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.
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.
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.
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 – 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.
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 http://www.tor.com/
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 🙂
The Adversary by Dennis Drayton published on Kobo May 10, 2015
Every Six Feet by Christopher Nugent published on Amazon Kindle
on August 12, 2014