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Books We Like, Dennis Drayton on Wolf’s Head by JK Mayo

I think I read only three of J.K. Mayo’s thrillers, admittedly there were not many more,  apparently he was a Scottish newspaper columnist or editor who wrote novels in his spare time.  Reviewers, and not just me, consider Wolf’s Head to be his his best book. So good at the time I first read it that I thought it was Gavin Lyall writing under a psuedonym. It has a few continuity errors, as in Harry Seddall’s when hot girl assistant Sorrel Blake (echo of Modesty Blaize– although similarly she doesn’t come across as an adornment or anything so old hat) goes from having blue eyes to brown,  something that I had not noticed before but I remembered as one or the other and was confused in the re-read. Colonel Sedall himself, is an out of condition old soldier perhaps in his fifties — something I didn’t realise reading it as a young un. But now re-reading as somebody also over 50 (gulp) I found his relationship with the (presumably twenty-something) French waitress a bit bizarre and probably mostly wish-fulfillment on the part of an over fifty out of condition author. Anyway, the plot is that long. long before this sort of thing became common, a British government minister is mysteriously murdered and beheaded by persons unknown, and trouble shooter Colonel Harry Sedall and his team get on the case, fake a car accident to cover up the murder and get on the trail of a baroque SAS/CIA/Government mission gone wrong where the sole survivor is avenging himself on all involved. Harry Sedall was so alike in function to Gavin Lyall’s Major Maxim that as I said, I thought it might be the same author. But perhaps the sort of genre was already emerging  even if it was new to me — it has the team, the veteran older officer with some younger assistants – which might have been a template by the early nineteen eighties, it was certainly used by Colin Forbes in his Tweed books (which I could never get into for some reason, they won’t be the ones in my books I like series) and later in Jack Higgins’s Fergusson/Dillon books (which I also tired of very fast). In more recent times the whole “spy/special forces type team investigate mystery/political dangerous shennanigans” has definitely become a sub-genre of its own so this book probably counts an early example. It is great fun if a bit gruesome (for the time) and the suspense keeps you going even if the pay-off is messy and inconclusive, but then it is a Cold War thriller. It’s hard to not give spoilers as not much happens really, there is action and sex, though mostly behind the scenes, and the main mystery is why anyone, let alone a special forces type, would want to kill a boring old government minister. But its worth reading for Sedall’s world-weariness and Sorrel’s perkiness — she’s not a modern type female kick-ass heroine, but she’s not a Bond girl either.

Writers we like #4: Christopher Nugent on Patrick O’Brian

You will note that the name of this series is “Writer we like” not necessarily love, or recommend. And not everyone is going to necessarily love Patrick O’Brian’s work. He is not an easy read, although some people describe his style as very modern, he uses quite a lot of pre-Jane Austen turns of phrase which are demanding and even boring for the causal reader. But you know, the long title could be “Writers we like that you might not but are interesting to check out”.


When C.S.  Forrester died, his publishers were looking around for a snappy young author to replace him, and this O’Brian guy had written a couple of similar books so they decided to try him. And it was a big fail as we say now. So the original publishers dropped the series but a different publisher kept it going and over time the readership grew.

“Lucky” Jack Aubrey is a happy-go-lucky Royal Navy officer in approximately the year 1805.  I don’t remember if we are ever told directly but he is perhaps thirty years of age at the start of the series, waiting for command of his own small warship, and through an unfortunate disagreement at a concert, he meets and challenges to a duel the borderline autistic Dr Stephen Maturin, a French-Irish medical doctor with a bad temper who we presume is about the same age.  Instead of fighting a duel as originally intended, the occasion of Jack’s appointment to command a vessel results in their polite patching up of differences and acknowledging their shared love of music. And so they become friends for life. This is all done in a witty and sometimes humorous manner which again may put some readers off. For instance, in one of the later books, Dr Maturin misses the start of a cricket match due to a spying mission and comes back in time for his turn to bat. He assumes that he is playing a variation of the Irish game of hurling, with comically disastrous results. As the series develops it covers a lot of ground, there is much naval jargon and talk of parts of ships that anybody not used to sailing boats will be baffled by, but also interesting facts on the development or science and medicine of those times. And much discussion of music. Also remarkable is the recreation of the claustrophobic and self-contained world of the sailing ship at sea. This artful but artificial recreation of a bygone time is somewhat similar to what Georgette Heyer did, in bringing Jane Austen into the twentieth century.

I have read nearly all of the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series , but to date I have only re-read “The Wine Red Sea” which I originally read first and it actually reads better in its approximately correct place in the sequence .

I am not un-critical of the series, I really enjoyed the first eight books or so but I think, and I speak as a reader firstly here, that the quality of the stories drops off slowly but increasingly from “Clarrssa Oakes” onwards. It may just be that the story-lines were not to my taste, but I felt the series crested around “The Surgeon’s Mate” where the original story question of “Will Maturin ever get a clue or  will he marry Diana Villiers?” is partly of answered and one of the continuing elements is tied up, and the end of the “Ionian Mission” felt like the end of something too.

