Doctor Cobb’s Game, by R. V. Cassill (1970)

Cover of e-book reissue of 'Doctor Cobb's Game'Having taken a long trip over the last year through the pulp paperback fiction of R. V. Cassill, starting with his 1956 novel of wife-swapping in rural Iowa, The Wound of Love, I wasn’t surprised when I was contacted by Open Road Media, an e-book publisher, about their re-issue of five of Cassill’s books:

They offered me a free copy of any of these in return for this post, and as I was planning to read it anyway, I opted for Doctor Cobb’s Game.

Doctor Cobb’s Game was certainly Cassill’s most commercially successful book. The story is based on the Profumo affair, a scandal involving sex, secrets and Soviet spies that led to the resignation of Conservative Defence Minister John Profumo. Cassill’s Doctor Michael Cobb is his fictional version of Dr. Stephen Ward, the London osteopath and socialite who introduced Profumo to the 19-year-old Christine Keeler and who facilitated their affair while, at the same time, carrying on a close friendship with Soviet military attache and intelligence officer, Yevgeny Ivanov. Although doubts remain whether it did actually involve prostitution, procuring, or the passing of secrets or was just a case of bad judgment and awkward coincidences, the Profumo affair was something of a watershed in British culture and morality. Never after did the cone of silence over the old boys’ network fit so well, and the affair is often taken as one of the events marking the start of the swinging Sixties.

As all of his pulp novels plainly demonstrate, sex–particularly adulterous and illicit sex–held a great fascination for Cassill, and Doctor Cobb’s Game is his magnum opus on the subject. At the time the book was first published, sex had become something of a centerpiece on best-seller lists. The Sensuous Woman, by the anonymous “J”, topped lists for 1969, and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was among the hottest titles when Doctor Cobb’s Game came out. Cassill’s publisher saw him, as he joked, as “Jacqueline Susann in trousers” and threw together a press campaign that saw the writer appearing on The Dick Cavett Show alongside the Rev. Billy Graham and Mandy Rice-Davies, who played a minor role in the Profumo affair. The press coverage and generally enthusiastic reviews succeeded in boosting the book’s sales and Cassill took home what was probably his biggest-ever paycheck from the sale of the paperback rights to Bantam Books.

In his review of the book for the New York Times, James Frakes wrote, “Cassill is remarkably adroit at capturing moods–domestic, supernatural, and, of course, psychosexual. I know of only two writers who rival him in this respect. Their names are D. H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer.” At the time, this was high praise. Reading it over forty years after Doctor Cobb’s Game, it seems much more artifact than masterpiece. Back in the 1950s, Cassill made a living for a few years working as an editor for the mens’ magazines, Dude and Gent. Although his work never made it to the pages of Playboy, his writing about sex in Cobb’s Game reminds me very much of the tone of that magazine in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was, basically, “The great thing about Women’s Lib is that it makes it OK to fool around because now we know that women can get something out of sex, too.” In other words, it’s not the least bit liberating. Instead, it made me nostalgic for the good old days when Mailer had to write about “fugging.”

Frakes’ Times colleague, Jonathan Leonard, described Doctor Cobb’s Game as “a staggeringly complex meditation on irrationality, the forms it assumes, its energy for good and evil, its sources in biology and myth.” Running over 500 pages in hardback form, the novel does pack in a substantial array of characters in addition to those taken a clef from the Profumo affair. He tells the story, in fact, through an American narrator, Norman Scholes, who works in some ambiguous position for the mysterious Gath Corporation–an archetypal fictional “mysterious think-tank” corporation run by former Marine general and based out of a remote fortress-like complex in upstate New York known as “Falcon’s Wing.” The material related to the Gath Corporation alone is a choice bit of 1960s culture itself–I kept expecting Scholes to run into Derek Flint or Napoleon Solo.

But in fiction, there’s a fine line between complex and just plain complicated. While I found something to appreciate in each of Cassill’s pulp novels, they all suffered from his tendency to introduce one too many characters or one too many scenes or one too many plot diversions. In the right hands, most of these books could easily have made it into the ranks of a fine pulp classic like The Postman Always Rings Twice, but in Cassill’s, they ended up like a jigsaw puzzle with a few empty spaces–or,rather, pieces left over. Whether the fault lies with the manufacturer or the assembler, the result is awkward and unsatisfying. I was reminded of the old quip that an artist is someone who knows when to stop–and does.For me, the whole treatment of Doctor Cobb as some mythical character with access to alien or supernatural powers might have seemed radical and the height of invention at the time, but from this perspective, it looks as clunking and unconvincing as a special effect in a cheap science fiction film.

As one who remembers furtively thumbing through my father’s copies of Playboy in the late 1960s, Doctor Cobb’s Game was something of an uncomfortable trip back in time. I fear that what I enjoyed most were aspects and associations that Cassill never intended to evoke, while his great artistic reaches seemed like so much flailing around. I feel particularly chagrined to open 2015 with this post because I had decided to devote this year to featuring the work of neglected women writers.

However, I do want to note the significant contributions of Open Road Media toward the rediscovering of neglected writers both male and female. Over the last couple of years, they have reissued in e-book format (Kindle, EPUB and PDF) some of the most interesting writers of the last forty years, including such personal favorites as Thomas Rogers, Charles simmons, Stanley Elkin, Norman Lewis and Thomas Berger. And while I probably won’t pursue any other Cassill novels, I am delighted at the chance to sample his short stories, now available in The Father and Other Stories and The Happy Marriage and Other Stories.

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