Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Game for Heroes by James Graham (Jack Higgins)

A Game for Heroes by James Graham
Doubleday HB ed., Copyright 1970

Nowadays, when I pick up a Harry Patterson novel, I feel like I'm going home again. Be it under the name of Patterson, Jack Higgins, Hugh Marlowe, or James Graham, the author continually delivers exciting plots with risk venturing characters. In my youth I've read so many of his early thrillers that reading one now I get a bittersweet longing for those days. The excellent "A Game for Heroes" is one of those and it's aptly titled because heroes and heroics fill the novel. But the tale really revolves around one and his name is Owen Morgan. And how can you not love this British Ops Specialist, with his scarred face, wearing a patch to cover his lost eye, the deadly tricks he does with his spring-loaded knife, and the numerous dangerous missions found in his dossier.

"So, now I was ready, the same man who had landed by night, had crouched here on this ledge a century ago. The same and yet not the same. I sniffed the cold air with a conscious pleasure and the same thought went through my mind as it had done before. A good morning-a fine morning to die in. If that was to be the end, then let it be so."

The story takes place during the last days of WWII. After recuperating from his last crippling mission, Colonel Morgan's next assignment is on his home island of St. Pierre in the English Channel. The Germans have occupied the island for five years and are determined to fight until the end regardless of the outcome of the war. Morgan's mission is check out the rumor of a secret sub base on the island that has been causing havoc to the Allies' shipping lanes. Also added to the mission is a commando raiding party lead by an upper-class American Major. This elite group will be planting bombs under ships in the harbor. Things go wrong and capture follows. And then the story turns into a chess play between just about everyone on the isle of St. Pierre, and with Owen Morgan smack in the middle of it all.

After five long years, the locals have a fairly casual relationship with the occupiers. In fact, Morgan old girl has fallen hard for a charismatic German officer who wears the Knight's Cross around his neck. Townsfolk are treated well (almost friendly) by the Germans, but the S.S. has a tight grip on the island. After the failure of Morgan's secret mission, there is the threat of death for all in the commando party. But like the title states, this is a hero story and there are plenty opportunities for Morgan and others. We find heroics during a monstrous sea storm, Locals and German soldiers taking sides against the S.S., pain and understanding within a love triangle, and in the end Morgan bravely facing off against the ruthless S.S. Kommandant.

I ate this one all up, but I do that with most of Higgins' early novels. I'm not a great fan of his recent Sean Dillon bestsellers. Don't get me wrong they are good, but for me nothing beats the early stuff. "A Game for Heroes" has a likable and self operating protagonist in Owen Morgan. A loner, a writer, a passionate man, who can switch into a hired bravo and cut-throat when the situation warrants. The novel is loaded with mesmerizing action sequences. The attempted sea rescue chapters may contain some of Higgins' best work and the novel is worth reading just for those pages. It's all tied into a crafty WWII plot that makes the reader feel like he is with Owen Morgan during his dangerous undertaking. I guess everyone who continues to read the works of Jack Higgins has their favorites, "A Game for Heroes" is definitely near the top of my list. I was thoroughly entertained.

Long live Harry Patterson. The man is a master of high adventure storytelling.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Homicidal Lady by Day Keene

Homicidal Lady by Day Keene
Graphic 87, Copyright 1954

I own and have read quite a few Day Keene novels. I've always loved his work and even now seek out magazines that published one of his short stories. He is one of those authors that will not disappoint the reader and if you're looking of a quick well-written crime/mystery -Keene surely satisfies. Though not one of his best, "Homicidal Lady" still packs quite a punch and contains all that makes Keene's writing so integrating to the reader-A wronged protagonist, conflicting dames, a steamy post-war Florida atmosphere, and a curve or two to keep you flipping the pages.

Talbot looked from the girl on the bed to the pistol in his hand. The lump in his stomach continued to balloon. The stillness in the room bothered him. It was an eerie sensation, this waiting in a dimly lighted room to shoot a man who had been his friend for twenty years.
She wet her lips with her tongue, "Are you frightened, Tod?"

"Not Particularly, " Talbot said. "What's there to killing a man? All you have to do is pull the trigger."

Tod Talbot is the D.A for Sun City and he just sent an innocent man to his death. Shamed and ridiculed, he does the honorable thing and resigns. But of course more problems are in store for Mr. Talbot. And when he is caught with his pants down next to the murdered wife of the man who he prosecuted into the electric chair, this quickly turns into a "man on the run" novel. As always, a girl happens on the scene to help our man in times of trouble and this time it is a local "cracker" girl who has had a crush on Talbot for years. Talbot seems to have some inner conflict with being a "cracker" boy himself, who married above his class. You see, his wife happens to be the town's well-bred rich girl and was the defense attorney for the man that was executed. They are about to be divorced because of the recent trial and this doesn't help Talbot's cause as he is running from the cops. Thanks to the quick thinking by the "cracker" girl, Talbot escapes numerous roadblocks and this helps him buy time to find out what this is all about. He's no dummy, he figures he was setup and now to save his skin he needs the why and by whom.