If you want an amazingly level of detail, a great write up is Jo Walton’s re-read ( over at the excellent Tor books web site

Writers We Like #3: Dennis Drayton on Jack Higgins

Last time I mentioned how the publication of “East of Desolation” marked the ascent of not-so-new author Jack Higgins. I think if I may say so myself, that it was a total fan-boy rave. As I said “Yes I was proud to be a Jack Higgins fan-boy back in the day.  I eventually … tracked down many of his psuedonyms so that I could keep reading more and more Higgins…”

Truly for quite a few years I couldn’t get enough Jack Higgins. By the eighties, his publishers were coyly admitting that Harry Patterson was Jack Higgins and vice versa, but I went further and discovered that he was also James Graham. By that time his various other earlier pen-names had been tidied up, but the Grahams were still in the library in their original guise. I not only wanted to read Higgins, I wanted to become a writer in the same style.

However, as with many a torrid love affair, eventually I suffered from Jack Higgins poisoning. It was a slow enough process, but times and people and tastes changed, and me and Jack diverged. At which point I began to notice more strongly The Dark Side of Jack Higgins (pun intended, he has several books with titles beginning “The Dark Side of …”)

I particularly devoured and still think uncritically of the “middle period” Jack Higgins of “The Eagle Has Landed” up to (but not including) “The Eagle has Flown” period.

There is the “early” or pre-Higgins, some of which I didn’t care for at all (“Testament of Caspar Schulz”,  I’m looking at paint-by-the-numbers you)

And the  “late-early” Higgins which I would rate it just below the “mid” and above the “late” period books. The James Graham books are pretty strong.

Then we have the  Dillon-Fegusson series and this is where the divergence occurs. I think from looking at Amazon reviews that there is a dividing line and that Jack Higgins is an acquired taste, partly  because he has been so prolific that being a fan of some of his books doesn’t mean being a fan of all – for instance a lot of people seem to be fans of Dillon-Fergusson series and not of the earlier books and in my case I would be the opposite. I enjoyed Thunder Point particularly for it being The Testament of Caspar Schulz done right, but for the most part I find them facile, the few that I read before giving up on them —I never really understood or believed in Dillon’s transformation from renegade Irish Terrorist to committed British Secret Agent.

But even with the books I loved, I began to notice his penchant for sticking in some black and white movie cliches and even whole  plots seem to be lifted from noir-period movies, which haven’t dated as much as the movies themselves it’s true, but it gets irritating after the first ten go-rounds,

Also he has  re-used and recycled characters, character names and whole plots with a bewildering frequency that you can pretty much guarantee there will be somebody called Kelso, or Steiner, a small dark man (swiped from the author of The Quiet Man, which is another post), bar fights ended by somebody shooting the ceiling. Nazi paratroopers, Irish terrorists etc etc

And in the later books, especially since Dillon became a plot machine, that the distinct voices of the characters has been lost and everybody speaks exactly the same way, like in a Joss Wheedon movie. They have got witter too, like the characters in a Joss Wheedon movie.

So, having read maybe fifty of them, I have ‘nt read a new one for maybe fifteen years, but I do dip back into the old ones to recapture the magic from time to time and see if it’s still there. And usually it is.



Books we like: Dennis Drayton on “East of Desolation” by Jack Higgins

East of Desloation

In 1968 Hodder and Stoughton published a book called East of Desolation by a “first time” author by the name of Jack Higgins.

The first line begins: “I brought the plane in low over the sea and brought her up to three thousand feet…” and only a few lines later, “When I turned he was there as he always was… the head disembodied … eyes fixed, staring into eternity as he lolled back in the co-pilot’s seat.”

And if you are a certain kind of reader, you are thinking “WTH” and are lost, not just for that book but doomed to a 1980s equivalent of watching a whole series over the weekend.

Yes I was proud to be a Jack Higgins fan-boy back in the day.  And this is the book that maybe started it – even as a youngster I didn’t expect that after “The Eagle Has Landed”  there would be any books by the same author that would grip me in my seat. But wow the obsession. I eventually, pre-internet even tracked down many of his psuedonyms so that I could keep reading more and more Higgins. But that’s another post…

I re-read East Of Desolation recently and it stood up very well. Of course in reality although it was Jack Higgins’ first book under his ‘own’ name, he was really Harry Patterson who had already written and published about 30 books under his own and various othere psuedonyms before he wrote East of Desolation, but this might have been the book that made his publishers think yes, this chap is finally going to pay back for our investment in him.

The narrator of East of Desolation is Joe Martin, a jobbing charter pilot in 1960s Greenland who has this very odd recurring nightmare mentioned above and who turns out to be somebody with a dark past. He is bitter and twisted and is an averted alcoholic with unresolved anger issues, as we would say now (violent drunk as we would have said back in the day.)

For a short novel there is a bewildering cast of characters. There is a Hemingway-esque aging American actor who is also not quite what he seems, an Israeli woman who is English, a dashing womaniser, a widowed lady who Martin is convinced is a liar and not a widow,  a dodgy German insurance man and his tough guy toff muscle, a Danish policeman and a crew of dangerous trawler-men. The characters are well drawn, and unlike in more modern books, not particularly likeable. They all have a distinct voice of their own and don’t all speak exactly the same way as happens in later Higgins books.

