Friday, July 25, 2014

WRATH OF THE LION by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Wrath of the Lion is the twelfth novel published by Harry Patterson. It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1964, and it is both the longest and best of Mr Patterson’s first dozen novels. Mr Patterson’s early novels all had marvelous titles, and this is one of my favorite. It comes from a line in William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”—

“The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.”

Neil Mallory is a former SAS Colonel now working for British Intelligence. He is sent to a small island in the English Channel, closer to France than England, to search for a French submarine with a renegade crew. The L’Allouette (ironically meaning “lark” in English) has been cruising the French coast making mischief. It forced a boarding on a ship in the Channel and executed an aging public prosecutor responsible for convicting several of the crews’ comrades.

Mallory’s mission: find the L’Allouette and call in the cavalry. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. The island has only a handful of full time residents, and the heavy, who is a self-exiled former military officer from an old line family, seemingly knows more about Mallory’s doings than Mallory knows about his.

Wrath of the Lion is the most complete of Mr Patterson’s earliest work—its characters are crisply developed (and believable—Mallory has something of a genuinely unsavory past), its plot is linear, tricky (in a good way), and while not surprising to the 21st century reader, it is executed with an almost flawless professionalism and very, very entertaining. The prose is eloquent and smooth describing the action, setting, and characters in a succinct and (somehow) economical manner—

“He took her arm. They walked to the corner and turned into the street. It started to rain, a thin drizzle that beaded the iron railings like silver. There was a dull, aching pain in her ankle and the old houses floated in the fog, unreal and insubstantial, part of a dark dream from which she had yet to awaken, and the pavement seemed to move beneath her feet.”

The setting is a perfect fit for the period it was written. The bad guys belong to a real world French terrorist organization referred to in the novel as the “O.A.S.,” which is an acronym for “Organisation de l’armee secrete”; or its literal English transaction, “Organization of the Secret Army.” The O.A.S. was a group dedicated to keeping French colonial rule in Algeria. It, most notably, made an assassination attempt on Charles De Gaulle in 1962.

The factual detail—sprinkled into the narrative in small morsels—is as interesting as the plot. There is an interesting definition of the word “karate,” a bevy of detail about 1960s French-Algeria relations, the workings—in surprising detail—of the tiny Type XXIII U-boat design (an undersea electric tin can), and even a perfectly placed quote—from what I believe is Shakespeare—

“When you sup with the devil you need a long spoon.”        

—which is everything one expects from a high quality Harry Patterson novel.

Neil Mallory may seem familiar to the regular reader of Mr Patterson’s work, and for good reason. A very different Neil Mallory starred in The Last Place God Made; an incarnation that was saw him as bush pilot rather than a former SAS officer.

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