Before Jack Higgins (real name Henry Patterson) became a household name with 1975's runaway bestseller The Eagle Has Landed, the British author authored a number of action-adventure novels under pseudonyms including James Graham and Hugh Marlow. Utilizing the name Martin Fallon, Higgins wrote a six-book series of novels starring British spy Paul Chavasse. After enjoying the debut, The Testament of Caspar Schultz (1962), and the series' fourth title, Midnight Never Comes (1966), I was able to acquire the series' third book, The Keys of Hell, originally published in hardcover in 1965.
The book begins with Chavasse entering the British Embassy to request some time off. While there, he meets an attractive woman named Francesca Minetti who confesses to him that she was his radio operative on his last mission. Surprised, the two strike up a friendship and Chavasse is granted his two-week holiday...after he completes the assassination of a double-agent working in Albania.
During the opening chapters, Chavasse quickly completes his assignment but runs into Francesca in Albania. In sobbing fashion she advises Chavasse that her family has been persecuted by Albania's brutal communist regime. After the government began forcibly removing the public churches, her brother attempted to preserve a religious statue called The Black Madonna in the city of Scutari. Before communist forces could seize and destroy it, Francesca and her brother attempted to move the statue to a rural, coastal location ten miles away. During the transport, her brother was fatally shot and Francesca escaped. The beloved statue, which brought hope to thousands of persecuted villagers, sank into the deep marshes.
Like an espionage treasure hunt, Higgins' narrative is brimming with nautical chases, gunboat fights and the obligatory prison break. Chavasse and Francesca have a romantic connection, but the author ignites the spark when the heroic spy comes to the aid of a 20-year old female farmer. Once the statue was located, the narrative propelled into brisk action with a few twists and turns in Chavasse's circle of friends. Regretfully I had a sense that by skipping the series' second installment, The Year of the Tiger, I missed a key plot development in this novel. It didn't hamper my enjoyment, but perhaps the ending would have had a bigger impact.
I've never read a bad Jack Higgins novel and The Keys of Hell is no different. While the Paul Chavasse series is tragically underrated, spy and espionage readers should find plenty to like about it. Buy your copy of the book HERE.