The Sugar Cube Trap by Madelaine Duke
Originally published in 1969 by Brockhampton Press (UK), and later reissued by White Lion (1974), The Sugar Cube Trap by Madelaine Duke is a short novel set in Brighton, East Sussex. After one of their friends becomes ‘hooked’ on acid and is taken to hospital, it follows the story of a group of children who go in search of the person who dealt her the drug. Part children’s story, and part anti-drugs propaganda, the book is a reflection of middle-class anxieties around hallucinogens.
The author of The Sugar Cube Trap* (SCT), Madelaine Duke (1925-1996), was a prolific author and a physician. She was born in Switzerland to Dutch parents, and was largely based in the UK throughout her life. While she wrote science fiction and fantasy books for the most part, SCT is a rather odd mix of Enid Blyton-style children’s adventure, with LSD thrown into the mix—not, unfortunately, in a psychedelic free-for-all kind of way, but as the narrative device for those pesky kids investigating a crime.
Set largely in Brighton, with scenes in the Royal Pavilion, the novel follows a group of teenagers who live on Gardner Street (a real place, just north of The Lanes for those who know the area.) The book opens just after one of the older teenagers, Jenny, has been hospitalised. Two twins, Cyn and Bob (or Cynbob as their parents call them) wonder what the cause was, and are eventually told it was LSD by their father, a doctor. He helpfully writes them out a list of drug types which is reproduced in the book. Either the author (a physician) or the 1960s medical profession, can’t have been too well informed, however. For instance STP, DMT, and THC are lumped into one category together.
Jenny was hospitalized after taking an LSD-drenched sugar cube (a popular method for consuming liquid acid by all accounts of the period) and the effects described in the book are terrifying; a complete de-socialisation and dissociation, which leaves the user a gibbering, confused wreck, and weirdly addicted to sugar cubes. Later, another girl called Pauline has taken the drug and is found on a bridge: “I can fly?’ shouted the girl in a high, excited voice. ‘See!’ she imitated a bird, ‘I can fly!’ One dirty bare foot came slipping over the edge and a woman screamed.’ (63) A classic flying motif (take off from the ground, to paraphrase Hicks.) While she is rescued on that occasion, it is later revealed she died, ‘because she had taken LSD, because her brain had been confused, because she’d imagined that the lorry coming towards her was a harmless little toy’ (86). A persistent hallucination indeed – actually, quite a novel experience.
The propaganda element is obviously particularly strong, and written from the point of view of children, one wonders whether they were the target audience, or whether the general public were just being treated as children? Perhaps both. Either way, the teenagers of Gardner Street decide to create a secret organisation, with the code phrase ‘Sugar Cube’, and begin to investigate where the LSD is coming from. While the kids, as a whole, cut a very liberal, middle-class and multi-ethnic group, there simmers the anxieties of this late 1960s section of the population. This is most obviously framed through the character of Dan Lee.
According to Lee, “LSD is manufactured; it’s quite easy to make. The raw materials are smuggled into Hong Kong just as easily [as opium] – across the borders from Laos and Thailand.” And on being asked if the LSD on the south coast was coming from there he replies: “Hong Kong is one likely place. I’m against dope wherever it comes from,’ he said. ‘But I’m especially interested in stopping dope from Hong Kong… I was born in England, Though my people came from China, I feel I belong here as much as you do. There are a lot of English-born Chinese … people who can’t even speak or read Chinese. But the majority of Chinese came to this country within the last few years; many of them don’t belong here.” (52-53). He accuses these new arrivals of working for dope organizations and he wants to keep them out at all costs.
As the story unfolds, however, it turns out that while the LSD might well come from the Far East, it was merely part of a larger drug smuggling syndicate run by a wealthy, well known family called the O’Briens who own a boat that is moored on the harbour. In this manner, foreigners, the wealthy, and the lower class dope-dealers are all placed in the position of criminals. Thank God for the middle-class! By the conclusion of the book, Cynbob’s inquisitiveness eventually lands them in a kidnap situation, where of course the whole dastardly plan is revealed (and eventually is foiled by someone who had been on the suspect list, but turns out to be on their side.)
One kidnapper tells Cynbob: “It [LSD] can come from a lot of places; it’s stolen from hospitals – like it was in Brighton some weeks ago. It’s stolen from pharmaceutical factories and chemists. The police have even gotten on to an illegal laboratory in London where LSD was being made… But the LSD trade doesn’t worry us. Our main business is heroin” (108-109). LSD is mixed-up with the wider narcotics trade (well done government!) and the drug’s perceived ability to brain-wash people is what makes it so attractive to the criminals. This 1950s science-thread had become part of the general 1960s discourse on the dangers of the drug, and an explanation for how good middle-class children can go so wrong.
In terms of any hint to reality, it’s worth noting, that while the hospital raid in Brighton appears to be of the novel’s fiction, the first LSD chemist bust had occurred shortly before the book’s publication in 1967/68 when Victor James Kapur was busted in London. Placing these real life instances, which the book’s audience might well have come across in the national papers, within the context of the wider narcotics trade and the misinformed efficacy of LSD described in the book, is of course an expert piece of propaganda. The post-truth world is hardly a new genre. Wrapping an essence of truth in a wider fiction has been a vital part of mass media for a long time.
I wonder what the author would make of Brighton today?
*This review has been written from the 1974 edition.