Warning: Some elements of "Control" that the author might prefer the reader not to know are revealed in this review. Read further at your own peril.
Begin with reincarnation--the idea that at least some of us will be reborn, after we die, in new bodies, new identities. It is an idea that has been believed by a substantial proportion of humanity and forms the basis of more than one religion. A quick corollary to this idea is the desire to establish some kind of continuity, some contact across time, with one's previous incarnations. There have been many books on this subject, gently classified as nonfiction, which retail the authors' or subjects' fragmentary memories from former lives.
Next, imagine a government research agency established to investigate this phenomenon and its possible use as a weapon. Suppose you could contact a person from the past through his present reincarnation, control him and force him to do something that would change to course of history?
Three-quarters of the way through William Goldman's latest thriller, three people associated with such an experiment are discussing how it might be used to stop the Communist menace before it could gain a foothold. If you could kill one key figure at the right historic moment, which would it be: Trotsky, Stalin or Lenin: None of the above, says Leo Trude, director of the experiment: "I would do my very best to deal with Karl Marx."
That, in a nutshell, is the rationale of "Control," in which William Goldman having slipped somewhat during his Hollywood years, reestablishes the high technical standards he had achieved earlier in "Marathon Man" and "Magic." The basic idea is, of course, a throwaway--something that might become a mediocre bit of science fiction in less skilled hands. For Goldman, it is simply a convenient scaffold on which to drape some virtuoso writing, a bit of far-out philosophical speculation and a lot of fast action and suspense.
What matters in "Control," as in Goldman's best earlier works, is his ability to create believable characters of all kinds. Edith Mazursky, for example--affluent Manhattan housewife and mother who has aspirations as a painter, but not until her maternal duties are properly managed. She is complex, appealing, the product of a well-sketched family background that is given effectively in highly readable detail, and it significantly affects the decisions she makes in the course of the book. With her intensely sublimating lesbian friend Sally, she could easily be the heroine of a popular novel about domestic life in Beekman Place. What Goldman does to her instead is rather horrifying--but, of course, we read this kind of book to be horrified.
Or Charlotte, who married (somewhat unwillingly) an aging millionaire and found true love (with an impoverish poet) only after she had become the mother of two rather deplorable sons. Her story is a rather charming farce about a menage a trois, until suddenly murder rears its head.
And speaking of murder, there is Billy Boy Winslow, a subhuman killer of enormous strength and considerable animal cunning who escapes from a prison in southern Illinois near the beginning of the book and makes his way inexorably to Manhattan, where he will have a violent rendezvous with history. And his nemesis--his Javert--Eric Lorber, son of a successful Manhattan psychiatrist who drives his father to distraction because he wants to be a detective rather than a shrink. One of the book's climactic moments is an epic hand-to-hand fight between Eric and Billy Boy on the roof of a midtown Manhattan building still under construction. It is remarkable that this scene should occur seamlessly in the same book with the daintily bitchy review of Edith's first gallery show, or the charmingly comic scenes in which Charlotte's poet lover searches for a word to rhyme with her name (never once coming close to the obvious "harlot"--for an adulterer, he is remarkabley pure of heart).
There also are quite a few cameo scenes and characters that may excite the imagination of an inventive Hollywood director and some skilled character actors: a shoplifter indignant that her hard-earned loot has been stolen from her and complaining about the ineptitude of the police; a bag lady who lives on a bench in the Port Authority Terminal dreaming of the day she saw John Gielgud walking through; a traffic jam in Manhattan a century ago (caused by a dead horse), and an attempt to assassinate (of all people) Alexander Graham Bell.
Details like this are what make the book worth reading, while the false leads and the bits of suspense (will Billy Boy mug Edith?), the wildly speculative plot, the police-procedure science-fiction apparatus and the (nearly mandatory) hints of dark secrets along the Potomac keep the pages turning and the books selling. Unlike many who write in this genre, Goldman (at least at his best) gives the reader more than was bargained for.