NOTES: PB. 116
Allegedly, says James Workman is author on title page (not confirmed).
NOTES: PB. 116
Cover says James Dark Series
Captain Mettle V.C. was the first in a series of children’s adventure books written by Australian author J.E. Macdonnell under the pen name James MacNell.
Mettle isn’t exactly a spy, he is a Navy commander, but his adventures, and the type of assignments thrust upon him, go beyond the boundaries of a typical naval adventure. They certainly fall within the parameters of an espionage novel.
As the story opens, Captain Mettle is on the bridge of the destroyer, Scorpion, steaming towards Hong Kong for a very important meeting with the Admiral controlling the China station. Aside from Mettle, the opening chapter also introduces the reader to Mettle’s second-in-command, Cuthbert Crabbe de Courcy – known to all and sundry as Crabby. Crabby always appears tired, and bored – however despite this projection of lethargy, whenever there is a crisis, he is a man of swift and vigorous action.
The other character of note is Hooky Hogan, the chief bosun’s mate. Hooky, as his nickname suggests, has a hook where his right hand should be. The introduction to Hooky happens when one of the crew falls overboard. Hooky is the first into the lifeboat sent off to rescue the man. However, before they can drag in and rescue the the flailing and thrashing crewman, a giant shark spears its way through the water towards him. Hooky leaps into the water, drags the crewman out of harms way, and then with his hook, splits the shark along its belly as it speeds past.
Upon arrival in Hong Kong, and after a meeting with Admiral Sterne, Mettle is assigned to command a torpedo boat and track down a band or pirates who have been plundering the shipping lanes out of Hong Kong. Recently four merchant ships have simply vanished from the area. Mettle hand picks two crewmen to come with him on the mission – Crabby and Hooky – and they set off in their quest to stop the piracy.
It doesn’t take long for Mettle and his crew to encounter the pirates after they tuck in behind a merchant ship transporting a shipment of guns to Shanghai. Naturally the pirates attempt to steal the shipment, and send out a fake distress signal from a junk in front of the vessel. The cargo ship stops to offer assistance, and the pirates storm on board.
Mettle and his ship mates stop the assault, and with their torpedo boat, stop the junk and a flotilla of other small craft from making off with the cargo. But the men that Mettle captures are just the worker bees, and he is after ‘The Brain’ behind the operation. After interrogating one of the prisoners, Mettle is given directions to an old temple on mainland China.
As the story plays out, the events that led to Hooky losing his hand are retold, and it concerns a villain named Li Fang Fu; a man who specialises in torture – especially the fabled ‘death by a thousand cuts’. In one of those coincidences that can only occur in an adventure story like this, it so happens that Li Fang Fu is also the head of the pirate organisation, and as our trio close in, he has a reception committee waiting.
I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by Captain Mettle VC. I have read a few of J.E. Macdonnell’s Mark Hood spy adventures, and while I have found them hugely enjoyable, it can generally be accepted that they are wafer thin slices of sixties spy pulp entertainment. So I expected the Mettle books – which are aimed at children – to be dumbed down and desexualised versions of the Hood books – or at least in style. While the story is quite simple – no more or less than some of the Hoods – I found it refreshing that Macdonnell didn’t tone down – or dumb down – his writing. The story doesn’t shy away from adult themes, like death, torture and drugs. However their is no sex. If these books were aimed at boys, I am guessing it is teenage readers rather than youngsters. That’s why I have enjoyed Charlie Higson’s Young Bond and Anthony Horrowitz’s Alex Rider books, because they didn’t dumb down their stories for their audience, and neither did Macdonnell when creating Captain Mettle.
As can be expected from a book of this vintage, the story and characters are frightfully racist. With the villains of the piece being Chinese pirates, over the course of the novel every derogatory term for the Chinese is used, and a few I have not heard before. The characters also chain smoke throughout the story. These attributes in a modern novel, aimed at the adult market, would be derided as being antiquated and xenophobic, but if they were presented in a contemporary novel aimed at children, and remember this is a novel aimed at teenage boys, then the author could find protesters on their front lawn. Times have certainly changed. But judging the content by today’s standards is not fair, and to be honest, I cannot see this book appealing to the current crop of young readers. It’s probably only of interest to readers like my self, who are interested in author, J.E. Macdonnell or vintage pulp and naval fiction.
