Tracing the history of an aged paperback can sometimes prove to be problematic. Fawcett Gold Medal, creator of the paperback original novels we know today, published hundreds of titles in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Of those literary classics, a sizable number were written under pseudonyms or clever variations on the authors' real names. With 1960's adventure novel, “Pieces of the Game”, there's no clear indication of who author Lee Gifford really is. A pseudonym? A writing duo? Unfortunately, as of the publishing of this review, I can't provide any answers on the author's identity. However, what I will advise is that you stop what you are doing and locate a copy.
This novel kicks total ass.
The book begins in the then present day of 1960. World War 2 veteran and main character Jim Sheridan is working for the Great Western Importing Company specializing in lacquer and lumber. It comes as a great surprise when Sheridan is requested by his employer to originate a pearl importing business in Manilla. As a former lieutenant in and around the Battle of Bataan 13-years ago, Sheridan is unnerved by the request to re-visit old wounds but accepts the new proposal.
Nearing Caballo Bay, Sheridan meets the gorgeous Ellen, an aspiring singer who has accepted evening gigs at the Casa Grande Hotel. As an old stomping ground for Sheridan and his unit, Sheridan escorts Ellen to the hotel and meets his old ally and friend, Jacques Costeau, the hotel's owner. It's this memorable scene that offers a reflective moment from Sheridan. With just a small recollection, the reader receives a glimpse into Sheridan's past tragedies, the dismal fate of his unit and his lost lover Tulana. The book's synopsis and cover art conveys to the reader that this is a WW2 adventure novel, so these small looks at Sheridan's past serves as a teaser or pre-cursor to the action that we know will unfold. I call it literary foreplay from this skillful author.
The night of Sheridan's reunion with Costeau he finds an unexpected visitor in his room. The secretive intruder has a message disguised as a riddle inviting Sheridan to a seaside yacht to discuss pearls. Arriving at the yacht, Sheridan comes face to face with his former captor, retired Japanese Colonel Yamata. The two have a heated conversation that's a bit of a mystery to the reader at this early stage. As if on cue, Sheridan is knocked unconscious and the next 100-pages is a flashback to his life during the war.
As a young man, Sheridan was educated at Oxford and speaks a dozen languages. While on holiday in the Philippines, he falls in love with a night club singer named Tulana, but ends up joining the Allied forces and fighting with the Royal Air Force in the sweltering jungles of Bataan. As the Japanese forces surround the island, the US and Filipino forces dump all of Manilla's silver pesos into Caballo Bay along with guns, ammo and vehicle parts before surrendering. A watery, 100-foot grave for $8-million in assets (note this really happened according to US Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1958).
The Japanese transfer their enemy personnel to various prison camps in Asia, some as laborers, others just as starving prisoners awaiting death within dirty huts. Sheridan is saved from this fate due to speaking multiple languages – the Japanese insist on utilizing his skills as a translator. Knowing that Manilla's riches were thrown into the bay, Sheridan is given to Colonel Yamata to work with six US Navy divers in securing the silver. With bad equipment, grueling work loads and the threats of torture and death for failure, Sheridan's fate rests on his team's ability to locate and recover the treasure.
Lee Gifford's strength lies in his ability to tell an epic story. “Pieces of the Game” was like this grand cinematic experience. The opening events that eventually spills into a high-adventure military tale felt as if they were backed by a rich symphonic score. But the book's middle narrative is built on the slower, more emotive prison formula. The torture, confinement and survival elements are all equally important in providing a strong catalyst for the prison-break.
“Pieces of the Game” is like a deep-water, Clive Cussler treasure hunt crossed with the “The Great Escape” with enough intrigue and action to rival both. If it wasn't for Paperback Warrior's bustling publishing schedule I would have finished this and immediately turned to page one to relive the enjoyment all over again. This is one of the best books I've read in a very long time...and that's saying something.
Note: After the publishing of this review, a blog reader and paperback enthusiast reached out to Paperback Warrior with an interesting theory on Lee Gifford. In his experience, he feels that there is a 90% chance that Gifford was actually Lou Cameron. He cites the style, punctuation and male hubris of the storytelling as a match to Cameron's first-person adventure and thrillers from this era.
Buy a copy of this book HERE