10 Best Adventures of 1955
May 11, 2015
Sixty years ago, the following 10 adventures — selected from my Best Fifties Adventure list — were first serialized or published in book form. They’re my favorite adventures published that year.
Note that 1955 is, according to my unique periodization schema, the second year of the cultural “decade” know as the Nineteen-Fifties. The transition away from the previous era (the Nineteen-Forties) begins to gain steam….
In no particular order…
- Patricia Highsmith’s crime adventure The Talented Mr. Ripley. Having accepted a millionaire’s request to bring his footloose son, Dickie, back to New York from Italy, Tom Ripley becomes obsessed with Dickie’s upper-class mannerisms and lifestyle. One thing leads to another, and [SPOILER] he murders Dickie and assumes his identity. This is the first in a popular series of Ripley novels. It was adapted for the screen in 1960 (with Alain Delon), and again in 1999 (with Matt Damon).
- Graham Greene’s espionage adventure The Quiet American. A sardonic inversion of the genre in which the titular undercover CIA agent, Alden Pyle, is an obtuse idealist. When innocent civilians are killed by a car bomb, a cynical British war correspondent realizes that Pyle — who is working to achieve a synthesis of Communism and colonialism in Vietnam — was indirectly responsible for it. So he decides to take part in Pyle’s assassination. The book, which outraged American readers at the time, was adapted for the screen in 1958 by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Audie Murphy played Pyle.
- J.P. Donleavy’s picaresque The Ginger Man. An adventure in a kiss kiss rather than a bang bang way, Donleavy’s first novel — told from various perspectives — is funny, horrifying, scandalous. Sebastian Dangerfield, an impecunious American attending law school in Dublin while supporting a wife and child, staggers from incident to incident — in search of bacon and eggs, mostly, but also casual sex. Which, in Ireland, in the 1940s, was a rare commodity indeed. The novel was published as part of Olympia Press’s pornographic Traveller’s Companion Series, and banned in both Ireland and the United States for obscenity.
- Lionel White’s crime adventure The Big Caper. Perhaps best remembered today as the inspiration for the 1957 film noir (starring Rory Calhoun) of the same title, White’s bank-job novel gave the crime genre’s “caper” subcategory its moniker. Flood, a criminal mastermind, puts together a team — including an arsonist, a dynamite artist, and some muscle — to rob a bank in a Florida beach town. Key to Flood’s big caper are Frank and Kay, neither of whom are criminals, but both of whom owe Flood a big favor; it is their job to move to the town and pretend to be a couple. The trouble begins when Frank and Kay actually fall in love….
- J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy adventure The Return of the King. This is — as we’re all required to know, now — the third and final volume of The Lord of the Rings. The wizard Gandalf and the halfling Pippin ride into Minas Tirith, whose steward blames them for his son Boromir’s death. King Théoden and the Riders of Rohan hasten there as well, because the city is about to be besieged by the approaching armies of Mordor. The ranger Aragorn, the elf Legolas, and the dwarf Gimli travel through the haunted Paths of the Dead. Meanwhile, the halflings Frodo and Sam must escape from their orc captors and sneak through Mordor, smuggling the One Ring to Mount Doom under the baleful eye — and influence — of Sauron himself. And that’s just how this book begins.
- Crockett Johnson’s dream adventure Harold and the Purple Crayon. Four-year-old Harold wants to go for a walk, so he used a purple crayon to draw a path… One adventure leads to another, until Harold draws himself home again. Johnson, who created the excellent 1940s comic strip Barnaby for the left-wing newspaper P.M., here hints at the imagination’s too-seldom tapped anarchic possibility… in the least didactic, most delightful manner possible. The first book in a series that would include Harold’s Fairy Tale (1956), Harold’s Trip to the Sky (1957), Harold at the North Pole (1958), and Harold’s Circus (1959).
- Jim Thompson’s crime adventure After Dark, My Sweet. On the lam from a mental institution, William Collins, an ex-boxer with one screw loose, tries to go straight. Alas for him, he meets up with a sexy dame and a smooth-talking con artist who embroil him in a kidnapping scheme. Which goes terribly wrong… because the child he snatches is not only the wrong victim, but a diabetic who may die without insulin. The 16th novel from this prolific, sometimes lyrical, sometimes bonkers pulp crime writer, and — with A Hell of a Woman, published the year before, and his earlier books The Killer Inside Me and Savage Night — one of his best.
- John Wyndham’s science fiction adventure The Chrysalids (US title: Re-Birth). In a far-future, post-Tribulation England whose inhabitants zealously persecute mutated humans (“Blasphemies”), 10-year-old David must keep his burgeoning telepathic abilities to himself. Eventually, he and his fellow telepaths are discovered… so they flee to the Fringes, where they encounter mutants scraping by in a primitive fashion. However, David’s younger sister, Petra, claims that she’s been contacted by telepaths from an advanced, utopian society in distant “Sealand” (New Zealand?). Can they make it there?
- C.S. Lewis’s Narnia fantasy adventure The Magician’s Nephew. The sixth of the seven Narnia novels, The Magician’s Nephew is a prequel to the series — which is why today’s readers are often encouraged to read it first. (Of course they should read it sixth, as the author intended.) Here we witness Aslan’s creation of the Narnia world, a millennium before the events of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; and we witness the introduction, into Narnia, of such previously unexplained factors as the White Witch, a human king and queen (in a world of talking beasts), even the lamp-post. In a way, it’s a science fiction story — the rings are a technology that permit you to roam the multiverse — but never mind that.
- Michael Innes’s Cold War suspense-pursuit adventure The Man from the Sea (aka Death by Moonlight). A romantic assignation on a beach in Scotland, between Richard Cranston and Lady Blair, is interrupted by a man who emerges from the sea: John Day, a nuclear physicist who’d defected to the Soviet Union. Day claims that he wants to see his wife again, before he dies… and Cranston agrees to help him elude both British authorities and Soviet agents. But is Day telling the truth? A knowing — sometimes tongue-in-cheek — homage to John Buchan‘s The Thirty Nine Steps.
Let me know if I’ve missed any 1955 adventures that you particularly admire.
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