All in all, Captain Mettle VC is a rollicking spy adventure which is thoroughly enjoyable, and on the strength of it, I would be happy to read more of Mettle’s adventures. Other books in the Captain Mettle series are, Mettle Dives Deep and Mettle at Woomera.
Mettle Dives Deep is the second of the Captain Mettle children’s adventure books by J.E. Macdonnell, writing as James Macnell. As it is the second book, no time is wasted introducing the characters, so the action begins from the get-go.
It opens with Admiral Sterne briefing Mettle on his next mission. Mettle and his crew – including the perpetually bored Crabby, and bosun’s mate Hooky Hogan – on board the Naval destroyer, Scorpion are now a ‘Special Services’ unit, which I guess is the navy’s equivalent of being some kind of naval spy squad. Their assignment is to track down a cadre of gunrunners who have being smuggling weapons to groups of terrorists in the Mediterranean. Nobody knows how the gunrunners are doing it, because the coast is being watched day and night. The Scorpion sails off at speed to unravel the mystery and capture those responsible.
This second outing plays a bit more like a naval adventure, than the first Mettle book, but that is not such a bad thing. By accident, Mettle and his crew stumble on the path of a midget submarine – the asdic equipment was conveniently being tested at the time. The story then reverts to a good old submarine hunting story, with the bad guys lying silently on the sea bed, hoping that the destroyer will move on believing they have lost the signal. Meanwhile, Mettle believes that the lost signal might be a trick, with the sub lying doggo at the bottom, so he has the engines cut, and everybody on board remain dead silent. I know it’s the type of thing that we have seen in just about every submarine movie ever made – particularly The Enemy Below with Robert Mitchum. But it still reads rather well, and creates a bit of tension.
The choice by Macdonnell, to have the villains of the piece use a Japanese midget submarine is an interesting one. Midget submarines were used on numerous occasions in World War II, but as an Australian, the submarine attack on Sydney Harbour was no doubt, indelibly burnt into Macdonnell’s mind. While the actual attack, on Sydney is generally regarded as a failure, the psychological aspect of the attack can not be underplayed. Even as a boy, I was told tales of the day that Japanese subs snuck into Sydney and bombed Australia. They didn’t actually ‘bomb’ Australia. They fired torpedoes at ships in the harbour, but the event almost became an an urban myth, with the story and facts being greatly distorted with each telling… but such was the psychological power of the attack. I am sure it is still an event that resonates extremely strongly with older Australians. By choosing midgets submarines, for Australian readers, Macdonnell’s story certainly evokes the memory of the Japaneses attack, and he uses it to his advantage.
After waiting on the bottom for half an hour, the villains decide to start their engines and high tail it out of there. But Mettle is waiting, and has the Scorpion crew deliver a string of depth charges. The villains, and their sub full of guns and dynamite, which just may blow, head to the surface and surrender. The gunrunners are taken into custody. Of course, the submariners are just evil minions, and Mettle is after the big Kahuna – a man known as the ‘Squeaker’ due to his high pitched voice.
Mettle undertakes his own little mission where he takes the place of the gunrunners in the sub – accompanied by Hooky, and an fiery red-headed engineer know quite simply as ‘Engines’. Ultimately, Mettle Dives Deep is an adventure story, so as you’d expect it should have some of the trappings of a ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’ book – and having laid the ground work, with having Mettle and his crew inside a midget sub, what do you think happens next? If you remember my review of the first Mettle book, you may recall that Hooky tangled with a shark – so sharks are out – so if you said a giant octopus, then give yourself top marks. You are absolutely correct.
Mettle and Hooky sail to Basra and meet the gunrunners, in the process getting into a gun fight and stealing a plane – just par for the course for the boys. As the links in the gunrunning chain are broken, Mettle and his team end up of the coast of Somaliland with the villains holed up on a boat in a coastal crater lake (had to get that volcano motif in there somehow!)
Mettle has twenty of his best men, all armed, don frogman outfits and storm the lake. While the climax to this book is pretty exciting, the actual final confrontation with the villainous ‘Squeaker’ is a bit of a let down. There’s not really a cathartic coup de gras, and as such the final pages flounder at little.
