William Quest on Sale

My Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest is on sale on Kindle until Saturday next for just 99 pence/cents, so if you have a Kindle or a Kindle App on your phone or tablet do have a look.forgotten_00051

It’s also out in paperback.

And don’t forget, you can download a FREE Kindle App by going to the book page.

There are three William Quest adventures so far.  

 So just click on the link below to start reading for free or to order…

Jack Higgins’ “The Eagle Has Landed”

It’s now nearly fifty295961 years since Jack Higgins published his bestselling war thriller “The Eagle Has Landed” and a good ten years since I last read it. Time for a re-read and a very satisfying read it was.

Now if you’ve only ever seen the very inferior film version put it out of your mind and find the book. And when I say find the book I really do mean find the extended version published in more recent years, rather than an early edition or the film tie-in edition. You can usually tell the one you want by the fact that it has an author’s preface by Higgins.

The more recent editions give the text as Jack Higgins actually wrote it. Higgins had published a number of thrillers under various names before this breakthrough novel. When he presented the idea of “The Eagle is Landed” his publisher commented that it was the “worst idea he’d ever heard of.”

But Higgins persisted. The first edition was butchered during editing, with whole scenes and characters cut. This is why I suggest buying a later edition where Higgins has restored the book somewhere nearer to his original intentions.

Not for the first time, a publisher has been proved wrong. “The Eagle Has Landed” proved to be an immediate bestseller, first in America and then everywhere else. By the mid nineties, when my copy was published, Higgins could remark – no doubt with some glee – that his book had sold 26 million copies and been translated into 55 languages.

The plot is relatively simple. Following the rescue of Mussolini from Italy by Otto Skorzeny, Hitler demands to know why his secret service, the Abwehr, can’t bring him Churchill out of England? The head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, instructs his operative Max Radl to produce a feasibility study. As Radl progresses he finds that the task could actually be accomplished.

The plot soon takes wing: Radl finds that Churchill will be visiting a lonely village in Norfolk for a quiet weekend. Furthermore, the Abwehr has a spy in the village, a seemingly respectable mature lady called Joanna Grey. He sends in a skilled IRA gunman, Liam Devlin, to assist her ahead of the kidnap attempt. To carry out the mission he finds a disgraced paratrooper Colonel Kurt Steiner and his men to parachute into Norfolk and then…

I’ll leave it there, for this is so good a thriller that you need to read it for yourself.

Now if all of this sounds like common thriller material you couldn’t be more wrong. By the time he wrote “The Eagle Has Landed”, Higgins had learned a great deal about his craft. This is not just a thriller but a terrific novel full stop, written by a writer at the height of his powers. It always irritates me that, certainly on this side of the Pond, we have an awful snobbery about genre fiction. Thrillers and their like are somehow considered to be inferior to many other kinds of novel. And that’s a pity for some of the finest writing is in that genre.

“The Eagle Has Landed” becomes superior to the many similar war thrillers because of the tremendous characterisation. For a start it was written at a time when war thrillers abounded in Britain, where the Germans were portrayed – usually – almost as cartoon villains.

Higgins has said that he wanted to write about good men fighting for rotten causes. We see the horrors of the Nazi regime here, but we are also shown how people get caught up – for good or bad – by the march of history.

Max Radl, is a disillusioned war hero, slowly dying of wounds sustained on the Russian front. Kurt Steiner had been disgraced for rescuing a Jew from the Warsaw Ghetto. Joanna Grey, the Abwehr’s enemy agent in Norfolk, is being torn apart by her love for England and her hatred of the English, because of her experiences in the Boer War. Liam Devlin is a member of the IRA who’s become tired of some of the methods used to achieve a united Ireland.

Devlin is the star turn of the novel. (Higgins uses the character again at different ages in other books). He is by the English definition an Irish terrorist, though a very questioning terrorist. He is a poet who starts the book lecturing in English literature at the University of Berlin. He remains loyal to his cause throughout, but deeply suspicious of everyone else’s. This character is portrayed with such depth, integrity and understanding that any writer of literature would be glad to own him. Devlin stays in your mind a long time after you close the pages.

