The Changeling Conspiracy (Helen McCloy)

By Helen McCloy

First published: US, Dodd, Mead, 1976; UK, Gollancz, 1977, as Cruel as the Grave

Blurb (UK)

A novel that highlights, in an unexpected way, terrorism and kidnapping, and explores the changes wrought to personality by the experience—or does it?

A girl is kidnapped from her home at gunpoint, and held to ransom by a way-out group of terrorists who claim to be fighting for “the disfranchised and the disinherited”.  Later, a photograph of the girl with a gun in her hand suggests that she has thrown in her lot with the terrorists: perhaps even that she connived in the kidnapping.

So far, the parallels with the Patty Hearst case are striking.  But as we can expect from any McCloy plot, fiction is stranger than fact.  Here the story takes many strange twists, with an ex-C.I.A. man pitted against the Agency, the police and the Mafia while he conspires to save the girl from grim alternatives—of being murdered or of facing a charge of murder.

Yet when he has rescued her, a new puzzle faces us: is this the girl who was kidnapped?  Helen McCloy keeps us guessing, on several levels, right to the end, and her solution is totally unexpected.

Here’s a tale that is not merely topical: it’s way ahead of the news.

My review

Normally this is the sort of book I would avoid: 1970s thriller, kidnapping, terrorists (the New Hashashin led by someone who calls himself the Old Man of the Mountain), Mafiosi, CIA, and FBI. It says much for McCloy’s skill that she makes it very readable. The enigma of the kidnapped girl who may have joined the terrorists is well kept until the end.  Unfortunately, the plot feels rather distant and unreal.  Every scene of violence or action is either very low key or happens off-stage, while the hero / narrator views everything through a filter of anthropology and psychology.  This is very effective in the Basil Willing detective stories, but robs the book of excitement and makes it an academic treatise on the psychology of the kidnapped.