It is a short book and everything is done economically, descriptions are brief but get the job done. You get a sense of Greenland, and even the rather strange anachronism of the Portuguese sailing trawlers is authentic — they still sailed until the 1970s – although it feels like a tip of the hat to Captains Courageous, but that might be my noticing Jack Higgins’s penchant for sticking in black and white movie cliches in his books. As with other pre-1970’s books, some of the attitudes are very dated and no longer generally acceptable, so your mileage may vary, but I have to say overall I enjoyed the book as much the second time around as the first and appreciated it better for the skills I now recognise.



Writers We Like #2: Dennis Drayton on Edgar Rice Burroughs

Yes, the Tarzan guy. He hardly seems worth mentioning because Tarzan is, or at least was, so famous for so long. But you never know, I only read one of the books in high school and never followed up.

Recently I discovered that many of his works are available for free on Project Gutenberg.

I have caught up on many years of neglect by reading four of the John Carter/Barsoom books and four of the Tarzan books. For anyone who really doesnt know, Barsoom is Mars with people living on it and John Carter is a Confederate officer who ends up teleporting to Mars by some unspecified technology of wish-fulfilment – Mr Burroughs was more of a fantasy than a science fiction writer. There was a movie based on these recently which failed probably because so many of the ideas had been recycled by Star Wars and other fantasy and science fiction franchises in the intervening 100 plus years. Be warned, familiarity may breed contempt or confusion.

I think the books stand up very well for their age. The dialogue and social attitudes are a bit eye-rolling a hundred years on, and many of the situations are so absurd as to be comical. Even in Tarzan, things happen by co-incidence, not once but up to three times in a row – ships are taken over by drunken sailors who murder or maroon their passengers. In the exact same place that it happened to Tarzan’s parents. Where Tarzan’s parents were marooned. And where he swims back to in a later book having been thrown off a passing ship. But the books really rattle along and the action scenes may pull you right in and make you forget the overall ridiculousness. In the second era of Fake News (then being the first) it is easy to see how serious people would have been dismayed, but if you take it as all good fun (sadly naked princesses of Mars still seems to have a grip on the imagination of the spec-fic community) then it could be well worth your time. The Barsoom books have entertaining hand-wavy technology that now seems steam-punk, and Tarzan may sometimes strike you as a fore-runner of more modern toff action heroes.

Publishers We Like #2: Dennis Drayton on Project Gutenberg

This is sort of a cheat. Project Gutenberg might be more like a book seller than a publisher,  but with the difference that they give the books away for free. The big twist is that all the books are out of copyright. This means that it varies from country to country because copyright law is still the sensible renew after 25 years (eg Australia)  in some countries and the ridiculous “the publishers get to keep the money forever especially if the author has no heirs” 50 to 75 years after author’s death in other countries. You would think as a writer I would be pleased at the long copyright spans, but no it seems to be a corporate greed measure as opposed to anything to do with the helping writers (many of whom, like starving musicians, sign away all their rights, but that’s a discussion for another day)

Anyway, the range of books available at Project Gutenberg is staggering, ranging from the first Georgette Heyer book (recently out of copyright everywhere) some of the vigorously (and dubiously) defended works of James Joyce (who went back into copyright retrospectively in what seems like a ground breaking legal precedent without precedent) all the way back to the works of the ancient Greeks.

If you are not technically minded,  getting the books onto you Kindle, Kobo or whatever reader might be a bit of a challenge, but you can have a look at the HTML versions to start with and get a knowledgeable person to help if you like what you see.

Well worth a browse if you like older books, some of which have aged very well. For discussion of some, see my next post!

Writers We Like #1: Dennis Drayton on Colin Forbes

Writers we like – an occasional series about authors and books that made a big impression on our own authors. First up, Dennis Drayton on The Stone Leopard:

Colin Forbes was a very prolific author and was at the height of his powers all through the 1970’s. I never cared for his later Tweed books, but from when I discovered “Tramp in Armour” through to “Avalanche Express” I ate them up.

The Stone Leopard  blew me away  when I read it as a teenager, in retrospect a few parts felt interchangeable with seventies Wilbur Smith or Jack Higgins books (all three may have shared editors and publishers) — but over-all it was a fascinating near-future, parallel history sort of book with lots of Cold War paranoia, what felt like an authentic French setting, with lots of chases and shoot-outs and a compelling central mystery (who is the traitor at the highest level of the French government?) which kept the story rattling along at breakneck speed.  It is probably very dated now, but for its time and up to the mid-1990s it stood up very well.


Publishers we like: #1. Tor Books

An occasional series – our writers are of the opinion that most people don’t really notice the publishers of books and indeed not even the authors’ names until somebody has been doing a big series for a long time, but some should stick in the mind:
1. Tor Books
are amazing, they publish many of the biggest names in sci-fi and fantasy, and their website is a joy and a place to get lost in, so beware 🙂

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