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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Manchurian Candidate

Richard Condon

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To purchase The Manchurian Candidate

Title: The Manchurian Candidate
Author: Richard Condon
Genre: Novel
Written: 1959
Length: 318 pages
Availability: The Manchurian Candidate - US
The Manchurian Candidate - UK
The Manchurian Candidate - Canada
DVD - 1962 film: The Manchurian Candidate - US
The Manchurian Candidate - UK
The Manchurian Candidate - Canada
  • The Four Walls Eight Windows edition (2003) comes with an Introduction by Louis Menand that is essentially identical with the piece Brainwashed published in The New Yorker
  • The Manchurian Candidate was made into a movie in 1962, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, and Janet Leigh
  • The Manchurian Candidate was made into a movie in 2004, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Liev Schreiber, Denzel Washington, and Meryl Streep

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Our Assessment:

B : over the top, and a wild ride

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Herald Trib. Book Rev. . 28/6/1959 Taliaferro Boatwright
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/4/1959 Frederic Morton
The New Yorker . 30/5/1959 Whitney Balliett
Time . 6/7/1959 .
TLS . 30/9/1959 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr. Condon has not written a successful novel but a wild, vigorous, curiously readable melange." - Frederic Morton, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Mr. Condon accelerates his plot to an ingenious crisis and writes in high-speed vituperative prose which is often difficult and clumsy, but his sardonic wit keeps brilliant control of the two parallel intrigues." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The Manchurian Candidate author Richard Condon takes a clever idea and nearly runs amok with it. The idea is that during the Korean War Raymond Shaw and ten other men on an Intelligence and Reconnaissance patrol were captured by the Chinese, brainwashed, and then released, convinced that Shaw had heroically saved them (save two, who didn't make it) after an (imaginary) engagement with the enemy. It's a feat of bravery that earns Shaw the prestigious Medal of Honor -- just as the Chinese intended.
       The brainwashing not only very effectively impressed a different reality on all those captured ("Their brains had not merely been washed, they had been dry-cleaned"), but it turned Raymond into a pliable killing machine: the right prod (a game of solitaire, and then the queen of diamonds) and he would obey any command. A crack marksman, a Medal of Honor winner, and the stepson of a US senator make him an ideal sleeper-assassin for his Soviet-Chinese handlers to use when going after the most prominent of targets.
       Aside from his on-target shooting ability and his family connexions, the main reason Shaw is chosen to be the on-command killer is because he is the ideal subject. As the head brain-washer explains:

     Although the paranoiacs make the great leaders, it is the resenters who make their best instruments because the resenters, those men with cancer of the psyche, make the great assassins.
       And if anyone has a cancer of the psyche it is Shaw: "He is afflicted with total resentment." With good reason, too, as he has a ruthless and ambitious mother who demands she gets her way and stands for little else. She has high hopes for her son too, but largely as her instrument.
       Eleanor Shaw divorced Raymond's father (an eventual suicide) when Raymond was twelve. She married her former husband's law partner, Johnny Iselin, and then devoted herself to his career: from judge to governor to senator, he rises up, accumulating ever-greater power. The fact that he's a drunk and has few good qualities doesn't hold him back, and in Washington he eventually pushes himself to the fore with wild (and unfounded) McCarthy-like accusations.
       Shaw's talents remain unused for several years after his return from Korea, during which time he works as a journalist. The only friend he has is the Captain (later Colonel) who was leading the patrol that fateful night in Korea, Marco. Marco starts having nightmares, suggesting something very different happened from what they remember (memories which are strangely clear but also disengaged). And it happens that another member of the patrol also writes to Shaw about having similar nightmares. Eventually it even occurs to Marco that they might have all been brainwashed ... but that's not quite enough to figure out how it works, or who is behind it.
       Manipulative mom Eleanor complicates Raymond's life where and when she can, but more than anything tries to further her husband's political career -- culminating in the 1960 party convention for the presidential (and vice-presidential) nomination. The Chinese and Soviets exert quiet control in the background (including at the useful Timothy Swardon Sanitarium -- which is also "one of the few money-making operations maintained by the Soviets"). And there's that other senator, Jordan, who is the sworn enemy of Eleanor but whose daughter Jocie remains Raymond's one true love.
       It's one wild ride. Condon nicely and quickly describes the brainwashing, and cleverly keeps the actual use of Shaw's abilities to a minimum or in the background, making them all the more effective when they do take centre-stage.
       The Manchurian Candidate is an incredibly cynical work, full of ugly Americans. The packs of lies Raymond's mother builds her life -- and her second husband's career -- around are wonderful in their brazenness. Johnny Iselin makes McCarthy look good. And everyone is corrupt or at least stained, no corner of this world left pure -- an idea nicely reinforced in asides such as the passage about yet another woman Marco picks up, a recording and variety artist:
whom Marco had met that afternoon in the vestibule of a church, where he had gone to light a cigar out of the wind
       Even the military plays along, as when it's explained how Johnny Iselin came to join the Marines:
The Marines naturally had gotten Raymond's mother's business because, she told Johnny, they had the biggest and fastest mimeographing machines and earmarked one combat correspondent for every two fighting men.
       (Jarring then are two of the noble acts committed in the book, both suicides.)
       Raymond is described as being "impossible to like", his personality "one great, cold lump", but he's not unsympathetic. His hatred of his mother helps humanize him, and there are a few who do sincerely care for him, including Marco and Jocie
       Raymond's hatred of his mother, the driving force of the novel, is blinding in its heat -- and the psychology behind what motivates him that Condon offers is fascinating, but also unsettling. It is this hatred, coupled with the similar threat of the very different sort of mind-control in the form of the brainwashing to which Shaw and his fellow soldiers are subjected, that make The Manchurian Candidate an enjoyably disturbing read.
       Condon's writing is all over the place -- "Mickey Spillane with an MFA" Louis Menand suggests in his introduction, which is about as good a description as any. Wildly uneven, the text and plot careen around, with Condon frequently getting carried away in his writing. The daring of the plot twists, and the accelerated pace as the book plunges to its conclusion are, however, enough to carry it. It is an unnecessarily rough read -- trying to do too much, too fast, and trying to express too much to cleverly (Condon has a tinny ear) -- but pretty gripping nevertheless. Weird, fun stuff.

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The Manchurian Candidate: Reviews: The Manchurian Candidate -- the film (1962): The Manchurian Candidate -- the film (2004): Richard Condon: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Richard Condon died in 1996.

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© 2004-2010 the complete review

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