Killer Pine by Lindsay Gutteridge
I’ve been snookered. Killer Pine is, in fact, faux-fem-fan. Lindsay Gutteridge—the author—is in reality Thomas Gordon Lindsay Gutteridge. He was a UK author, an art teacher, and most decidedly, a man.
Eh, I knew this would happen when I started assuming gender based on name. Still, I’m glad I made this mistake.
Killer Pine is the tale of Mathew Dilke, a miniaturized James-Bond-esque hero sent to the West Coast of Canada to investigate an arboreal disease decimating the old pine forests. For company he has Hyacinthe—his secretary/lover—and Jonathan Butt, an ecologist and researcher.
I enjoyed Killer Pine from start to finish, but the most impressing thing about it, in my opinion, is the impeccable way Gutteridge paints the world around our micro-heroes—and I’m not normally a reader who invests in settings. Dilke, Hyacinthe, and Butt are pretty used to their micro-sized lives. They have living quarters in a retro-fitted matchbox, and within that matchbox is all the comforts of the full-sized world: a refrigerator, spiral-bound notebooks, cameras, a dining table. Everything feels normal, until something reminds them that it isn’t.
[Aside: this perfectly replicated tiny world is the one thing that pulled me from the story. In this reality, they shrink people via medicine, not some sort of shrink-ray. So how did these micro-things get manufactured? If Mathew Dilke is 1/4 inch tall, that camera is like a pin-point. We can't make a functional, mechanical camera now at that scale, so there's absolutely no way it was possible in 1972. Everything else about the novel was so good, though, that I forced myself to suspend my disbelief so I could revel in the world and story. Fair warning, though.]
Holy wow these are some great alternatve covers.
I don’t think I’ve read a book that can even come close to how masterfully Killer Pine instills in the reader a sense of wonder at the fantastical. This wonder ran the gamut of feelings: the breath-taking awe of summiting what, to us, would be a small boulder, the pure terror of the landing of a crow that might as well have been a dragon for all the more they could take it on, and the heart wrenching ache of watching caterpillars, starving due to the dying forest, trudging past like a desperate herd of elephants.
This latter example is a problem for me. It’s a good, evocative scene, but making the insects of this world incredibly sympathetic only makes my life harder. I mean, when I’m turning over the garden, I already take way too long to try not to kill any worms or spiders along the way. Now as I accidentally bust open ant hills and such, scenes from this book are going to come to mind.
Killer Pine can, at times, be rather gross. Insects die, insects are … born? and while the detail is well-written and conveys Dilke’s revulsion and surprise, it’s not always pleasant reading. Nor are the more depressing bits, like the aforementioned starving caterpillars. I knew Gutteridge was a great writer when I felt a pang of heartache for a mutant termite. A termite. And they didn’t even name it!
Damn you, Gutteridge!
(I was going to include a picture of a termite here to prove how gross they are to double-prove how good Gutteridge is, but I'll spare both of us.)
This book, published in 1972, contained a few things that seemed surprisingly forward-thinking for the time, and one thing that felt archaic.
Dilke is white. Hyacinthe is Black. They are in a relationship. These facts are not big deals or plot-points.
Hyacinthe, while still the socially-acceptable assistant or receptionist-figure expected of a 1972 woman, regularly adventures with Dilke and Butt, and is never a damsel in distress.
Butt, an ecologist and researcher, mentions both evolution and God in the same sentence—no theological debate, no angst. He believes in both.
Butt shakes his fist at corporate greed and the degradation of the earth.
Russians—the perennial enemy of the 1970s agent—show up, and though they’re clearly the enemy, they’re human: they have back stories, passions, friendships. Some are kind, some aren’t. At a time when Russians were regularly portrayed as punch lines or heartless villains, I can totally respect the respect with which Gutteridge portrayed these characters.
All that said, randomly, 3/4 through the book, the word ‘negro’ makes an appearance, and I don’t know what to think about it. It never feels derogatory, and is used in less than five times, always in regard to hypothetical people. Hyacinthe, conversely, is always referred to as Black. I don’t want to over-think the inclusion of this word used during a time when it wasn't so obviously and outright not-okay like it is today, but I also don’t want to pretend that it’s not there, in case it makes anyone uncomfortable.
I bought this book because it looked absurd—I expected camp, camp, and more camp, a few laughs, and to move on, and instead I ended up with a novel I’m pressing my husband to read. It’s good. Apparently Lindsay Gutteridge only wrote four novels—all of them following the saga of Mathew Dilke—and I’m going to have to track them down. I’m damn impressed.
Available as an out-of print book; no ebooks, no audiobooks. Bummer.
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Cover art by Vincent di Fate: