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.