Marvin Albert (1924-1996) was a prolific author of men's action adventure, western, mystery and crime-fiction novels. The Philadelphia native wrote a number of detective, mafia and western novels under the pseudonym Al Conroy. He also wrote a six-book series of private-eye novels starring Jake Barrow under the name Nick Quarry. In the 1970s, Albert capitalized on the high-adventure genre of British thrillers made famous by the likes of Alistair MacLean. Using the very British sounding pseudonym of Ian MacAlister, Albert authored four stand-alone high adventure novels – Strike Force 7, Valley of the Assassins, Driscoll's Diamonds and the subject of this review, Skylark Mission. The paperback was published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1973.
The 175-page novel is divided into four parts – The Trap, The Mission, The Trek and The Assault. The opening chapters introduces readers to a man named Sam Flood, a merchant sailor aboard the S.S. Fleming (an ode to the James Bond author?) during World War 2. The freighter is attempting to sail through the Vitiaz Straits, a guarded canal thick with Japanese torpedo boats. The destination is northern Australia, a temporary safe haven from enemy-occupied New Guinea and New Britain. After the ship is struck and sunk, Flood and two-dozen passengers are forced to navigate back by sailboat to a Japanese torpedo base in the New Britain jungle. The opening act climaxes when Flood escapes the base and makes a daring run through the jungle to find an Australian widow named Nora. Together, the two contact allied forces from a Coast-Watcher's tower.
The bulk of the narrative follows protagonist Captain Mike Shaw and his partner Corporal Neal Miller as they embark on a do-or-die mission to destroy the Japanese base. By doing so, they can liberate the prison camp and provide a safe zone for the fleeing fleets to safely journey to Australia. The author's depiction of the fighting-man Shaw is enhanced by the character's need to avenge his wife and children's deaths at the hands of Japanese forces. As an older character, his skills and abilities are balanced well with the much younger, more able Miller. To help offset some of the doom and gloom, Albert places a comedic character into the narrative, a drunken former WW1 flying ace named Qualey. Once the mission unfolds, the story flirts with the romantic pairing of Shaw and Nora – two widows horribly affected by war with a saving grace found within each other.
Skylark Mission is popcorn fiction done right. Albert is a terrific writer, and his ability to skirt the surface of this action-packed narrative is a testament to his storytelling. While being laced with WW2 atrocities, the book doesn't weigh down readers with a lot of emotional baggage. The emphasis is high-adventure, fisticuffs and blazing gunfire to please men's adventure readers and fans. In emulating the British style, Albert's delivery recalls a Jack Higgins novel, complete with a propulsive narrative and just enough variance in characters to keep readers invested in their destiny and fate. In other words, it simply doesn't get much better than Skylark Mission.
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