However, there is still a lot of fun to be found in this Captain Mettle adventure. As I mentioned above, it is more of a naval adventure than Captain Mettle V.C. with much of the action taking place either on the destroyer, Scorpion or on a captured miniature submarine. That’s not a bad thing, but I must admit, I would have liked to see Mettle carrying out more of his own brand of derring-do on land. But a small quibble. Next up, to close out the series is Captain Mettle at Woomera, which I predict, given the Australian based story, will be more land based.
From the Blurb:
It was a hell of a way to die!
“You are a tough man, Mr. Hood,” Bula said.
“Thank you,” said Hood. “Now what do you do?”
It seemed that Bula meant to do nothing. He remained where he was, while his eyes held Hood’s with the basilisk steadiness of a snake’s. And then Hood felt the oddest sensation in his life – as if his will were being sucked out of his brain. A trance like cocoon seemed to be enveloping him; invisible, intangible, yet as palpable as a python’s coils around his arms and legs.
His medical training warned him that it was some form of hypnosis and although he strove to avert his eyes, he found he could not. He stood there helplessly as if his hard-trained body had turned to putty, and watched Bula coming for him.
His great shoulder heaved and an iron fist exploded against Hood’s stomach. Hood reeled back as if he had been clubbed. “I am annoyed with you, Mr. Hood.”
The second blow landed over Hood’s heart. He gasped in an attempt to get some air down into his system.
“And because I am annoyed … I will punch you to death … instead of using the knife …”
As a boorish, parochial Australian, I was determined to go out and find a true Aussie spy series. Well I found one. It’s not actually Australian, but written by an Australian, J.E. MacDonnell – not to be confused with John D. MacDonald, author of the Travis McGee books – or Ross Macdonald, who briefly went by the name John Ross Macdonald before changing it to plain old Ross Macdonald, in order to avoid confusion with John D. MacDonald. Er, Ross Macdonald is the author of the Lew Archer novels, but I have veered off track once again.
J.E. MacDonnell was a prolific Australian author who specialised in naval adventure stories, but he also turned his hand to churning out a series of loose and fast paced espionage novels featuring a secret agent named Mark Hood – not to be confused with secret agent Charles Hood, who appeared in a series of spy adventures written by James Mayo (Hammerhead was made into a film starring Vince Edwards). I may be wrong here, but I believe that The Invisibles is the twelfth book in the Mark Hood series.
As the story opens, Intertrust Agent, Mark Hood is posing as a wealthy playboy, when in fact he is on a highly secret and dangerous mission. It starts in February on an un-named island in the Caribbean. Hood is driving his rented Buick convertible along a coast road from his villa near the city of Mahame to the town of Ruijas. As he rounds a corner, in the headlamps, he sees a body lying on the road. Hood stops to investigate and gets out of the car. As he approaches, the body springs to life and produces a rifle, which had been tucked away under the body. The aggressor points the rifle at Hood and pulls the trigger. As the gunman made the shot, Hood had already leapt forward and the bullet misses to the left hand side. Hood delivers a karate chop to the aggressor’s neck – killing him. Next, Hood tosses the body over a cliff. As he gets back into his car, in the distance he can hear the low murmur of a voodoo drum.
Next Hood meets the resident Caribbean Intertrust man, Jimmy Sangster (no not the Hammer screenwriter). This guy is in his sixties with a limp. Hood explains why he’s on the island – it is believed that someone on the island is attempting to build an atomic bomb. The prime suspect is a revolutionary leader named Shango, who also happens to be a Houngan or Voodoo Priest. He operates out of a fortress, on top of one of the highest mountains on the island. (Can you guess where the climax takes place?)
As Hood drives back to his villa, as if summoned by some demonic force, a mini tornado chases him along the road. It picks up his car and tosses it, as if it were a toy, into the sea. Trapped in the car, Hood rides it down until it hits a rocky undersea shelf. Then he unfastens his seatbelt, and thanks to his scuba diving experience, he surfaces, just as currents push the car off the shelf and down in the darkened depths of the sea.