“The Eagle Has Landed” has one of the best openings of any thriller, with Higgins himself, as a character, visiting Norfolk in the 1970s; gradually uncovering the truth about what happened there in 1943. This beginning is a wonderful example of just how an opening chapter should be, each sentence drawing the reader further and further in. You’ll learn more from studying it than you would from a hundred text books or writing courses.

While the idea of Nazis arriving undercover in an English village is not new – it was first contemplated in an exciting film called “Went The Day Well” made during the war – Higgins was the first to portray the situation fairly from all sides. And to include an IRA gunman as a hero, well an anti-hero I suppose, in a thriller written at the height of the Troubles of the 1970s was a particularly brave move. Higgins moved the thriller genre on by providing a greater depth of understanding. Thriller writers have benefitted ever since.

The film version might pass an hour or two on a wet afternoon, but it shows none of the subtlety of Higgins’ writing. Whole sections of the book are lost and one major character is not there. Michael Caine’s Steiner looks as though he’s wandered in from some other film, Jean Marsh’s Joanna Grey is good but far too young. Larry Hagman’s American Rangers Colonel is a bit like JR Ewing doing his war service. Only Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin comes close to the literary original. (Incidentally, Caine was originally supposed to play Devlin, but apparently thought that portraying an IRA soldier might be a bad career move. The late Richard Harris had a go as well, before the director decided on Sutherland). The direction of the film is unimaginative and some of the dialogue is occasionally risible.

“The Eagle Has Landed” deserves a more intelligent remake, perhaps as a mini-series where some of the depth of Higgins’s original could be explored.

But if you enjoy thrillers – certainly if you’re thinking of writing one – do read or re-read “The Eagle Has Landed.” Jack Higgins is a master of the craft.

The massive new discovery near Stonehenge that shows Britain may be making a dreadful error — The Heritage Journal

The Guardian has published a diagram showing the stunning scale of a 4,500-year-old feature found in the Stonehenge Landscape: 20 massive pits in a circle 1.5 miles across and less than a mile from the line of the planned new road. If that has only just been found, so close, what are the chances something […]

via The massive new discovery near Stonehenge that shows Britain may be making a dreadful error — The Heritage Journal

Eddie Chance – On Sale on Kindle

Both Eddie Chance novels – The Seafront Corpse and The Holly House Mystery are on sale on Kindle until next Wednesday at just 99 pence/cents.

They are also available in paperback.

THE SEAFRONT CORPSE

Set in 1931, newly promoted Inspector Eddie Chance is back in his home town. Reunited with his old pal Sergeant Bishop in the sleepy Sussex town of Tennysham-on-Sea. The only cloud on their horizon is a young police-woman with ambitions to be a detective.

The seaside resort is getting ready for the first day trippers of the season. When the body of a stranger is found on the promenade, Inspector Chance is faced with a baffling murder…

A traditional 1930s murder mystery set in a vanished England of typewriters, telephone boxes and tweeds.

What Readers are saying about Inspector Eddie Chance…

“An excellent depiction of good old fashioned detective work.”

“An enjoyable trip down memory lane, authentically written.”

“Excellent period detective piece. Couldn’t put it down.”

“The mystery was good, the characters were GREAT!!”

The Holly House Mystery

Christmas week 1932. The body of a young house-maid lies near the ruins of an ancient priory.
How did she die… with only one set of footprints in the snow?
Inspector Chance investigates murder in a snow-bound, Sussex village. As New Year approaches, can he work out whodunit before the house-party ends?

The Holly House Mystery is a novella for fans of the Golden Age of country house murder.

“Rogue Male” by Geoffrey Household

Geoffrey Household’s “Rogue Male” has always been one of my favourite thrillers. I’ve read it countless times, not just for the exciting story but for Household’s wonderful descriptions of the countryside.51ZJoxF1ALL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

It jostles in position with John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, as the greatest chase thriller ever written. It has certainly influenced some of my own novels, particularly “Balmoral Kill” and “Dangerous Game”.

The novel was first published in 1939 on the eve of World War Two, and was immediately popular. Household wrote some memorable and very readable novels afterwards – many with a chase theme – but never quite again touched the greatness of “Rogue Male”, though all of his books are worth seeking out.

The tale of a man who flees to the lonely countryside of Dorset after an attempt to kill an unnamed dictator, in point of fact Adolf Hitler, is gripping and a real page-turner. Even after all my many reads I never want to tear myself away when I pick up the volume once more.

