Friday, February 12, 2010

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Most Dangerous Game,” by Gavin Lyall

(Editor’s note: This is the 81st installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s choice comes from Calum MacLeod, the features editor on Scotland’s Inverness Courier, who for many years wrote a column for Sherlock magazine and now contributes regularly to the e-zine Shots.)

Back in my far-off school days, I had a private, and never publicly uttered, term for a particular strand of my preferred recreational reading.

The Machos.

The shared characteristics of these books were tough, capable heroes and action-filled plots involving intrigue of various kinds, usually but not exclusively related to some form of espionage. Although my preferred authors at the time were primarily British, the settings were far more exotic than the suburban streets of dull 1970s Britain: the plains of Africa, the jungles of South America, and the mountainous backwaters of Europe, where a decent cappuccino couldn’t be found for love or money.

Authors guaranteed to deliver such page-turners included Desmond Bagley, Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins, and Gavin Lyall.

To my mind, Lyall was the best of the bunch and though he never achieved the commercial heights, or productivity, of some of his contemporaries, he was a much better writer than most, centering his novels on cynical and sharp operators, Chandlerian anti-heroes who happened to be pilots or bodyguards rather than private eyes.

Lyall also brought a strong measure of hard-earned authenticity to his books. A former Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot and aviation correspondent for The Sunday Times, he knew what it felt like inside a cockpit and had a boys’-toys fascination with the machinery of adventure, whether it involved planes, cars, or firearms.

Lyall’s books are easily divided into groups. At the start of his career, in the 1960s and ’70s, he alternated writing aviation-based thrillers like his debut work, The Wrong Side of the Sky (1961), and Shooting Script (1966), with more terrestrial but wide-ranging adventures such as the trans-European car chase of Midnight Plus One (1965) and the art-world intrigues of Venus with Pistol (1969).

It was only in the 1980s that the author fixed on a series character: Harry Maxim, an SAS major appointed as Downing Street troubleshooter. The first of the Maxim novels, The Secret Servant (1980), was filmed for the BBC with Charles Dance, surely one of the best should-have-been-Bonds, in the lead role. At the end of the decade the fall of the Berlin Wall might have been good for the easing of East-West tensions, but it left Lyall and several of his spy-fiction-writing peers fearing their own redundancy. Rather than look around for new threats in those now far-off, pre-Osama bin Laden days, Lyall turned back to the beginnings of the British Secret Service to finish his career with a short series set at the opposite end of the 20th century.

For me, however, none of those later books could match the energy and thrills of his earlier standalone works. My personal recommendation of a “book you have to read” is Lyall’s second novel, The Most Dangerous Game (1964).

It shares a title with Richard Connell’s famous and much-imitated, 1924 short story about a bored hunter who decides to stalk human prey. There is a link between these namesake tales, but Lyall’s title is also a reference to the espionage games played out on the Cold War’s coldest frontier, Finnish Lapland.

Bill Cary is an ex-RAF bush pilot making a precarious living with a de Havilland Beaver, which like its owner has seen better days. Not above bending the law if it can help him make a buck, Cary agrees to fly a wealthy American hunting enthusiast into a prohibited zone near the Soviet border so that he can bag himself a bear.

Lyall also throws into the storytelling mix gold sovereigns hinting at a lost tsarist treasure, nighttime knife attacks (Finns, it seems, like their sharp blades), suspicious secret police types, the hunter’s beautiful sister anxiously looking for her brother, and a series of accidents that pick off Cary’s rough-and-ready fellow pilots, the most spectacular of which is memorably conveyed on the cover of the 1971 Pan edition (shown above) as Cary ducks low to avoid the upside-down floatplane that is hurtling towards him.

The plot twists to its conclusion with a tense stalking scene that John Buchan or Geoffrey Household would’ve been proud to have written.

The vivid action and suspense sequences in this and other Lyall novels make them obvious candidates for screen adaptation, which is why it seems so puzzling that the only version of a Lyall book to roll before the cameras was that Secret Servant series. (Actor Steve McQueen did buy the filming rights to Midnight Plus One, but the project was “scuppered by the star’s untimely death” in 1980.)

But the stories’ action would not carry the same impact if it were not grounded in the realism that Lyall’s lightly dispensed technical expertise grants his books and the careful building of character that places us in the shoes of someone such as Bill Cary.

The Most Dangerous Game won the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Silver Dagger Award in 1964, putting him on something of a roll: Midnight Plus One secured a second Dagger the next year.

Just seven years after Lyall’s death at age 70, I hate to think of one of my crime-writing heroes being relegated to “forgotten author” status. Help him avoid that fate by finding one of his books and just diving straight in.

READ MORE:Gavin Lyall Cover Gallery,” by Steve Holland (Bear Alley); “Gavin Lyall” (Bill Crider’s Popular Culture Magazine).


Bill Crider said...

Great choice. Hard to believe someone as good as Lyall could be forgotten.

Ed Gorman said...

I agree. Lyall was a fine writer who kept his protagonists real but endowing them with brains as much as brawn.