That’s the thing about Hood, and the incidents that happen throughout this novel – whatever the situation, Hood can handle it, because he has had prior experience. I am sure that the guy has done everything, from piloting helicopters and gunships to advanced medicine and surgery. Hood can do it all. And he can do it better than another popular literary spy. And the book goes to lengths to point this out. They can be summed up in one small passage. Hood’s boss, Fortescue says, “This job is too important to have you boys pussyfooting around playing 007′s”.
But Bond references aren’t enough for a story like this. Dear reader, I know what you really want – and that’s a fat slice of Voodoo action, and this book delivers a few of them. Here’s one from pg. 73.
‘But now all attention, and Hood’s was concentrated on a slender girl who had stopped her circling to face the post. Her head craned far back, her legs were together, and her arms outstretched. She was naked. In Hood’s tautened mind her brown sweat gleaming body formed the shape of an obscene cross.
The drum beat swelled even fiercer and the girl began to dance.
Hood had never seen anything like it. Although her feet barely moved, the gyrations of her hips and shoulders made her seem as if she were leaping in a frenzy. they shivered and twisted, then undulated with a serpentine sinuosity, and then rolled and coiled and thrust themselves forward and back in abandoned sexuality.’
Ah, that’s enough of that you pagans! The Invisibles is action packed from the word go, and at only 126 pages long, it is never intended to be anything more that a quick and slight slice of throwaway entertainment – much like the Nick Carter ‘Killmaster’ novels. But one of the sad things about these ‘throwaway’ novels, is exactly that – they are being thrown away. In a world where I can walk into practically any bookshop in the English speaking world and find exactly the same books on the shelf, it’s a terrible shame that the books of the past are treated as a disposable commodity. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first in line for the next Clive Cussler, Matthew Reilly or Jeremy Duns novel, but at the same time, I wonder if my son will ever know who Alistair MacLean is?
From the back cover:
They were as ancient as Evil itself – but armed with the nuclear power of tomorrow.
Intertrust Agent Mark Hood faces the shadowy terrors of the supernatural when he is sent to the interior of a remote Caribbean island to break up a black market in atom bombs.
The sellers? No one knows. The buyers? THE INVISIBLES – Voodoo priests with a fiendish plan to make a human sacrifice of the entire world. Hood’s only ally – a beautiful, sultry believer who leads him into an orgy of lust, terror and sudden death!
• For an overview of J.E MacDonnell’s career click here
• Bill Crider looks at Sword of Genghis Khan
• Pop Sensation looks at Operation Octopus
• James Reasoner looks at The Bamboo Bomb
• Click here for a more complete listing (and alternate titles) of the Mark Hood series.
Author: James Dark – J.E. MacDonnell
Publisher: Signet / Horwitz
Published: July 1965
Come Die With Me is the first in the Mark Hood series of international spy thrillers by Australian author J.E. MacDonnell (published in the US under the name James Dark).
Being the first in the series, unlike other entries, this one fleshes out a bit about Intertrust, the organisation that Mark Hood works for. Intertrust was created by the four nuclear powers (remembering this was written in the mid 1960s) to stop other nuclear threats from arising. The idea that cold war America and the USSR are working together through Intertrust is an interesting one – although in the books that I have read, this facet of the organisation is never really explored. In fact, Hood could just work for England or the United States.
Another aspect that is also fleshed out more, is Hood’s background. He is an American, but went to study in England, where he became an excellent (world famous) cricketer. After that he became a ‘world famous’ racing car driver. An then a ‘world famous’… well you get the idea. Now Hood is a man of leisure… a playboy… a dilettante. He travels the world looking for excitement and adventure. Well that’s his cover anyway. As we know he is now an Intertrust agent, but his reputation as a jet-setting playboy allows him to travel all over the world with barely an eyebrow raised.
The story concerns a neo-Nazi named Gauss who has stolen three nuclear armed torpedo boats, the last one being taken in Nassau in the Bahamas. Hood is immediately shipped off to investigate, and soon on the trail of the neo-Nazis. The twist in the story comes early, when Hood is captured, and is offered a position in Gauss’ employ (with a substantial paycheck to go with it). Hood has little choice, beyond work for Gauss or die, so he accepts the bribe and the job. However he is not completely trusted, and although now working from the inside, he finds himself helpless to stop Gauss from moving towards the next phase of his operation.
