14 September 2020

The Atomic Dale; or, The Mounties Mess Up?

Dale of the Mounted: Atomic Plot
Joe Holliday
Toronto: Allen, [1959]
158 pages

The ninth in the twelve-volume Dale of the Mounted series, Atomic Plot is a novel I'd long wanted to read, but stubbornness stood in my way. For years, I watched copies being bought and sold online, all the while convinced I'd stumble upon one at a garage sale or thrift store.

I scored Atlantic Assignment, my first Dale, at a Friends of the St Marys Public Library book sale. Dale of the Mounted in the Northwest was found at a yard sale ten minutes from our home. I can't remember how I came to own Dale of the Mounted in Newfoundland. All that effort, all that searching, and yet Atomic Plot remained elusive.

Then came this generous gift from Chris Otto of Papergreat.

Dale of the Mounted: Atlantic Assignment is one the most amusing novels I've ever read. I enjoyed it so much that I reworked my original review for inclusion in The Dusty Bookcase book. Rereading those reviews today, after Atomic Plot, has me wondering whether I wasn't too harsh on the mountie.

Hear me out.

Dale of the Mounted: Atomic Plot opens at Ottawa's Uplands Airport – now Macdonald-Cartier International – where Constable Dale Thompson awaits the arrival of Doctor Sachi Rami, "a man learned in physics, a man whose knowledge the atomic sciences made him one of the leading figures in the Far East field of atomic energy." A Pakistani (Holliday refers to his nationality as "Pakistan"), Rami is travelling from his home country so that he might study the nuclear reactors at Chalk River Laboratories. Dale's assignment is to protect the doctor and his travelling party while they're in the country. He's been informed, by the Deputy Commissioner no less, that "certain fanatical, political groups in India" look to prevent Rami from taking this "atomic knowledge" back to Pakistan.

Rami arrives on a Trans-Canada Air Lines Viscount, accompanied by an imposing Sikh bodyguard, and a young secretary named Kelomé. As he disembarks, the doctor is attacked by a fellow passenger. The bodyguard takes action, throwing the assailant off the stairway and onto the tarmac. Dale rushes Rami and his party into an awaiting limousine and they head off to a suite that has been reserved at the Château Laurier. From there, the constable phones RCMP headquarters to report the incident:
The Deputy Commissioner finally came on the telephone. His instructions were, as usual, short and to the point. "I want you to make arrangements to be with Doctor Sachi Rami at all times. I understand he has some sort of Sikh bodyguard with him, but I want you to be personally responsible for him!" 
Let us pause to consider:

The RCMP has received intelligence that a group of Indian fanatics look to target a prominent Pakistani scientist on Canadian soil. The threat is taken so seriously that the Deputy Commissioner is personally involved, and yet he assigns just one member of the force to provide security for the scientist and his companions. That man, Constable Dale Thompson, holds the lowest rank in the RCMP. When told of the thwarted attack at the airport, the Deputy Commission does nothing more than repeat his original instructions. No additional security is provided.

And now, consider this:

The following afternoon, a Pakistan High Commission limousine arrives to transport Rami and his party to Rockcliffe, where they are to watch the famous RCMP Musical Ride. The chauffeur, Dale has been told, knows the area well, and yet – curiously – needs directions. On the drive back, Dale notices that they're being followed by an old Pontiac. This doesn't prevent him from directing the chauffeur to Nepean Point, so that the foreign visitors can admire the view. The Pontiac follows the limo into the park, but Dale dismisses this as a coincidence. There's a sudden flurry of activity as the chauffeur points the limo toward the river and leaps from the vehicle. Dale grabs the wheel. The Pontiac rams their car, picks up the chauffeur, and takes off. Rami and company receive minor injuries. It's later discovered that the actual High Commission chauffeur had lost the limo to a carjacking.

So, where are we now?

There have been two assassination attempts in the first twenty-four hours, and Dale was present for both. He thought nothing about the High Commission chauffeur's ignorance, and wasn't concerned about the Pontiac. The Deputy Commissioner doesn't remove Dale from the case, nor does he assign additional members of the force. It's off to Chalk River!

Chalk River Laboratories in 1958
Things slow down at this point so as to familiarize the reader with Chalk River Laboratories, the "famed Colombo Plan," and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. Eight pages are devoted to a high school-level physics lecture delivered to visiting students from "Ottawa University." Dozens more pages are sacrificed to the nature of the atom, descriptions of Chalk River's various reactors, a Van der Graaff generator, the various vehicles owed by the facility, living accommodations offered to employees of AECL, and the municipal status of nearby Deep River. Mixed into all this are dribs and drabs of plot and plotting, as when copper medallions turn up in the doctor's room and those of his companions. A panicked Rami hands his over to Dale:

Now, one-third of the way through my second Dale of the Mounted book, I'd come to know the man. It was for this reason that it came as no surprise that the constable fails to inform the Deputy Commissioner of this turn of events. Dale rarely checks in – though, to be fair, no one at RCMP headquarters expects him to do so.

