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.


mybillcrider said...

I agree with pretty much all you've said. I picked this one up in a Dell pb edition back when Fawcett was publishing the Jack Higgins books. I'd read about two pages before I knew that Higgins and Graham had to be the same person.

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