Monday, November 19, 2018

Escape from Devil's Island

Irish born Peter McCurtin moved to America in the early 1950s. After co-owning a bookstore, he launched his writing career with “Mafioso” in 1970. While his novels were typically westerns and mob-inspired action, he wrote the WW2 prison novel “Escape from Devil's Island” in 1971 for Belmont. It was republished with alternate artwork in 1974 to capture “Papillon” movie fans from the prior year. Ironically, that book cover not only mentions “...in the savage tradition of Papillon!” but features artwork of two men bearing the likeness of Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The novel and movie are both based on the real life Henri Charriere's time in the French Guyana penal system.

The novel introduces us to the notorious Devil's Island in the late 1930s French Guyana. Both Captain Boudreau and Colonel Gamillard run the prison, both sadistic foremen that seemingly enjoy their time lopping off heads at the guillotine. As one prisoner meets his demise, American inmate Gendron is introduced to the reader. He was a former Marine Lieutenant working at the Paris Embassy when he was approached by a wealthy businessman to become his personal bodyguard. Gendron ends up in the sack with the man's young wife, a fight ensues and Gendron shoots and kills the man. But, there's early hints that maybe Gendron was just covering for the vengeful lover and took the time. He's now the only American in the prison colony, and an easy target for Colonel Gamillard and the inmates.

Make no bones about it, “Escape from Devil's Island” is emphatically brutal. It's surely not written for sensitive readers, and this author utilizes homosexuals as villains – unfortunately. It's a product of the time, and like a lot of jailbreak books, it features gay rape in some extremely violent scenes. When choosing factions, there's a gay rapist union backed by sadomasochist officer Ducharme. The group, backed by Boudreu and a Belgian ex-boxer named Radisson, target Gendron. This culminates in one of the best fisticuffs I've read in a while (13 pages worth!), leading to a brutal “tiger cage” month for our protagonist. 

Inevitably, we know this is a jailbreak novel. As the pacing picks up, Gendron makes the decision to escape. Staying on the island is certain death, and there are rumors of the Nazis occupying the prison in the coming days. Alliances are made, plans are constructed and soon there's an exciting gun fight in the works. 

The bottom line - McCurtin delivers one of the better escape novels I've read. Adventure, survival, gun fights and brawls are the chief ingredients that make this sort of book rise above the norm. At an easy 150-pages and manageable font size, there's no reason not to work this one into your “need to read” list.