As a fugitive the hero crosses Germany to reach England. There are memorable chapters in a very threatening and sinister London, and a long section set in Dorset.

Household, like Buchan, is particularly brilliant at giving a sense of place. For a thriller there are some quite beautiful portraits of landscape: the long reaches of the Wessex hillsides with their ridge-paths and hollow ways, the forests and rivers of Bavaria, the rural towns where danger lurks.

And the people encountered are realistic too. A shrinking dissident trying to survive in the Nazi state, the farmers of the Westcountry, a merchant navy sailor, shopkeepers, working people on holiday. Every single one beautifully drawn.

And a memorable villain, which to me is a requirement of all good thrillers.

Household really gets over what it’s like to be the subject of a manhunt. The fear and often sheer desperation and tiredness that drives you on and on. The need to cross ground without being observed. The knowledge of when to lie low and when to move on. When to go to earth – which the hero of “Rogue Male” does, literally.

If you’ve ever had to cross country without being seen, you’ll know the veracity of Household’s treatment of the theme. Few writers have captured these feelings of escape and evasion quite so well as Household does. And in a writing style that is not only literate but quite beautiful in its descriptions.

There is a splendid edition of “Rogue Male” available with a perceptive introduction by the writer and landscape interpreter Robert MacFarlane. I commend it to you. MacFarlane describes an expedition he made with the late Roger Deakin into the depths of the Dorset countryside, in search of Household’s locations.

MacFarlane does an excellent job, whether writing about the tropes of the chase thriller or the countryside that provides the setting of “Rogue Male”. This novel benefits from having an introduction by a writer who loves the English countryside as much as Geoffrey Household clearly did.

I’ve tramped these same places myself and lived rough alongside the ancient paths and hollow ways of Dorset, often for weeks on end. I often used to take my own battered old edition of “Rogue Male” with me, and read it as the dusk fell and the owls began to call.
Fortunately, I never had the Gestapo on my trail.

“Rogue Male” is the hallmark against which all good thrillers should be tested.

Raffles – The Amateur Cracksman

A.J. Raffles, gentleman about town, celebrated amateur cricketer, notably at Lords, and – most importantly of all – amateur cracksman, burglar and thief without parallel.414xSQ42LML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

In these short stories by E.G. Hornung, first published in book form in 1899, Hornung gives us the idea of the gentleman-burglar. Not original in itself. There were a number of gentlemen-burglars in the popular literature of fin de siècle England. And in France the great Arsene Lupin was still to come. John Creasey was clearly inspired by these stories with his creation John Mannering, The Baron as late as the 1930s.

But Raffles is special. Not least because of the links between Hornung’s character and that of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was Willie Hornung’s brother-in-law, and it was a roundabout comment by Doyle that led to the birth of Raffles. Doyle had admired a public school rogue that Hornung had killed off in an earlier story, and remarked that such a character would feature well in popular fiction.

There are considerable likenesses between Sherlock Holmes and Raffles. Both are based in 1890s London, both are gents of the middle class, both have rooms in nice parts of town. Both have companions; Holmes has Dr Watson, Raffles has Bunny Manders. Indeed, some of the stories have a vague similarity, though whether this is conscious or not in debateable. “The Amateur Cracksman” as a volume is dedicated to Doyle.

And here I owe Hornung an apology. Since I last re-read the stories decades ago, I had pictured in my mind that some of Hornung’s major plot developments had been lifted from the Holmes stories. Particularly the way Raffles fakes his own death and re-appears in disguise to an astonished Manders. I was quite wrong. In fact Hornung came up with the idea first. And it was Doyle who lifted the plot device for his Holmes resurrection yarn “The Empty House”.

But I think there is no doubt that Bunny Manders, from whose point of view we are given most of the stories, is a deliberate aping of Watson. To Hornung’s credit they are both very different men. Bunny is taken on by Raffles initially so that the former can pay off a gambling debt. Bunny had been Raffles’ fag at a possibly inferior public school. Raffles likes him because of the innocent look Bunny always seems to have on his face – a useful counter to the suspicions of the Scotland Yard detective Inspector Mackenzie.

And here we have another departure from Doyle. In Sherlock Holmes, the various police detectives are usually not terribly clever and are outshone by Sherlock. Not so Mackenzie. He suspects Raffles is the gentleman-burglar plaguing London almost from his first appearance. He just can’t prove it, though he has some darned good tries.

