02 December 2020

Nazis Threaten from Beyond the Grave!

The Sleeping Bomb
James Moffatt
London: New English Library, 1970
125 pages

Jim used to say, "It's a business, it's the way I make my money, and I can live this way. I mean, people who write hardbacks can take a very, very long time to write them, which is very nice if you've got a good income behind you. Jim didn't have. I mean, he simply wrote to live, and he enjoyed doing it.
— Derry Moffatt, 1996 
The Sleeping Bomb appeared at news agents a few months after the author's pseudonymously published Skinhead. I wonder whether Moffatt knew by that time that he'd scored a smash hit. Skinhead was easily his biggest seller, spawning Suedehead (1971), Boot Boys (1972) Skinhead Escapes (1972) Skinhead Girls (1972), Top Gear Skin (1973) Trouble for Skinhead (1973) Skinhead Farewell (1974), and Dragon Skins (1975).

Even today, a half-century later, skinheads hold Skinhead and its sequels in high regard.

The Sleeping Bomb is a lesser work. Bereft of braces and Doc Martins, it begins on the other side of the pond – beneath the Hudson River, to be exact – with the discovery of a thirty-year-old one-man Nazi submarine during the construction of a new tunnel linking New York and New Jersey.

CIA agent Paul Henderson is assigned the case.

Why the CIA?

I have a theory – which is mine – that Moffatt knew he was out of his element when it came to responsibilities, jurisdictions, command structures, and the like. For this reason, he sets the novel in not-so-distant 1975, a year in which the armed forces of Canada, the United States, Mexican, and the United Kingdom fall under the centralized authority of the North Atlantic Defence Alliance. Intelligence agencies are being unified in a similar manner, which explains how Henderson ends up working under a Brit named Silas Manners

Not Silas Marner.

Not Miss Manners.

Because the sub is armed and booby-trapped, its hull cannot be breached. Dials, some broken, indicate that it contains a time bomb that is set to explode at some point in 1975. Whether government, intelligence or military, no one knows just  just what will happen, but everyone is sure it'll be really, really bad. 

The situation is so dire that I wondered why Henderson and Manner were left on their own to figure it all out. Restructuring, perhaps. As in any Richard Rohmer novel, the pair spend a good amount of time flying from place to place in an effort to get to the bottom of things. In their travels, they learn that the sub carries a "parasitic bomb" which will kill everyone within an area amounting to 250,000 square kilometres. 

The Americans published The Sleeping Bomb as The Cambri Plot. I mention this because because Cambri  – "Project Cambri" – is referenced a couple of times early in the novel.

Sure seems important. The ABC Movie of the Week President of the United States has a conniption when Paul Henderson let's slip that he's heard about it:
"WHAT!! Where did you hear that name, Henderson?"
   Paul wished to hell he'd kept his big mouth shut. "In General Herschfeld's office, sir. I overheard it when I paid a visit to him..."
   "Have you mentioned this to your colleagues?"
   "No, sir!"
   "Thank God!" The president's heavy breathing could be heard clearly.
Project Cambri involves rockets that can land on a pinprick. Their purpose is to carry documents and diplomats that might otherwise be intercepted by the Soviets.

That Project Cambri – note: not "The Cambri Plot" – is barely mentioned must have seemed strange to American readers. It vanishes in the early pages, only to reappear as the climax approaches. With three pages to go, I was interrupted by Kiefer, our nine-month-old Schnauzer. We played, and then went for a long walk.

As we made our way along our lonely rural road, I thought of everything that was wrong with the novel. I wondered whether visitors to East Germany were never searched. I tried to imagine Henderson piloting a locomotive across several hundred meters of railway ties, and then managing to get it back in the tracks.

Yeah, that happens.

More incredible was the Nazi plan, which involves planting a time bomb during the dying days of the Second World War and then waiting, waiting, waiting... The detonation, thirty years later, is intended to both bring about the reunification of a country that hadn't yet been divided and bring the world to its knees. Why not just set the bomb off in 1945? Why not kill millions and threaten millions more? Wouldn't that have brought the war to a sudden end? Wouldn't that have given Hitler the upper hand?

I'll never understand Nazis; James Moffatt's Nazis included.

Favourite passage: "CRAAAAASH! Wood splintered, flew in every direction. CRUUUUMP!"

Trivia I: New English Library's cover copy (below) was clearly written by someone who had not read the novel. The bomb would cover 250,000 square miles, not one thousand.

No neo-Nazis figure.             

Trivia II: Silas Manners reappears in Moffatt's Justice for a Dead Spy (London: New English Library, 1971).

Object: A slim, cheap mass market paperback. The novel itself is followed by three pages of adverts for other New English Library books.

Isn't this tempting!

Access: The Sleeping Bomb enjoyed one lone printing. Five copies are listed for sale online at prices ranging from £3.95 to £6.19. Condition isn't much of a factor.

The Cambri Plot was published in 1973 by Belmont Tower. Copies of that edition range from US$4.10 to US$55.42.

The novel last appeared as a Spanish translation, La Vengganza de Hitler, "una novela escalofriante," published in Mexico City in 1974 by Novaro.

Whether academic or public, not one copy of any is held by a Canadian library.


  1. Joyce Ebert's Crazy Ladies was a much passed-around "dirty book" when I was in high school in Kentucky in the early 70s. Its still findable on ebay. I've been thinking about a revisit, but fear the (inevitable?) let-down. how different all things are now to when one was sixteen (going on thirty). The character who most remains in my memory was a painter who was obsessed with painting portraits of Soviet cavalry General Budenny. Perhaps my lifelong fascination with the history of the 20th century up until the Sixties began there, all it took was one initiating incident. The Crazy Ladies were models, actresses, stewardesses, in the line of Susann's Valley of the Dolls, but much more likeable and overall happier than Jackie's unhappy crew, more like the 4 leads of Sex in the City. But this is all recalled at a far distance so maybe I rewrote it in my mind in the 50 years gone by.

    1. A character obsessed with painting portraits of Soviet cavalry General Budenny? It's got to be good. The Exorcist was the passed-around book when I was in high school. All these decades later, I still haven't read it, though I confess I read, reread, and shared the dirtier scenes scenes from The Reincarnation of Peter Proud and James Herbert's The Fog. The Crazy Ladies sounds like good fun.

  2. I read this book only recently and wondered about the very same things you mentioned. The novel was given away in weekly parts in a comic mag called Target in 1972, though it may have been edited to remove any sex scenes. (Then again, it may not.) I managed to reacquire Target #1 some months back, but it didn't have the first part of the book. Despite it being a bit erratic in the way it unfolds, I found it an absorbing read, which carries you along and doesn't give you time to think about the plot holes - until later, that is. I found the ending a trifle rushed as if Moffatt had suddenly lost interest, but I'm glad to have finally read it 49 years after beginning (but not finishing) it way back in 1972.

    1. I'm intrigued. Did Target feature illustrations of the novel?

      Late Night Line-Up interviewed Moffatt in 1972, portions of which were used in the 1996 BBC doc Skinhead Farewell. Have you seen it? If not, it's easily found on YouTube. Recommended!

      Anyway, I was left with the impression that Moffatt wrote in much the same way as fellow Ontario pulp writer Thomas P. Kelley. He had an idea, ran with it, and as the agreed upon word-count approached, would try to wrap things up. This may explain the rushed ending of this and other Moffatt novels.

      Or maybe not.