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Review: To Kill the Duke by Sam Moffie

After World War Two, the United States of America began rebuilding but missed the opportunity to enjoy the peace it fought hard for by establishing a Cold War with the U.S.S.R. Against such a backdrop, To Kill the Duke juxtaposes the inner circle of spies and assassins serving at the pleasure of Leader Stalin in Communist Moscow with the cast and crew of a Hollywood movie being filmed in a Utah desert in 1954.

The plot is centered around The Conquerer, starring John Wayne and made famous in part for inspiring debate whether it is one of the worst films ever made. The other debate surrounding The Conquerer concerns whether being at the Utah location, upwind from atomic bomb test sites in Nevada, contributed to cancer-related deaths of several of the cast and crew. Moffie uses this infamy as the foundation for what is largely billed as a hilarious satire and, to a lesser extent, historical fiction.

The novel’s title derives from the Communist plot to kill John “the Duke” Wayne, according to some research an idea Stalin actually had in mind. A couple of Soviet assassins are dispatched to Hollywood just as director Dick Powell and financier Howard Hughes are recruiting John Wayne to star in The Conquerer, thus making The Duke everybody’s Holy Grail for one reason or another.

When well-executed, satire as a literary form delivers intellectual stimulation using the elements of irony and wit, allowing the reader to discover a truth behind the irony on their own. Unfortunately, the fun of discovering the “truth” behind this novel’s plot is ruined for the reader by didactic exposition and overt discussion of the plot’s irony by some of the novel’s characters.

Editing problems abound throughout the book, from pacing to grammar and all points in between. Much of the vocabulary attempts to be colloquial through use of repetition, especially where the Soviet characters are concerned. Another overused technique is to have a character think something then have another character say the same thing out loud in almost the same words. Finally, caricature is not humorous when it lacks intellectual meaning.

The charm of To Kill the Duke lies outside of itself and Moffie fails to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the concept. This is a book that wants to be a movie, or make a point, or both, but it is not an enjoyable read as a novel. Three stars.

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