Tuesday, July 17, 2012

THE KEYS OF HELL by Jack Higgins

This is the fourth part of an essay about the six novels Jack Higgins wrote featuring Paul Chavasse titled "Paul Chavasse: An Introduction to the Cold War Spy Story".  The novels were written throughout the 1960s, and owe much to both the James Bond and Matt Helm novels.  The novels were published as by Martin Fallon, and before you read this post, you should read the first two segments of the essay here and here and here to put this post in context.

The Keys of Hell
was published in the U. K. by Abelard-Schumann in 1965, while it made its U. S. debut as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback (1-3673-6) in the 1970s.  It appeared in the United States after The Eagle Has Landed made Patterson a bestseller, with an attractive cover painting by Gordon Johnson.  It was reissued, in similar fashion to Year of the Tiger, by Berkley as a paperback in 2001.  The Berkley edition included two additional chapters; one at the opening and one at the end.  This time Chavasse is in 1995 Manhattan, and is presented with a case study of his exploits in 1965 Albania.  The inclusion of the introductory chapter is more successful in Keys, and it includes a humorous piece of dialogue, which explains both Patterson’s writing style and Paul Chavasse perfectly—

“‘This man is what?  Half English, half French.  He speaks more languages than you’ve had hot dinners.  University degrees coming out of his ears.  In spite of all that, a killer by nature.’” 
Keys was my introduction to Paul Chavasse and I have a soft spot for it.  It opens in Milan, Italy—Chavasse has freshly returned from an assignment in Albania, where he was reconnoitering the anticommunist underground, which is more or less defunct, since the sigurmi has swept it up.  After he briefs The Chief he is given an assignment to take care of a double agent, and then he is ordered to take a three week holiday.  A few days into his vacation Chavasse is lured, without sanction from The Bureau, back to Albania to recover the Black Madonna, a religious icon a Catholic group attempted to smuggle out of the country, and the communist Albanian government wants destroyed. 

Chavasse garners the help of an Italian smuggler named Guilio Orsini to make a quick run into the marshy delta of the Buene River in Northern Albania, where a small launch reportedly carrying the Madonna was sunk by the Albanian Navy.  They plan a quick in and out trip, but when they arrive the Albanian’s are waiting.  Chavasse is quickly alone—his party all captured—on the sparsely populated Albanian coast.  It doesn’t take him long to find a few friendly natives, and a way into the ancient castle his friends are being held.  It also doesn’t take long for him to end up in one of the cells, and it takes Chavasse’s patented mixture of violence and wit to find his way out again.

is one of the shorter Paul Chavasse novels—it runs well shy of 50,000 words—but it is one of the more illuminating regarding the character of Paul Chavasse.  He is portrayed as something close to an antihero.  He has always been a man of extreme violence, but his violence has seemingly been manifested in his struggle against tyranny.  However, in a single line of dialogue, Chavasse turns his motives from a soldier of democracy to something very close to a thug—

“‘If I’d been born in Germany twenty years earlier, I’d probably have ended up in the Gestapo.’”
This development of Chavasse as something short of a heroic character is a significant development in both Paul Chavasse as a character and Harry Patterson as a writer.  Patterson has always had a tendency to create protagonists that fall far short of their perceived station in life—an educated gentleman who chooses violence over a refined life—but they are rarely simple thugs who enjoy violence for violence.  This separation of Chavasse as a run of the mill protagonist is a mile post in Patterson’s development as a writer.  This treatment of Paul Chavasse as a violent semi-thug is a marked difference from the Paul Chavasse portrayed in The Testament of Caspar Schultz. 

The revised edition of Keys is the first novel to introduce Chavasse as “Sir Paul Chavasse.”  It introduces his birth date, Paris, 1928, his education:  Sorbonne, Cambridge, and Harvard.  He is identified as a Third Secretary of The Bureau, and Smirnoff is his favorite vodka.    


RJR said...

Nice to see you back and posting, Ben. These novels were fine examples of spy novels of the time and I enjoyed them a lot.


Ben Boulden said...

It's good to be back Bob. I've been so busy I didn't realize how much I missed the blog until I started thinking about essays I would like to write for it.