I'll admit to you that I had this one figured out early. Having read many of Day Keene's novels, you sort of get the flow of his storyline and you can see the pieces falling in line as you read on. But that never mattered to me. The plot holds your interest and it is different enough from the author's other "man on the run" stories, making "Homicidal Lady" an enjoyable ride. I loved this "cracker" demon that Talbot battles within himself and how this plays between him and his divorcing wife. Fairly exciting pace around the hunt for Talbot by the local authorities. Its these fast action pounding chases that attract me to these early novels and Keene was damn good at writing them. (he wrote many) The local girl that helps Talbot grows on the reader and you really get to like her at the end. (in the beginning you have mix feelings about her) I've always liked these Florida small city settings and I'm thankful that so many of these post-war authors settled down there in the 50s to put them on paper for us.

Like I said, "Homicidal Lady" may not be Day Keene's best novel, but that doesn't mean it is not a good one. I liked it and have yet to find anything he has written what was not worth picking up.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Freedom Trap by Desmond Bagley

The Freedom Trap by Desmond Bagley
Fawcett M1789,
Copyright 1971

I have a handful of novels written by Desmond Bagley. Had them for years and never read one. Sometimes I see a captivating cover on a paperback and I end up laying my money on the counter when I'm checking out. And to be honest that's how I assembled a small collection of books from this British author of dangerous thrillers. I was digging through one of my boxes of paperbacks and "The Freedom Trap" caught my eye. (a no miss -with a frogman, exploding boat, and a red bikini) This convinced me to give Mr. Bagley a go and I'm glad I did. It was an unexpected high adventure ride that immediately turned me into a Desmond Bagley fan.

A small army of men rushed us and we were both grabbed and held. There wasn't a damn thing I could do- two of the three men who tackled me were trying to tear my arms off so they could use them as clubs to beat me over the head, and the other was using my stomach as a bass drum and his fists weren't padded as drumsticks are. I sagged and gasped for breath.

Joseph Aloysius Rearden (he rather would forget the Aloysius dub) is summoned from South Africa to perform a job. He's a better-than-average crook that has been in the "nick" before. In London he meets an esoteric man called Mackintosh and his efficient secretary Mrs. Smith. Together they lay out the plan to Rearden. They want him to knock over a postman who is delivering a package of uncut diamonds and immediately pass them over to Mackintosh before the crime becomes known. Rearden will be paid a tidy sum for what he believes will be a quick score. He accepts and it goes off smoothly. The postman takes a sap to the skull, Rearden snatches the package, and then he transfers it to Mackintosh. Well, in a matter of hours the local cops are at Rearden's hotel room and have enough evidence to drag him in. Sticking to his story that he is innocent, Rearden quickly realizes that its a lost cause. He's been setup and all fingers point to one person-Mackintosh. Rearden gets 20 years and becomes a "special" inmate because of the notoriety of the crime. And it is in the "gaol"while serving his time, that this novel takes a major 180 degree turn.

I don't want to reveal to much about this one. I will tell you that it contains a damn clever plot. The twist takes place at almost the half way point in the novel. To be honest, I was expecting something. I knew a little about Desmond Bagley and the type of novels that he wrote. But I expected it earlier in the story and he had me so absorbed in the crime aspect of the plot that he caught me off guard. I really liked that. Wonderful dialogue throughout the novel and I even got to pickup a few British slang terms that I never heard before. Rearden turns out to be an integrity character, as does Mackintosh and Mrs. Smith. Many people turn out to be more than what we are let on to believe, and that includes the minor characters in the story. Bagley seems to have a nack for this and he does it extremely well. A decent amount of action, especially near the end. But it's not overly done. Bagley places it where it is most effective. The strength of "The Freedom Trap" is in its excellent plot and its well-developed characters. If you enjoy the novels of Alistair MacLean and the early works of Jack Higgins, "The Freedom Trap" may be worth getting a hold of.

I discovered that John Huston's 1973 film "The Mackintoch Man" was based on this novel. It stars Paul Newman as Rearden and one of my favorite British actors, Harry Andrews as Mackintosh. It's one of the few Newman films that I have never seen. I'll have to get a hold of the DVD. From the characterization in the novel, I don't see Newman as Rearden. I'll have to see how that works out.