Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Eagle Has Landed

Henry “Harry” Patterson (1929-2022) became a household name using the pseudonym of Jack Higgins. The British author was prolific from 1959 through 1974, producing 34 novels including a six-book series of spy-fiction starring secret agent Paul Chavasse. Patterson used pseudonyms like Jack Higgins, Martin Fallon, Hugh Marlowe, James Graham as well as variations of his own name. But, the author didn't achieve global success until 1975 when he produced the WW2 thriller The Eagle Has Landed, written under the Jack Higgins name. The book has sold over 50 million copies and was made into a film of the same name in 1976.

Surprisingly, the novel begins in the present day with Jack Higgins himself discovering a hidden grave inside a British cemetery. This concealed grave states that Lieutenant-Colonel Kurt Steiner and 13 German paratroopers were killed in action on November 13, 1943. How these Germans were killed in England is the bulk of the novel's narrative. The author takes the reader back in time to relive the events that led up to the concealment of this mysterious grave. 

Without digging too far into the details, the book is about a secret German mission to capture, or kill, English Prime-Minister Winston Churchhill. The concept begins with a sort of lackadaisical whim pitched by Adolph Hitler. But, Obertst Radl (translation is basically Colonel Radl) begins to experiment with the idea, eventually bringing the whole plan to fruition. To accomplish the feat, the Germans rely on a disgraced Colonel named Kurt Steiner (a real badass!) and a captured IRA terrorist named Liam Devlin (an even badder badass!). 

Higgins takes some time to flesh out the backstories of both Steiner and Devlin, both of which will appear in more Higgins novels in the future. In fact, Liam Devlin is probably the high-water mark for Higgins repeat characters, appearing in this book, it's sequel The Eagle Has Flown, two other novels and cameos in the Sean Dillon series. The backstories are developed well and place most of the book's action on the shoulders of these two characters. But, it isn't fair to really say anyone is a main character considering the story is so crowded with emphasized personnel.  

At 390 paperback pages, The Eagle Has Landed is one of Higgins' most ambitious novels. It's quite complex in the structure of the mission and all of the moving parts in Germany and England. With 12 characters, the narrative consistently changes location and scenery as the reader is thrust into high-level military strategy and politics within this robust cast of characters. If you want just straight-up action, I'd stick with Higgins' prior 34 novels. This book is a real beast.

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Died on a Rainy Sunday

Joan Aiken (1924-2994) was the daughter of poet Conrad Aiken and the sister of author Jane Aiken Hodge. After working for the United Nations Information Centre in London, Aiken joined the magazine Argosy and began learning the trade of professional writing. She authored shorts for the likes of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Vogue. As a novelist, Aiken wrote over 100 novels in genres such as mystery, supernatural fiction, and children's literature. She won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for her novel Night Fall in 1972. 

I've managed to collect a few of Aiken's books, but never ventured beyond the covers until now. I decided to sample her bibliography by reading the 1961 mystery-suspense title Died on a Rainy Sunday. The book was originally published by Dell and later reprinted in 1982 by Chivers Press' Black Dagger Crime Series as a hardcover. 

British married couple Jane and Tom Roland have just moved into a brand new house in the quiet English countryside. The two have two children and have maxed out their budget and finances. Things are looking dour. But, Jane, a veteran of the script-writing business, receives a call from an old colleague. They want to hire her to produce a documentary script on British porcelain (sounds dreadful) in London. The problem is that it's a 9-5 job which requires Jane to commute round-trip by train. With Tom working as an architect, who will watch the couple's two little children? Enter the mysterious Myfanwy McGregor. 

Mrs. McGregor and her little daughter Susan accept a babysitting gig to watch the couple's two children during the day. However, Mrs. McGregor makes it very clear that she will leave the two children alone in the house if Jane is one second late. Along with this bizarre motherly behavior, Mrs. McGregor also has a weird diet, provokes Jane and Tom's daughter into a trance-like paranoia, and seems to hide an ulterior motive. What the heck is happening in this British Hell House?

At just under 130 pages, Joan Aiken's mystery-suspense novel is a tight page-turner that orchestrates an eerie vibe while maintaining a traditional romantic intrigue. Jane's affection for a neighbor takes center stage along with the slow erosion of her marriage to Tom. The mystery is unveiled with 30 pages to go, making the long chase scene a really effective climax. While Aiken isn't as good as Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, this novel reminded me of her writing, specifically a 1955 short called “The Strange Children”, which is also a creepy babysitting tale. If you like that sort of thing, then this is an easy recommendation.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Chip Harrison #03 - Make Out with Murder

The Chip Harrison series by Lawrence Block is a very interesting anomaly in his career. The first two books are first-person adolescent sex romps ostensibly authored by a horny teenage boy named Chip Harrison. The novels are delightful coming-of-age narratives written in the colloquial style of J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye.

Thereafter, Block resurrected the character for two more novels and a short story that fall squarely into the mystery genre. 1974’s Make Out With Murder is the the third Chip Harrison paperback, but the first Chip Harrison mystery.

