Ben Reich wakes up each day after terrifying dreams of “The Man with No Face” and is finally driven by them to kill his business rival and arch nemesis. However, it isn’t quite so easy in a world policed by Espers, telepaths who can sense murderous intention before the crime and guilt afterwards. The book presents the story from both sides: Reich’s planning, implementation and consequences and the police’s investigation, lead by 1st class Esper Powell.
Bester’s key strength is the way he brims with ideas and keeps a steady stream of interesting concepts rolling out, providing plenty to moll over throughout the book. The pacing is fairly taut with only occasional lags and since the book is short it reads lightning fast. The gripping pace is shown off best in the film’s best chapter (8), a two-layer battle of wits as the police are thwarted by Reich’s enormous organization at every turn. The chapter operates like cross-cutting montage in film and was likely inspired by Fritz Lang’s “M”.
Much like mid-level Philip K Dick, Bester goes for quantity of ideas and not thorough development. Not enough care has gone into answering the reader’s inevitable questions about Espers and society with them and in general no really solid believable image of the novel’s universe ever forms. Having failed to flesh out the details of telepathy and mind-reading early in the novel, Bester continues to introduce new elements only as it suits the plot and one constantly feels like he is cheating the reader and introducing inconsistencies.
These problems are symptomatic of poor plotting on a wider scope and this is really my major complaint. Inconsistencies and plot holes litter every other page (a particularly obvious one is the fact that we are told repeatedly that no success premeditated murder has occurred in over 70 years but later in the book, when murders are taking place surprisingly frequently we learn that there is an organization of professional assassins…).
After a strong first act, the book heads steadily downhill, culmination in a long, pretentious final act with several predictable revelations. Especially hampering the final 80 pages or so is a mounting level of Freudian psychobabble with dates the book as 1950’s (as does the sub-standard dialogue) even as it delivers a pair of twists that, while probably original and clever at the time this book was written in 1952, happen to be the two of the most cliché twists known to modern readers/film-goers.