Hood is taken to Gauss’ fortress like retreat in Brazil, which is built on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. While Hood is not exactly a prisoner, he is a closely watched guest, with no access to the outside world. And Gauss is suspicious enough to keep most of his plans under wraps. He is not a garrulous uber-villain who has to describe his mad scheme to the hero in loving detail. Well not at the start anyway!
Gauss’ ultimate plot is kept under wraps until the last minute, but Hood gets an inkling of his intent when he meets Maria in the fortress. She is a bacteriologist who has found a way to improve crop yields, by introducing bacteria to certain crops. Her research could put an end to starvation in third world countries. Of course, Hood also realises that the research, if utilised by someone who wished to destroy rather than create could be perverted for evil ends.
The Mark Hood thrillers are fast paced, but at times I think too fast. There are certain passages in this book that are written so quickly, with lack of description that I could barely follow the action. There is one passage in particular, where Hood, in a car, is being chased down a winding and twisting mountain road, by one of Gauss’ minions.
From page 50:
The big Mercedes was bellowing upon him. He jabbed his right foot down, feeling the Jaguar surge, and he wondered with detachment through his apprehension how Hermann would finish him, against the cliff on the left or over the edge on the right, and he heard a high wild scream of brakes and there were the twin white swords sailing out into nothing, then dipping abruptly, and then vanishing below the edge.
Clearly the villain has driven off the edge, but the above sentence is the only description of the incident. Another sentence confirming that Hermann is dead, and the car has crashed – maybe into the sea – would have fleshed out the action scene quite substantially. Instead, the story rattles on to the next incident.
The Mark Hood books are pretty much throwaways, meaning that they are short and very little time is spent on characterisation and plot development. If the narrative begins to flounder, MacDonnell’s story telling device is to simply have the hero whacked over the head by the bad guys and wake up in the villain’s lair. It cuts out all that boring investigation stuff that other spies have to do. Yep, Hood is so good that he just has to turn up in a location and the enemy agents over-react, knock him out, bring him back to their lair, and finally in long, slow, loving detail they reveal their evil plot. It certainly saves time, and keeps the books page count down, well under 150 pages.
But having said all that, the book is not masquerading as a piece of high art either. It is what it is – a slick little spy adventure with girls, guns and goons. It’s a piece of vintage pulp fiction, and if that appeals to you (it does me) then Come Die With Me is a perfectly acceptable way to wile away a few hours.
From David Foster’s collection.
NOTES: The National Library of Australia suggests in is James Workman writing under the James Dark pen-name.
National Library of Australia.
Notes: It is claimed that this is a Mark Hood story written by J.E. Macdonnell. I don’t think it is. It predates that series, and I believe Macdonnell never published in Australia under the Dark pen-name.
Information from Pioneer Books website (search, James Dark).
Recently I have looked at a few Mark Hood spy thrillers, written by James Dark – namely Come Die With Me and the Throne of Satan. Prior to them however, I looked at The Invisibles, which is also a Mark Hood spy thriller, but as it was an Australian edition, the author was credited as J.E. MacDonnell. As an Australian, it fascinated me that their was international spy fiction being written in Australia during the 1960s. I was curious to find out more, which I must admit I found difficult. J.E. MacDonnell also wrote a large amount of popular naval fiction, and these books were easy to find, however it would appear that his spy fiction was as not as well received and is very hard to find.
Thankfully, when I posted my review of The Invisibles, readers commented on the Hood books and mentioned that they had been published in America under the pen name James Dark. And after a bit of searching on the net, I have located a few American editions of the Hood novels. From these, I wrote the reviews I mentioned above (Come Die With Me and Throne of Satan).
What I found confusing is that when I was researching Hood by J.E. MacDonnell – while there were a few discrepancies across the websites I visited, mainly due to foreign titles – was how many books were in the series. One of the most informative websites on J.E. MacDonnell, Collecting Books and Magazines (it’s towards the bottom of the page) – suggests that there are 13 novels in the series.
However, the website, Fantastic Fiction, which looks at author James Dark rather than J.E. MacDonnell, suggests that there are 17 novels in the Mark Hood series.
