Sunday, 28 December 2014

Penguin no. 1353: The Sleeper
by Holly Roth

'By God, Kendall, what a strange hold it is - to be able to get and guide a young man of promise to his triumphant death! To make him negate his birthright of intelligence, charm, handsomeness, the American chance of wealth, love, and pursuit of happiness - for what? A country he's never seen? A doctrine that has been constantly perverted for years? A group of people who lie so shamelessly that they are constantly being caught flat-footed - and then, when caught, lie again with open contempt?

This seemed to me a paragraph which captures the brevity of historical memory, as I am sure that had I read The Sleeper a year ago I would have found its premise - that a young man of exceptional promise would willingly give up every prospect in pursuit of an idea foreign to his culture and beyond his experience - implausible. But this year the story is a familiar one.

The context here is different though: The Sleeper is set in New York during the Cold War, at a time when there was heightened concern with the possible threats posed by Communism and the advent of nuclear weapons. It was to facilitate the spread of Communism that a young American teenager named Francis Burton Hollister was willing to sacrifice everything he might have been.

Hollister chooses, when very young, to condition his life on a single moment in the distant future, keeping a low profile until that moment arises. It was only after he had acted that it was realised how perfectly this had been done: it was clear that he had spent his teenage years striving to pass unnoticed, so that despite being broadly skilled he had excelled at nothing except excelling at nothing. As a student and a sportsman he had performed slightly above average, but uniformly and consistently so.

He had gone to West Point after finishing high school and then scored himself a position in the cryptographic office of the Army. And then he had bided his time, slowly building up a reputation for reliability and trustworthiness, but always awaiting an opportunity to fulfil his true purpose. And when it arrived he seized it, even though there was no way to evade the consequences of doing so. He was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment in a military prison for treason.

The Army's instinct was to bury the story and to control the flow of information to the public. But in failing to make the case for imprisoning this charming young man, they only encourage the conspiracy theorists, and this engenders a widespread suspicion about their motives and those of the government, just as such a case would do today. Aware that they had mishandled things, and wanting to do something about it, they invite a journalist into the prison to speak with Hollister and to write a character piece, but a highly constrained one: it couldn't allude to his crime in any way and it would be published only after careful vetting. But it seems that Hollister was a little too clever for them as it becomes clear that, despite the precautions, he has managed to hide some message in the journalist's text. And then he takes his own life.

The story focuses on the experience of Robert Kendall, the journalist given the task of writing the serialised account. Kendall finds that he has become the target of some unpleasant types who are intent on getting hold of the full transcript ahead of its publication, and this sends him on an adventure in which he tries understand the character of the young man he had met in prison, to sift through the story he was told in order to separate truth from fiction, and to find the hidden message, all while evading those who wouldn't hesitate to harm him in pursuit of their quest. The story is interesting on many levels, being both a thriller and a romance, and an attempt at exploring the characters of a young man who would willingly betray his country and the journalist who is the only civilian to meet him after his crime.

It was such a well-written and engrossing story that it was a surprise to find so few reviews available online, and no contemporary ones. This seems to be an old Penguin which is now undeservedly forgotten.

First published by Hamish Hamilton 1955. Published in Penguin Books 1959.


  1. Very informative, keep posting such good articles, it really helps to know about things.

  2. I've read a couple of Holly Roth's recently, and liked them. AS you say, it is surprising that she is so completely forgotten - I remember I couldn't find her on Wikipedia or Fantastic Fiction. Room for an enterprising publisher to rediscover her. This one sounds excellent.



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