41. Eric Frank Russell – Three to Conquer (1955)

Now here’s an interesting Burroughs question – one to which we don’t know the answer: when did Burroughs read Three to Conquer?

He mentions it numerous times and always describes it as “one of the best science fiction books I’ve ever read”. The earliest of these pronouncements recorded in an interview is in 1970, but he mentions it alongside Kuttner’s Fury, which we know he read in the fifties.

So did he read it in the fifties (before Naked Lunch)? Or did he find it during his sci-fi binge of the late 1960s?

Russell is English, but the book was published fairly quickly in America (being set in LA probably helped). So he could have definitely read it while there. Yet, despite it being “one of the best” sci-fi books he’s read, he does not mention it in letters at the time – one would expect him to.

What am I getting at here?

Well, the importance of the question bears upon Burroughs’ masterpiece: Naked Lunch. The framing device, amplified in the film, of William Lee, the private eye / underworld character who moves in strange circles, could – potentially – be inspired by this novel.

Three to Conquer tells the story of a psychic P.I. He keeps his mindreading powers a secret until, one day, three astronauts who have been reported as lost on a mission to Venus turn up in L.A. and commence, by coincidence, to kidnap a girl and knock off a witness in front of him.

He reads the perps minds, not knowing who they are, only to detect something not human. With shock, he realises that they, unlike humans, can feel him reading their minds as well. They frame him.

This makes him public enemy number one, but also humanities only hope.

So did Burroughs lift the psychic detective idea from Russell? We have already seen how the Nova Police (who Lee is affiliated with in the cut-ups) is likely inspired by Dion Fortune’s description of the psychic police on the astral plane. Russell, combining this same rough idea with the hard boiled Hammett/Chandler style, seems to lay the groundwork for Lee.

Russell’s protagonist, Wade Harper, is a tough guy of the old school. Despite getting caught up on Lovecraftian / Edgar Allen Poe style mysteries, his mind is clear throughout. He’s more likely to sock an alien in the jaw than break down, shaking, gibbering, crying, his mind in pieces, as is the style of the “weird” American horror writers.

So do we have any more textual evidence, other than the psychic detective?

Well, the aliens can take over new bodies by injecting them with a special solution kept in hypodermic needles. Injection holes and trackmarks are a clear sign of alien possession. There are many passages in Naked Lunch that would imply similar ideas (I need to reread the book to see how closely they match up).

The other is the composite authority figure, a slightly mad pair of generals called Benfield and Conway.

There are all sorts of stories about where the character of Doctor Benway came from, but I’m not sure if there are any explicitly giving an origin for his name. Perhaps Benfield and Conway make Benway?

I realise this evidence is not tremendously strong. It may be, after all, that the reason Burroughs liked Russell so much is that he is writing something similar to what Burroughs had, by the 1960s, already written. Even though Russell’s book is published earlier, Burroughs could have seen him as a fellow traveller rather than an inspiration.

On the other hand, if there was a direct inspiration in the 1950s, it would make sense that it would take just over a decade for Burroughs to admit to it. He veers away from mentioning the psychic detective angle, as well, praising the books instead for its use of alien possession.

In my opinion, the alien possession angle is perhaps the least interesting of the book, so it’s hard to image Burroughs considering it “one of the best” based purely on that.

No, if he had borrowed it’s likely that there’d be residual guilt about it. That would explain the delay in praising the book on record. By 1970, however, Naked Lunch had long been established as a classic, and so Burroughs would have been less shy about making his inspirations known.

This will be one to keep looking out for anyway.