Now I like Mackenzie in his own right. He is one of the great fictional detectives, worthy of a series of his own. In a way you kind of want him to succeed, even if it means bringing Raffles to heel.

Bunny’s one talent is his aura of innocence. He really has no others. He is quite incompetent as a thief, and his hero-worshipping of Raffles can be quite annoying. Some critics have tried to imply a kind of homo-erotic motivation to the feelings of adoration that Bunny has for Raffles. I think that’s going too far. Victorian men often had strong masculine friendships, without a hint of homosexuality. And Hornung counters any suggestion by having Raffles occasionally besotted with a female or two along the way – though nothing ever comes of it very much. You might imagine Raffles and Bunny nodding a greeting towards Oscar Wilde at their club, but that would be as far as it would ever go.

In later years Conan Doyle frowned a bit at the Hornung stories. The idea of making the hero a villain. The morality of the Raffles stories is worth reflecting upon. Here is A.J Raffles, famous cricketer and gentleman about town. He is often invited as a guest to the mansions of the rich, and then proceeds to burgle them while he is being entertained under their roof. And not just for the financial profit of stealing her ladyships’ jewels. More than that. For the thrill of it! Raffles hunts these family treasures in much the same way, and for the same motivation as his hosts might pursue foxes.

And why is Raffles invited to their homes at all?

Certainly not because of his social background. In the snobbery of the English class system – and Hornung is really very good at exposing its silliness – Raffles in himself is a nothing. He knows a lot of people who are members of what we might call the Class, but he is never one of them. They invite him as a guest purely because of his talent on the cricket field, his ability as an all-rounder. The fact that he gets mentioned in the newspapers.

Though Raffles has been to a minor public school, he is really not at all a member of the Class. He has no ancient lineage, and, though he might have a set of rooms at Albany, very little in the way of cash – except what he makes from fencing stolen goods. He has a moral code of sorts – he never robs anyone who can’t bear the loss. Hornung was, I think, very clever to root his hero in the middle-class, who in the 1890s were eclipsing the upper-class and the aristocracy. There is something in Raffles as a middle-class of the entrepreneur, even if it is by the way of crime. His is the class on the rise. His victims are effectively social dinosaurs.

Doyle’s concerns about Hornung making the hero a villain tend to be disregarded by the reader. The morality of Raffles’ situation tends to be ignored because of what George Orwell called the ‘sheer efficiency’ of the storytelling. The reader gets so wrapped up in the telling that scruples are banished from the mind.

In the later stories, featured in the volume “The Black Mask”, Raffles comes back to life, after his Holmesian fake death, as Mr Maturin, a supposed invalid living quietly in the London suburbs. Raffles of Albany has been exposed. His cricketing and gentleman’s club days are over and Raffles is in hiding. He meets up with Bunny and they resume their life of crime, this time in a more covert way.

There are no invitations to the homes of the ‘Grand’ this time round. But the stories are every bit as good. Hornung can do the suburbs of London every bit as effectively as the great houses of England. There is a kind of wistful, autumnal feel to some of these later tales. Wonderful portrayals of late Victorian England. Hornung is in many ways a considerable literary stylist. He could probably have built quite a reputation writing more mainstream novels.

Raffles has featured a great deal in the theatre, in films and on television. In the cinema he has been played notably by Ronald Colman and David Niven. There were some quite early stage productions. More recently Graham Greene penned a modestly successful play “The Return of AJ Raffles.”

On television in the 1970s Raffles was played very successfully by Anthony Valentine with Christopher Strauli as a very innocent-faced Bunny, and the late Victor Carin as a quite superb Inspector Mackenzie. We’ve just watched them again and found them thoroughly enjoyable this time round. More recently, there was a one-off television production with Nigel Havers as Raffles. This was interesting because they ditched the character of Bunny altogether and gave Raffles a companion who was East End working class with criminal abilities worthy of the master himself. If you enjoy classic television do seek them out.

Hornung was one of those authors who gave a word and an image to the English language. Today, when we hear the name Raffles, we hardly think of the imperialist Sir Stamford Raffles, but usually only of a gentleman-burglar in a top hat and crape mask, forcing open the casement of a country house and filching a diamond necklace from a safe hidden between the bookshelves of a sumptuous library.

