[originally posted here at Castalia House]
The first installment of Gulf, by Robert Heinlein, appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding. It can be found here at Archive.org.
Gulf is a slow-burn sci-fi spy thriller. It’s very dark and atmospheric, and while the hook, some of the window dressing, and the MacGuffin are science-fiction, Gulf stands up as a fairly standard, if well-written, example of the spy-pulp genre. If the sci-fi elements weren’t there, it would still hold up as a spy story, as it doesn’t really rely on those tropes to make its narrative work.
An agent has three tubes of micro-film: two decoys, and one with top secret plans for something. He’s got to get them to the post office so they can be transferred with cold mechanical efficiency to the dead drop address. There’s a game of cat and mouse as those who want to get their hands on the film interfere with the agent as he tries to make the drop, and after he gets the tube off, he’s taken to a private jail on trumped up charges of passing a forged note to a waitress [his wallet had been stolen by a porter urchin and swapped with an almost identical fake].
His enemies try to no avail to discover the contents and destination of the tube, and the agent is “rescued” by an interested 3rd party [a fabulously wealthy helicopter salesman] who got himself captured to make contact and plan the break. The agent escapes only to find that he’s been burned by a double, the tube either went missing or never made it to the dead drop, and his agency thinks he’s the one who stole it.
The cliffhanger ends with the agent being forced to turn to the wealthy helicopter salesman as his only hope, and perhaps humanity’s best hope—the microfilm that was lost? Research for a super weapon that could potentially destroy the entire planet!
I may not sound as enthusiastic about this one as I ought to be and am. This isn’t usually my bag, but it’s a huge step above a lot of the stories that I’ve reviewed so far from the last couple issues of Astounding. I’m enjoying it and am looking forward to the conclusion in the next issue. One thing I’ll note, though: I can’t speak for the hardboiled spy-pulps, because I haven’t read any, but the sex worker being tortured to death in front of the agent to get him to crack isn’t the sort of thing you’d see in Planet, wasn’t what I expected to see in Campbell’s Astounding, but did foreshadow what I’m always told about Heinlein, “he got all weird, man!”