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Literature / The Satan Bug

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"But if you act now, you'll win this free vial of botulinus!"

"To this virus we have given a highly unscientific name, but one which describes it perfectly. The Satan Bug."
Dr. Gregor Hoffman

The Satan Bug is a 1962 science fiction/mystery novel by Alistair MacLean, he of The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare fame. MacLean wrote it under the pseudonym "Ian Stuart," but subsequent publications give his real name.

The Satan Bug concerns the theft of a Synthetic Plague code-named the Satan Bug from the Mordon Microbiological Research Establishment, a top-secret British research laboratory. With the lab's chief of security Neil Clandon having been murdered in the process, the British government tracks down Clandon's predecessor, Private Detective and Badass Pacifist Pierre Cavell, in the hopes that he can track down the Diabolical Mastermind behind the theft.

It was adapted into a 1965 film directed by John Sturges and featuring an early score by Jerry Goldsmith. While the story was mostly kept the same, all the action was relocated to America and almost the entire cast of characters had their names changed.

Tropes used in the novel:

  • Anti-Hero: Cavell isn't above using intimidation, blackmail and torture to get what he wants. He's arguably justified, though, considering what's at stake, and he never goes too far.
  • Apocalypse How:
    • Regional/Continental Class 1: The botulinus depending on the dose.
    • Planetary Class 4: The Satan Bug regardless of how much is released.
  • Asshole Victim: Dr. Alexander MacDonald, who is murdered by Scarlatti to frame him and throw the authorities off his trail. He was both a Jerkass and a Dirty Communist.
  • Badass Pacifist: Cavell was fired from Mordon for objecting to the bio-weapon experiments, and has a distaste for war and the military. We later learn however that his firing was engineered by the General as part of a plan to discover who was smuggling viruses out of Mordon, however his antiwar sentiments are genuine.
  • Batman Gambit: Cavell's preferred method of operation. He has a knack for figuring out what someone, friend or foe, will or won't do in a given circumstance.
  • Distressed Dude: Cavell is at one point captured, has his wrists bound with wire, and is left in the cellar of an abandoned country house.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Scarlatti claims this is why he returned the kidnapped kids, and why he (at that point) hasn't harmed Mary, although he's really just avoiding making any more enemies than he has to.
  • Evil Plan: Months in advance of the robbery, Scarlatti sets in motion multiple plans to divert suspicion from his Dr. Gregori persona and implicate others in the theft he hasn't even committed yet, and/or force various people to help him, and/or send the authorities on wild goose chase thinking the culprit is a Communist or a religious nutcase. And up to a certain point, no matter what the outcome, he succeeds because nobody knows he in particular has the viruses, or is even in the country.
  • Faking the Dead: Cavell briefly fakes his own death to lull his enemies into a false sense of security.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: The Mordon Microbiological Research Establishment is fictional, although it has some similarities to the real-life Porton Down.
  • Red Herring Mole: No less than three - Dr. Hartnell, Dr. MacDonald and Dr. Chessingham.
  • Secret Test of Character: A man, knowing of Cavell's antiwar sympathies, tries to pay him to smuggle a vaccine stolen from Mordon to Poland. Cavell pretends to accept, but then pulls a gun on him, citing his loyalty to his country ahead of his own personal ideals. Enter Superintendent Hardanger to reveal it was a test to see if he could be bought.
  • Self-Disposing Villain: Scarlatti jumps out of the helicopter at the end, rather than face justice for his crimes.
  • Sherlock Scan: Cavell's ability to do this seems to be the main reason Hardanger and Cliveden wanted him on the case.
  • Short-Lived Aerial Escape: Scarlatti attempts to escape aboard a helicopter at the end.
  • Synthetic Plague: The titular Satan Bug.
  • Tap on the Head: Subverted. Although most characters who get bonked on the head do recover, they take a while to do so, and many, particularly Cavell himself, experience debilitating effects such as dizziness afterward.
  • Torture Always Works: Whenever Cavell tortures someone he needs information from, they always give him the information and it's always the correct information.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: This is supposedly Scarlatti's motive, but it's just a smokescreen to clear out London with a plague scare so he and his men can loot banks.
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: Averted. Cavell only wants Scarlatti. He only kills Henriques because he has to, and spares another henchman's life.