The story is an overt Nero Wolfe pastiche or parody. In his quest to find “A Job with a Future,” Chip accepts an apprenticeship with a quirky armchair private investigator named Leo Haig. Chip does the legwork on the streets, and Leo connects the dots to solve the cases with his allegedly-superior mind.

The underlying mystery in this installment involves a hippie chick who dies of a heroin overdose. Chip is convinced it was a murder and sets out to solve the case with Leo directing traffic from his home.

It’s a pretty basic mystery of the “interview lots of people and get your ass kicked occasionally” variety. But analyzing this as a mystery novel misses the point: This is a Chip Harrison novel, and he’s one of the most lovable lead characters in genre fiction. He’s earnest and funny and smart and wants to get laid like a normal, young guy. He’s the kind of narrator you want to spend time with regardless of the plot.

There are lots of references to the works of other mystery authors including Rex Stout, Ross Macdonald, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Fredric Brown. Fans of the whodunnit genre will have a good time here. It’s not Block’s masterpiece, but it’s definitely a breezy, fun read. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Ki-Gor - And the Secret Legions of Simba

The Winter 1939-1940 issue of Jungle Stories featured the fourth Ki-Gor story, “Ki-Gor and the Secret Legions of Simba”. If you aren't familiar with the character, you can read reviews of the first three Ki-Gor stories HERE. The idea is that Ki-Gor grew up in the jungles of Africa after his father, a Scottish missionary, was murdered by natives. Ki-Gor, in his mid-20s, comes to the rescue of a downed female pilot named Helene and the two become lovers. In the third Ki-Gor story, “Ki-Gor and the Giant Gorilla-Men”, the story ends with both the series hero, Helene, and their friend George, being rescued in Africa by a British expeditionary ship. 

On the north shore of Long Island, New York, Helene's parents are anxiously awaiting the return of their daughter. Globally, news reports have run rampant of Helene's discovery in Africa and her rescue by the British. Like a fish-out-of-water story, Helene brings Ki-Gor to the civilized world to introduce him to modern efficiencies. But, as one can imagine, it is all strange and very uncomfortable for Ki-Gor. He opts to be flown back to his home in Africa while Helene agrees it is best if she remains in modern society. 

When this story was written, the entire planet was thrust into World War II, and this story has that “current affair” element. Ki-Gor agrees to return to Africa to spy on a dictator named Julio (the villain from the second Ki-Gor story “Ki-Gor and the Stolen Empire”) and then report it back to British intelligence. The idea is that Julio is assisting the Axis Powers in festering a relatively large military campaign built to destroy the garrisons of French and British forces in the Cameroons. 

While “Ki-Gor and the Giant Gorilla-Men” is my favorite of the four stories I've read so far, the “and the Secret Legions of Simba” is the least enjoyable. There is a tiny bit of aviation-action added to the mix, which removed me too far from the jungle adventure the stories are built on. Additionally, the author attempts to inject too much into the story, making it a fast-paced convoluted idea that never really works. While I enjoyed the story, there are far better Ki-Gor offerings to come I'm sure. This story serves as a bridge between stories in the timeline and helps reunite both Ki-Gor and Helene at the end. 

You can read this story along with five other stories, all in chronological order from 1938-1940, in the Altus Press omnibus Ki-Gor: The Complete Series Volume One. Buy a copy HERE.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Come Easy - Go Easy

For a guy with over 90 novels to his name, British author of American thrillers James Hadley Chase (real name: Rene Raymond, 1906-1985) had a remarkably-good batting average. As such, his 1960 femme-fatale heist noir novel, Come Easy - Go Easy, seemed like a good choice for an effortless and quality read.

Our narrator is Chet, a locksmith specializing in safes. One night he’s dispatched to a service call at the home of a rich jackass who lost his key. Chet pops the lock and sees a half-million bucks in cash just sitting in the safe. That’s the kind of thing that gets a guy thinking…

Chet mentions it to his co-worker Roy, and the guys start scheming. Anyone who reads a lot of heist novels will see that their plan is harebrained and riddled with pitfalls. And, of course, the whole thing goes sideways in the most delightful way possible. I won’t spoil it for you here, but these guys find themselves in a fabulous mess.

The book becomes a man-on-the-run novel and then the author channels Gil Brewer or Harry Whittington for the heart of the novel as Chet hides from the law in a small town among a benevolent boss with sexy young wife driving Chet to more bad decisions.

It’s a heist novel - two, in fact. It’s a prison break novel. It’s a femme fatale novel. It’s a man on the run novel. It’s everything that’s good about noir paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. It also the best novel by Chase - by far - that I’ve ever read. If you like the best work of Gil Brewer and Harry Whittington , this is up there with it. Don’t skip this one. I’m dead serious.

Come Easy - Go Easy has been reprinted a bazillion times over the past 60+ years, but you should buy the Stark House version which also includes his novel In A Vain Shadow and an intro by Rick Ollerman. Buy that version HERE.