The backdrop is the Cold War and the weapons race that was underway in the 1950s as countries rushed to secure ever more powerful devices, spying on each other and also on neutral countries for scientific breakthroughs. Here Professor Calculus is undertaking experiments with ultrasonics, a method that was also investigated during the Second World War. His device proves of interest to the Bordurian government who set out to capture both Calculus and the device in order to use the latter as a weapon to destroy whole cities in seconds. Tintin and Captain Haddock set out to rescue him.
This tale came relatively early in the development of the spy genre but it contains many of the elements that would become familiar including a chase across multiple countries, agents discretely following the heroes, car chases, fancy gadgets, hidden compartments, tense social encounters with foes, desperate escapes and more. For a story that comes from 1954 this is a remarkable pioneer. Notably though it sidesteps the actual Cold War in favour of conflict between individual fictional countries. This is a surprising move as Hergé had previously shown willingness to attack the Soviet Union without hiding behind the shield of a fictional analogy. But here he instead finally shows us Borduria.
Hergé had, of course, experienced the German occupation of Belgium during the Second World War and there's a clear German influence on the portrayal of the Bordurian regime even though it seems to be draw more directly from the Soviet Union, right down to the unseen dictator Kûrvi-Tasch having statues that resemble Stalin in both look and pose. But significantly the underlying ideology of the totalitarian regime is not in any way explored and Tintin does not get involved with any revolutionary movement. Instead this is a permanent oppressive regime with troops and secret police maintaining order with Tintin, Snowy and Haddock only seeking to rescue their friend and escape the country. Thus the regime remains a straightforward totalitarian experience that fuses Nazi and Communist dictatorships more by accident than out of a deliberate Orwellian state that seeks to highlight the similarities of such regimes. It's entirely in keeping with the spy genre that usually seeks to obtain small but valuable gains from rival powers rather than regime change, but in the wider context it's quite depressing. However, there's no doubt left that this state of affairs is undesirable, a point that Hergé was sensitive on given the criticism and attacks on his wartime career. Indeed, the scene where it's revealed that Calculus will be forces into making a statement of voluntary co-operation has an element of pleading for understanding about how those who find themselves under a totalitarian regime have no real choice in the matter.
Borduria, especially the harsh Chief of Police Colonel Sponsz, may be the main foe in this story but it's not the only country interested in Calculus's work. This leads to one of the more awkward parts of the story as agents from Syldavia are also trying to secure Calculus, and there's nothing to suggest that they are in fact a protective mission. Previous adventures have depicted Syldavia as a benign regime, if at times heavily secretive, so to find it now taking a hostile approach to Calculus and Tintin is odd, made even more so when one considers their previous contributions to the country. It may help reinforce that countries are often acting for themselves but it feels like a significant continuity breach without any clear explanation. It's not the only awkward part of the story as it's also unclear as to why Calculus has been experimenting with ultrasonics to build a device that can clearly only really be used as a weapon. It certainly hasn't been for this purpose as upon realising the application he immediately sets out to destroy the plans. But then again, many a scientist, both in fiction and in reality, has pursued knowledge for its sake without thought to the practical consequences or the potential application. The early experiments provide a surreal element to the start of the story as many glass and ceramic items around Marlinspike Hall start suddenly shattering with no explanation readily apparent. Calculus's absent-mindedness also plays a role at the end when it's revealed he left the plans for his device behind at Marlinspike all along, though this does not detract from the threat to him.
There's plenty of comedy in this tale, including the introduction of another character who will recurring throughout the remainder of the series. Jolyon Wagg is an archetype familiar the world over, the over-bearing smug type who is completely oblivious to his failings and who quickly imposes himself on others. An agent for the Rock Bottom Insurance company, he takes on the role normally performed by the Thom(p)sons by blundering around and impeding Tintin's attempts to get on with things. Thompson and Thomson themselves are used sparingly here, first turning up to investigate the situation at Marlinspike, Hall, showing a complete failure at secrecy, and later arriving in Switzerland only to be arrested as suspects and soon after their release they have an accident which rapidly confines them to hospital. The other recurring gag introduced here involves the heavy confusion with the telephone numbers in Marlinspike, causing no end of confusing between the Hall, the police and Cutts the Butcher. A more unique gag involves a plaster that Haddock tries to throw away and it keeps coming back over the course of several pages.
The adventure continues the strong attention to detail, with the scenes set in Switzerland sidestepping all the clichés about the country and limiting the stereotypes to the national dress that the Thom(p)sons turn up in. The result is a country full of excitement and danger without feeling tired and hackneyed. Instead it's a strong environment as Tintin and Haddock try to catch up with Calculus and then pursue his kidnappers through a highly realistic landscape. The chase scenes both here and in Borduria make good use of multiple vehicles, whether cars, boats, helicopters and even a tank to keep the action fresh and exciting.
Overall this is very much an action focused tale, concentration of the pursuit of and escape with Calculus rather than exploring either exotic locations or the underlying ideology of the regime. It manages to combine this high adrenaline approach with some good comedic moments which show strong imagination is still at the forefront of the series. There may be the odd plot hole or continuity weakness but the story manages to move at such a pace that these aren't noticeable and thus make for another strong adventure.