The Shapes of Sleep by J. B. Priestley (1962)

Review by David R:

Ben Sterndale, a freelance journalist, is offered a commission by a friend. The boss of the advertising agency where the friend works has lost, or had stolen a sheet of paper. This paper was covered in figures, but no-one knew what they meant. Sterndale establishes who visited the boss’s office, and immediately realises that one of those is reported in the evening paper as a casualty in a road accident. He accepts the commission and heads off to the hospital where, by posing as an insurance man, he obtains some useful clues.

The victim subsequently dies and Sterndale finds that there are several people looking into the man’s affairs, none of whom is known to the others. His enquiries lead him to Germany, where he eventually tracks down the author of the paper, and discovers the meaning of those figures. Violence and deception are the norm in this tale, but in a slightly humorous manner. There is a mysterious group, somewhat like The Magicians of an earlier tale. The story finishes on an optimistic note, but as in real life there are too many loose ends to be “The End”.

Priestley gives this story a subtitle, “A Topical Tale.” The blurb on the dustjacket states that it is “not a mystery story or a thriller” but today we would have no hesitation in calling this a spy story. Much of the action takes place in Germany. At that time, Germany was a divided country, the Berlin Wall had not long been built, and the Cold War was at its height. I am old enough to remember the Cuba Missile Crisis, and being convinced that either Kennedy or Khrushchev would blow the planet up rather than back down.

In this light, the book can be seen on a different level from fictional escapism. Priestley was trying to warn his readers that, in an atmosphere where no-one trusted anyone, paranoia meant that even the most innocent action could have sinister connotations, which must be bad for the future of the human race. An apt comparison with the current situation in the USA with the “whistle blowers”; are they traitors or just too honest? It seems even democratic governments spend half their time spying on their own citizens.

The characters are again more stage persona than real, and some of the incidents have a humorous touch. None but the most chauvinistic male will feel any outrage at the outcome of the clumsy attempts by Sterndale to seduce some of the female characters. Quite why Priestley felt it necessary to introduce sex into a story when he had more or less avoided it hitherto one can only guess. Presumably his publishers persuaded him that it was a growing trend.

As this book was published 12 years after the cut-off point for the period under consideration, it is interesting to compare it with Priestley’s earlier work. At the time he wrote it, he was in his late 60’s (and still had some good work ahead of him) but the comparison with something like “The Good Companions” puts it quite squarely in the second half of a very busy century, and demonstrates Priestley’s ability to move with the times.

One final criticism: we never do really learn much about the shapes of the title.

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