Quite an achievement for any writer.

“The Hill of the Red Fox” by Allan Campbell McLean

Many years ago, when I was a child, long before I ever visited or walked on the Isle of Skye, I felt I knew it quite well through the exciting thrillers of the novelist Allan Campbell McLean.51+s2fQKs1L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_

This author has, and not without some justification, been compared to the great John Buchan. Both told yarns of innocents in peril, both tended to narrate their novels in the first person, and both wrote present-day and historical stories. As a great admirer of Buchan, I feel that Allan Campbell McLean books belong on a nearby shelf.

The only difference is that Allan Campbell McLean wrote for a younger audience. But the best children’s books can be enjoyed as much by an adult. This author’s work certainly can. In addition to several thrillers he wrote three very fine historical novels set during the Highland Clearances.

He also wrote an adult novel The Glasshouse, based on his own experiences in a military prison during World War Two. This latter was banned from publication in the United States. I read it many years ago. A classic work of literature. The resistance to the book probably sent the author towards writing the books for which he is best known.

“The Hill of the Red Fox” (1955) was the first of Allan Campbell McLean’s Skye thrillers. It’s a novel set against the background of the Cold War in the 1950s, and is one of the best in this crowded genre.

Alasdair, who has led a sheltered life in London, beset with romantic dreams of his Scottish heritage, is sent to stay on the Isle of Skye, in a farming croft that belonged to his late father. The croft is now being run by the dour Murdo Beaton, with the help of his mother and young daughter Mairi. Alasdair doesn’t get a very warm welcome on his arrival.

And even before he gets there he has had a mysterious encounter on the train to the Highlands – rather like Richard Hannay’s railway journey in Buchan’s “The Thirty-nine Steps”. Alasdair is passed a message by a desperate spy who jumps the train, a villain in hot pursuit.

On Skye, Alasdair meets a number of friends of his late father, including Duncan Mor, a crofter and sometime poacher who takes Alasdair under his wing. Allan Campbell McLean’s depictions of Skye and crofting life, the ways of the shepherd, the peat-cutting, the weather in the mountains, are both beautifully lyrical and realistic. When I first visited Skye in 1997, I could recognise so much from my memories of this author.

I’m not going to give any of the plot away, for this is a thriller well worth seeking out – and having read all of Allan Campbell McLean’s novels I can say now that there isn’t a duff one among them – but I will look at some general themes.

Apart from the very accurate depiction of Skye, “The Hill of the Red Fox” portrays very beautifully the friendship between Duncan Mor and Alasdair. Having lost his own father and been brought up by a mother and aunt, Alasdair finds a father-figure in the crofter. He’s taught the real ways of Scotland – far from the romantic Jacobite tosh of his reading matter. As the weeks on Skye pass by, Alasdair grows up.

And he has to, for he soon finds himself in a situation of incredible danger, his life threatened more than once. Allan Campbell McLean is particularly good at portraying hurried journeys, night-time assignations, the true nature of how to follow someone and the grip of fear in the stomach when you realise you are being followed yourself.

Alasdair finds himself in a situation where it becomes hard to know just who to trust as he tries to interpret the one clue he has – a slip of paper passed to him by the spy on the train which reads “Hunt at the Hill of the Red Fox”. The hill itself – Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh Ruaidh in the Gaelic – is easy to find, but its mystery, well…

The whole chase leads to a dramatic conclusion, with the kind of accurately portrayed action that any mainstream thriller writer would have been proud to have penned. Cold War espionage is very well done here, the mistrust and fear of a time that is now – unbelievably – sixty years ago.

Allan Campbell McLean’s books were to be seen regularly on bookshelves when I was young. “The Hill of the Red Fox” is still in print, both as a paperback and eBook. Sadly, some of his other classic writings seem to be out of print, though second-hand copies are readily available from the usual online sources.

But this is an author who writes with such great ability that he deserves to have all of his books available in good modern editions. I do hope that one of the publishing houses might do that, perhaps one of the enterprising Scottish publishers.

Allan Campbell McLean’s books should be there to be found by a new generation of young – and not so young – readers.

You might like to look at my own line in thrillers too. Just click on the link to get to my titles…