Days pass.

Dale notices that three Indian atomic scientists are also visiting Chalk River. Quite by chance, he discovers that Kelomé, Dr Rami's secretary, is secretly communicating with the trio. Next, a shipment of uranium rods is found to be faulty, and the truck returning them to the manufacturer is hijacked. A second truck arrives carrying the very same rods. The driver is held. Fingerprints are sent to the RCMP in Ottawa, where it's discovered that he's the owner of the Pontiac used to ram the limousine at Nepean Point.

Do the RCMP send more officers to Chalk River?

They do not.

The truck driver is killed, and two guards are injured, when the car in which they are travelling is forced off the road by another carrying the three Indian scientists.

Dale encourages the trio's release:

Dale uses the very same wait-and-see tactic in Atlantic Assignment – which, I remind, is an earlier adventure – resulting in the escape of a saboteur, the kidnappings of two servicemen (one of whom is left blind), the loss of two Royal Canadian Navy Grumman Avengers, and the near destruction of HMCS Bonaventure.

Despite Dale's history, the Deputy Commissioner agrees to the plan, adding that two more constables will be assigned in the case. Unfortunately, they never arrive. Did the Deputy Commissioner forget? Did Joe Holliday? Either way, things go very badly... after several pages devoted to the Betameter, sodium 24, and cobalt-60. Somewhere in the mix, we learn that the man who had attacked Rami at Uplands Airport escaped RCMP custody, only to be shot dead by his compatriots.

At long last, the Indian scientists, who we now know to be fanatics, attack as Dale, Rami, the bodyguard, and Kelomé are watching the installation of new uranium rods in the NRX reactor. What follows doesn't make much sense. Keith Ward's jacket illustration reflects its weakness in that five more figures should feature. Confusion often accompanies violence, but here the fault lies in Holliday's inability to keep track of his characters. Any description of the action would be pointless; it is the outcome that matters:
  • Kelomé has been revealed as one of the Indian fanatics;
  • an employee has suffered a blow to the head and a six-foot fall;
  • a broken uranium rod has caused a deadly build-up of radiation;
  • two of the Indian fanatics died of gunshot wounds;
  • the third Indian fanatic stole a truck, only to die in a crash;
  • the NRX reactor has to be shut down for several months. 
It was Kelomé who shot and killed the two Indians because – I'm guessing – she was angry that the attack didn't come off exactly as planned. Her motivation isn't clear.

And what of the fanatics? Was their real goal to destroy the reactor? Why didn't Kelomé shoot Rami when she had the chance? Why didn't her fellow fanatics? What were they all about, anyway? "These [Indian] fanatics are utterly opposed to atomic energy and want no part of this knowledge to come to their country," the Deputy Commissioner says when handing Dale the assignment; yet, Kelomé aside, each of the fanatics involved were atomic scientists.

In the closing pages, the reader learns that Kelomé herself is expected to suffer an agonizing death as ta result of her exposure to the broken uranium rod... and so, everything wraps up nicely:
Dale and the RCMP, satisfied that the danger to the Pakistan doctor and his party was now over, decided there was no further need for Dale to act as daily bodyguard.
I wouldn't have thought that fanatical groups give up so easily – but then, what do I know about security, law enforcement, and intelligence?

For that matter, what do Dale and the RCMP?

Editorial note: Everything I've read about the Khaksar Movement suggests it is grossly mischaracterized by Holliday.

Favourite passage: It should come as no surprise that Dale's main contact at Chalk River Laboratories isn't its Chief of Security, but a public relations man named Clyde Karnell. After the novel's climax, the character exits the book thusly:
"Boy! It's going to be dull when you leave Chalk and Deep River. We haven't had that much excitement since the NRX blew its stack in 1952! Well! see [sic] you tomorrow1" He put on his jacket and departed.
Here the public relations man is referencing an event that is generally considered the first serious accident involving a nuclear reactor. It is rated 5 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. For the sake of comparison, Three Mile Island shares the very same rating.

Mea culpa: I've broken a New Year's resolution.

Object and Access: A slim volume bound in burgundy boards with blue text. Dale of the Mounted: Atomic Plot enjoyed one printing with Thomas Allen. An American edition was published in 1959 by Pennington Press.

One copy of the Pennington edition is listed for sale online. Priced at US$8.18, is it a bargain? It has no dust jacket. A Good+ (w/ Good dust jacket) copy of the Allen edition is on offer from an Edmonton bookseller. Price C$13.00. Needless to say, this is the one to purchase.

Library and Archives Canada and seven of our academic libraries have copies.

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