In the spy-crazed 1960s, an obscure author named Henry Patterson wrote a series of six novels under the pseudonym “Martin Fallon” about a spy named Paul Chavasse. These books would probably be all but forgotten today had Patterson not gone on to become the world-famous, mega-selling author “Jack Higgins”, thanks to his smash hit 1975 novel The Eagle Has Landed. Fortunately, the Chavasse series was republished under the Higgins name and are easy to find, so we can all enjoy these entertaining espionage adventures from a simpler time.
Paul Chavasse is basically a brainier, less rakish version of James Bond; he has several university degrees, speaks numerous languages, excels in spycraft, firearms and hand-to-hand combat. He works for a small, secret department of British intelligence called the Bureau (just like Quiller), has a boss called Mallory and a secretary named Jean, who send him around the world on difficult and sensitive jobs that require his special talents.
In the sixth entry in the series, A Fine Night for Dying, Chavasse is called in to investigate a human trafficking operation after a London underworld boss is found dead in the English Channel, wrapped in an anchor chain. This might sound like a modest assignment for a super-spy, but Chavasse soon uncovers an international connection, as the ringleader turns out to be a Communist and his associate a Colonel in the Red Chinese army. Most of the action takes place at sea, as Chavasse, with the assistance of the Jamaican brother of the slain underworld boss out for revenge, track down the leaders of the murderous ring of infiltrators.
The novel’s main villain is a compelling character named Rossiter–a blonde ex-Jesuit priest who, after being imprisoned in North Korea during the war, switched faiths from Catholicism to Communism and became a ruthless killer. Korean brainwashing was a popular theme in that era, explored in the classic novel The Manchurian Candidate and in Higgins’ early novel Comes the Dark Stranger. Rossiter’s conversion is symbolized by his preferred weapon: a razor-sharp dagger with a handle carved in the likeness of the Madonna (see cover above).
Like every Higgins novel I’ve read, this one is lean, linear and moves along at a breakneck pace. You don’t get much filler in a Higgins story–no excessive description, graphic sex, technical specs or unnecessary sub-plots of the sort that would plague the genre by the 1980s, when writers like Van Lustbader and Clancy were best-sellers. You do get well-drawn characters, narrative tension, plot twists and plenty of action; Higgins is a master at keeping the pages turning and telling an exciting story without turning it into a comic book.
Some people might consider these early Higgins’ novels a bit dated or politically incorrect, but for me that’s part of their appeal. Here, technology and politics take a back seat to old-fashioned grit, courage and heroism. Men are men, for good or ill–driven by traditional masculine values like honor, bravery, greed, lust, violence, brotherhood and patriotism. Women are more traditionally feminine, but they’re no shrinking violets–being often as virtuous, heroic, brave and passionate as the men. Higgins isn’t trying to push a political agenda, but to tell a fast-paced, entertaining story, and he does that as well as anybody in the business. For a great overview of Higgins’s early novels, see this post over at the Gravetapping blog: Jack Higgins: The Golden Age Novels.
A Fine Night for Dying is a typical novel from Higgins’s “Golden Age”, which means it’s a fun, quick read that fans of adventure and espionage fiction should enjoy. Get a copy here.