions to Budd’s death in Hong Kong, fantastic at best, until Hong Kong becomes a cruise destination and we realize that his arrival date coincides with the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s invasion. At the same time, there are seasons of reading when one does not particularly care as long as the book keeps your attention.
I should say that I started this series with this book which is number seven, which happened to be available at a discount in e-book form. It was definitely good enough that I want to go back and read the series from the beginning. If that sounds interesting to you, Open Road has a page showing all eleven novels in their proper sequence, and other Sinclair works, with links to purchase them in different e-formats.