One of the key moments in the Nazi’s rise to power was an evening dubbed “The Night of Long Knives”. Numerous key opposition leaders attacked and killed, the resulting vacancy was a political hole Hitler and his minions swept in and filled, eventually resulting in their complete takeover of German government. In 1960 Fritz Leiber, an American writer of German heritage who often interrogated aspects of WWII in his writing, decided to take a look at the logic underpinning such aggression and penned a novella of the same name.
A dark, edgy story, Leiber deconstructs the madness of such aggression in turns overt and subtle. Ray is a Deathlander wandering the nuclear wastelands of the American west when we are introduced to him. Armed to the teeth and wary of every step, any movement in the corner of his eye is enough to set his heart pounding in fear someone is out to kill for his food and weapons. A woman, likewise armed and wary, appears on his path, and after a silent, ritualistic disarming to prove one to the other their intentions are non-violent, proceed to socialize the only way they know how. A strange, hovering airplane landing beside them the next morning, out steps a beautiful specimen of humanity. The man, though appearing more civilized, is likewise armed and distrustful of the couple. But conversation does not get far as Ray’s instincts take over.
“The Night of the Long Knives” is the character study of a killer paranoid everyone is out to kill him. A nuclear wasteland the perfect setting in which to heighten his estrangement from civilized life, in every human action he sees threat, his life reduced to a quest for sex and violence in the dust-blown, radioactive desert. Murderous intent preceding every one of his actions, even his knife is named “Mother.” (The alternate title of the novella is in fact “The Wolf Pair”.) The arrival of the hover plane changing things for Ray, the subsequent trip he is taken on with the woman and an old man called Pops effects great change in him. Though certainly the most contrived aspect of the novella, the trip and the events he becomes involved in temper his outlook, forcing him to confront big questions at the conclusion.
A surreal opening transitioning into a humanized story, Leiber effectively plays with the reader’s emotions in “The Night of the Long Knives.” Uncertain how to feel toward Ray’s jaded views at the outset, one empathizes with the situation to which his choices have brought him by the conclusion. The situation transcending the handful of characters on stage, Leiber draws in mankind, war, death, and murder.
In the end, “The Night of Long Knives” is a hard-edged, slightly satirical look at mankind’s propensity toward murder in the context of free choice. Set in a post-apocalyptic America, one man, and the woman who teams herself with him, are forced to confront the consequences of the mindset. The prose not the best of Leiber’s oeuvre, and occasional scenes more comic book than literary, it nevertheless has its moments, and overall conveys a strong point distinctly.