I’m a Jack Higgins fan. I’ve got 49 of his books on the shelves, and one more on my Kindle. He writes page-turning adventures which I usually tear through pretty quickly. I haven’t read all of the books of his which I own, but I’ve read most. And the ones set in WW II, more than once.
After reading James Lee Burke’s Swan Peak, which was my first Dave Robicheaux book in over a decade (and still a fantastic series), I decided to revisit Higgins. It had been more than ten years since reading him, too. I wanted one of his pot-boilers: Quick, action-packed reads. And the earlier ones were slim volumes. I decided on one I had not read yet and picked The Khufra Run.
Jack Nelson runs a charter seaplane in the Mediterranean. A beautiful, young, naked woman runs out in front of his car in the hills. This type of thing is not uncommon in a Higgins novel. Aided by an off-the-rails former fellow POW, Nelson ends up helping the woman – who has a secret or two, of course – recover a lost treasure. Which is more or less in a plane wreck in a swampy marsh. And a really bad guy also wants it. Higgins wrote a lot of these types of books, and they’re fun reads.
I thought about revisiting another old favorite, Robert Ludlum. But I stuck with Higgins and resumed the Sean Dillon series. I had stopped at Dark Justice. I like Dillon, but at about book ten, it felt like the books were all becoming pretty much the same. And I wasn’t that interested in his war with the Rashid Family (which continued on even after Dillon ‘took care of them,’ as it were). Add in the constant overlap with the ‘American connection,’ and there wasn’t much appeal.
The book wasn’t doing much for me early on. But I think that series is at its best when Higgins works the Irish angle in. The latter half, which included some of Higgins’ former IRA associates, improved the book. I didn’t mind it. But I didn’t feel the need to continue on to the next one. So, which of his to read?
You ask me for my favorite Higgins, and I’m gonna answer The Eagle Has Landed before you can blink.
A lot of folks are familiar with the hit film from 1976. I have it on VHS, and it’s fantastic. Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Jenny Agutter, Anthony Quayle, Larry Hagman, and Treat Williams are all part of a great cast. Several components of the book were dropped, but the movie still works. I always enjoy it. Several top-flight performances are delivered. Highly recommended.
However, I had one more Higgins ‘thing going on. I’m working from home, so I am driving a LOT less than normal. And I used to listen to a lot of audiobooks during my work commute. When I do drive, I’ve been listening to an unabridged reading of this book. I’ve found that reading my paperback copy, while driving, doesn’t work very well. And you should hear the whining from my passengers!
The Eagle Has Landed is my favorite thriller. And I really do like Robert Ludlum, and Clive Cussler as well. But this is just a superb tale. The book uses ‘a frame,’ with a modern-day Higgins uncovering a hidden grave marker in the Studley-Constable cemetery. Then, we are told the story from the past which he has uncovered.
SPOILER ALERT – Look: if I’m “ruining” an international best-seller, published forty-five years ago (and was a successful movie to boot); that’s on you, not me. I’d be okay if you stopped reading this and went and read the book right now, then came back. At which point, you would think, “Thank you, Bob. Spot on with the recommendation, as always.”
The premise of the book is that the Germans want to recreate their successful rescue of Mussolini by German paratroopers. This time, they’re going to kidnap Winston Churchill while he’s making a secret weekend getaway to the country.
Now, Higgins often uses the ‘Noble German,’ and ‘Good Nazi’ motif. If you have a problem with that, you’re going to be crabby as you read this book. Don’t even bother. Kurt Steiner is the good German who doesn’t have much use for Nazis. He’s a decorated leader of a veteran paratrooper unit. And they’re banished to a suicidal labor camp because Steiner helped a Jewish girl escape being sent to a concentration camp.
Heinrich Himmler secretly assigns Carl Radl, an Abwher (German Intelligence) officer, to use Steiner and an Irish rogue named Liam Devlin, to get Churchill. In the film, Himmler is played wonderfully by Donald Pleasence, an under-appreciated actor. His understated menace is chilling.
Steiner’s father, an old-guard German who doesn’t have any use for the Nazis, is imprisoned by Himmler to put pressure on Steiner. That subplot adds to the character development in the book. It’s left out of the film. Likewise, Harvey Preston is a captured British soldier. He helped organize the British Free Corps – captured British men who fight for Germany. He is held in contempt by everyone, and meets a fitting end. His story is also dropped from the movie.
There are other characters of interest, including US military personnel stationed nearby, and an E-Boat crew that helps with the mission. Higgins’ WW II thrillers have large casts of characters, and they’re well-drawn. I think these kinds of books are his best.
I’m not going to tell you how it wraps up, though there’s an O. Henry twist at the end. You really should read this if you haven’t. I think that Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle is the only other war thriller on a par with this one. And after your read it, watch the abridged movie. You’re not going to be disappointed with either.
In 1991, Higgins surprised folks (certainly me) with a sequel, The Eagle Has Flown. I’m actually re-reading that right now, as I am just about finished with the audiobook (again). This second book is good enough for a read or two, but it’s nowhere near the classic that the first one was. That’s a tough standard, of course.
Lam Devlin is in both books, and a couple others as well. He’s my favorite Higgins character, and I would have like to see more stories about him, from his pre-Eagle days.
Higgins turned 91 this past summer, and his last book (a Sean Dillon tale) was in 2016. He’s probably done writing. But the man has an almost unequaled resume of thrillers and suspense novels. I believe that he pretty created the historical fiction World War II genre, and those books are great reads.
If you’ve never read, or seen, The Eagle Has Landed, you really should check it out. It has more than held up over the years.
There have been several movies based on his books. Including one starring a young Mickey Rourke, playing Martin Fallon in A Prayer for the Dying. The Windsor Protocol featured Kyle MacLachlan as Sean Dillon. Robert Wagner and Terri Garr starred in a TV movie of To Catch a King. My favorite author, John D. MacDonald, has been ignored by Hollywood for far too long. Likewise, it’s been over twenty years since a Higgins book was filmed. That’s just dumb.
I think four Higgins books in a row is enough for now. I’d like to read another Robicheaux book, and I’ve been thinking about Randy Wayne White and F. Paul Wilson: I’m well behind on both of those favorites as well. But I’m glad I got some Higgins off of the shelf. The man knows how to write.
UPDATE – So, having finished my re-read of The Eagle Has Flown, I’ve upgraded my opinion of it. I enjoyed it more than I had in prior readings. I think I felt it started too slowly. There’s barely any action for over two-thirds of the book. This is a caper/heist story, and it’s mostly about the planning, and the side-machinations of Heinrich Himmler, the thorough-going slime bag from the first book. The action really doesn’t start until Devlin has a run-in with some London gangsters. Underworld bosses who go betray Devlin, and Sean Dillon, never fare well.
But the pacing didn’t bother me as much as it used to. This is half Devlin’s book, noble SS-man Walter Schellenberger’s book. Steiner is the subject of the caper, but in a non-impactful part this time. Until the final act, which adds another action element, after the main part of the story is finished.
Liam Devlin is my favorite Higgins character. And having just listened to The Eagle Has Landed, and read The Eagle Has Flown, I’m going to read Touch the Devil now, which appeared in between those two books. But chronologically it’s after them, three and-a-half decades after WW II ended. I’m glad I re-read Flown. He’s a likeable rogue.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes. That’s also the name of his podcast.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.