“Black Legion” is the first Red Radford novel from 1960. The novel opens at a French Foreign Legion outpost in the Sahara desert. A half-dead Arab stumbles into the Legionaries with a story too outrageous to be true. He claims that a cadre of French soldiers came to his village, gunned down two men, and forced the rest into slavery. Later, the French began hearing more rumors of fighter jets overhead and heavy artillery weapons hidden among the rocks and chasms of the desert. Who are these rogue soldiers and what are their ties to the French Foreign Legion, if any?
British Special Agent Hugh “Red” Radford, assigned to Interpol in Paris, is given the assignment to travel to Africa, embed with the Foreign Legion, and investigate these reports of a rogue detachment of Legionnaires menacing villagers in the desert. Out of an abundance of caution, Radford adopts a cover as a British-born officer of the Legion on a map-making survey. The character of Radford reminded me of a combination of Edward Aaron’s Sam Durrell and Hollywood’s Indiana Jones with a pulp hero’s earnestness.
Once in the field, it becomes abundantly clear that the mysterious fighters holed up in the massive Sahara ravine plateau have advanced war-making firepower and murderous intent. Radford and a couple sidekicks - an American and a Frenchman - set out in a helicopter to find the truth. The adversaries he encounters are diabolical and compelling as all hell with a plot that can only be stopped by the bravery and ingenuity of a spy like Radford.
“Black Legion” is a fantastic combo of a spy adventure with a compelling mystery. The international fighting force of the French Foreign Legion provides an interesting culture within which our hero operates. The novel wastes no time before plunging Radford and the reader into the bloody action and intelligent intrigue. There are suicide missions, bloodthirsty, locust-eating Arabs, and graphic knife fights. Radford is a a great hero, and the author knows his way around exciting action sequences, literary combat and vivid chase scenes filled with daring adventure for pages upon pages. There are several scenes in the novel that beg to be filmed in a big screen adaptation, and I’m surprised no one has made that happen.
Ignore the vintage packaging that recalls children’s books of the same era. There’s no way this novel was written for kids - unless your teen has a particular interest in the bad-blood arising from the French occupation of Algeria. That said, you don’t really need to know anything about the region, the history, or the politics to enjoy the hell out of “Black Legion.” Western spies battling desert lunatics is a timeless storyline that transcends any particular conflict or era. I was overjoyed to read this pulp thrill-ride and can’t wait to read the other two books in the series.