Tropes used in the movie:

  • Absent-Minded Professor: Dr. Baxter is strongly implied to be one.
  • Action Hero: Although Barrett is pretty intelligent and good at figuring stuff out, when it comes to actually dealing with the villains, unlike Cavell he tends to let his fists do the problem-solving.
  • Adaptation Expansion: We actually see the theft (or some of it).
  • Adaptation Name Change: Almost every single character. Pierre Cavell has become Lee Barrett, Dr. Giovanni Gregori is now Dr. Gregor Hoffman, Superintendent Hardanger is now Eric Cavanaugh, etc.; even the General is given a name; it's Williams.
  • Adaptational Villainy: The helicopter pilot. In the novel he's forced by Scarlatti to fly the helicopter against his will and assists Cavell in defeating him; here he's cooperating with Ainsley willingly and even tries to murder Barrett.
  • Badass Pacifist: Unlike Cavell in the book, Barret really was fired for objecting to what was being done at Station 3. He openly dislikes the military and war.
  • Chekhov's Skill: The SDI man posing as Henry Martin mentions Barrett flew helicopters in Korea. This comes in handy much later when he has to throw out Ainsley's pilot during a fight and fly the copter himself.
  • Discretion Shot: Twice. When Reagan is found dead, it's behind a table and out of our view. We don't even get a Dead-Hand Shot. Then when Barrett finds Dr. Baxter dead from The Plague inside the sealed lab, once again, we don't see the body.
    • Although some posters show actor John Anderson as Reagan lying dead outside the front gate for Station 3.
  • Disney Villain Death: A twofer at the end. Ainsley's pilot gets chucked out of their helicopter while fighting Barrett, and then Ainsley himself leaps out rather than confess where the viruses are hidden.
  • Femme Fatalons: Anne scratches up Veretti's cheek pretty badly at one point.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: The SDI and the Area 51-like Station 3.
  • Hellish Copter: Averted, but barely. Ainsley's pilot pulls a gun on Barrett, kicking off a fight that sees the pilot pulled into the backseat, leaving nobody flying the aircraft, which begins spinning wildly out of control as Barret fights both Ainsley and the pilot. After both villains are disposed of, Barrett is left alone in the chopper. However, as established earlier, he flew helicopters in The Korean War, so he handily climbs into the front seat and takes control of the chopper, narrowly avoiding a crash.
  • Indy Ploy: When Barrett uses the pretext of a stalled car engine to get the jump on Ainsley's Mooks, knocking one out and killing the other.
  • Kill It with Fire: How Barrett and the SDI agents destroy the botulinus at the gas station.
  • Mad Scientist: Subverted. Baxter never intended to invent the Satan Bug. It pretty much just happened. Played straight with Hoffman, who wants to steal Baxter's work and has him murdered to get it so he can create a utopia.
  • The Mole: Dr. Hoffman, who is really Charles Ainsley.
  • Rule of Pool: When Barrett visits Dr. Ostrer's house, he finds the unfortunate scientist floating face-down in his swimming pool. For some reason, this was used on a lot of the film's posters, including the one shown above.
  • Secret Test of Character: Barrett is approached by a man who wants him to smuggle an illegally obtained vaccine for him. It goes pretty much the same way it does in the book; Barret refuses and it is then revealed by Cavanaugh that it was a test of Barrett's loyalties.
  • Self-Disposing Villain: Ainsley, like his counterpart Scarlatti in the novel, leaps out of his helicopter rather than tell Barrett where the flask of botulinus is.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Done to Ainsley by Barrett, after the former can't actually say what he plans to do once he rules the world.
  • Tap on the Head: Played straight. People knocked out either recover with no consequences, or just stay knocked out. Whichever the plot requires.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Unlike in the novel, this is played straight as Ainsley's motivation.