Once again, some of the titles listed were duplications of the same novel, only published under different titles – but still, there were a few that were new to me, and didn’t appear in any of J.E. MacDonnell’s biographies. That made me think, was there more than one James Dark?
As it happens, James Dark was a house name for several authors at Australian publisher, Horwitz Publications. It also seems that the ‘Dark’ name was applied to novels of all genres. One of the most informative articles I have been able to find, and it shed much light on the mystery of James Dark was written by Steve Paulsen, and appears on the Australian Horror Writer’s Association website. Entitled, Pulp Fiction in Oz, Paulsen’s article is worth reading in it’s entirety, but for those who want to cut to the chase, the information about James Dark is down thirteen paragraphs from the top.
Taking Steve Paulsen at his word (as he seems much better informed than me) – then the James Dark credited for writing Havoc!, is James Workman. And Havoc! is World trouble-shooter, Elliot Carr’s second great story of espionage… inside on the second page, it says that also by the same author is a book called Impact, and once again it would appear to have been written by Workman.
While on the topic of James Dark – although I do not have a copy of the book – the next bit of wild speculation on my behalf is that the novel Spy From the Grave which was published in 1964 (according to the Fantastic Fiction site), is not a Mark hood novel. Come Die With Me, which was published in 1965, is clearly the first Mark Hood novel. The setup, the introduction to Intertrust (the organisation Hood works for) all suggest it is the first novel in the series. Therefore, (assuming that the publication date isn’t wrong) then Spy From the Grave predates the Mark Hood series, and may possibly be an Elliot Carr novel. Or more likely, it could simply be another standalone spy novel, which seems logical as Paulsen suggests, that this sixth, James Dark novel, was written by another author, Richard Wilkes-Hunter. If you have read Spy From the Grave or have any information about it, or James Dark, please feel free to comment (or contact me off air, via email if you wish).
But now, after all that meandering investigative journalism, you’re probably wondering how Havoc! stacks up as a spy novel. As I mentioned briefly, Havoc! is the sequel to the novel Impact, and for those who like their silly spy acronyms, how’s this? The hero of these stories, Elliot Carr is a chief operative for the International and Metropolitan Police Air Control – or if you prefer IMPACt (Impact being the title of the first novel). How Carr and IMPACt, an organisation geared to protecting airlines around the world, get involved in this multi-threaded espionage plot, is contrived beyond belief, but it is a fun, fast paced ride.
As the story begins, the world’s first moon rocket is preparing to be launched from the Kooralinga Rocket Range in Australia (remember this was written in 1962 – predating the Apollo moon launches). Upon launch, the rocket goes haywire and crashes to the ground. As an adjunct here, while Kooralinga appears to be a fictitious place name (or at least used fictitiously in this instance), it echoes Maralinga, which is the site of the UK nuclear tests carried out in South Australia in the 1950s. Was the author suggesting that the rocket was nuclear powered?
Meanwhile Barnstable Klinger, a specialist assassin, hired by the Chinese is sent to Hong Kong to investigate eccentric scientist Cyrus C. Canning who has been doing microwave research. Klinger is to steal Canning’s research; failing that he is to kill everybody involved in the project. Before Klinger can achieve his objective, Canning flees to Sydney (but nobody knows this). Upset at his disappearance, Canning’s wife and step sister track him to the airport. Once they find out where he has gone, Klinger steps in and kills Canning’s step sister, Martha– she also has knowledge of Canning’s research.
As she was killed at an airport, this is where IMPACt are called in, and Elliot Carr decides to oversee the investigation personally. Somehow, Carr suspects that not only is Martha’s death connected with Canning’s research, he also believes it ties in with the sabotage of the moon rocket in Australia. But rather than start in Hong Kong (or head to Australia – which he does later), Carr starts in England, interviewing Sir John Calidcroft, who is one of the world’s leading scientists. Carr hopes he can shed some light on Canning’s research.
If the story was that straight forward, it wouldn’t be much of a spy novel would it? To make things more complicated, there is also a person going by the noms de guerre, The Man From Mannheim, who has sent letters to three of the four nuclear powers suggesting that if they don’t start dismantling their nuclear stockpiles, he will do it for them using explosive means. As proof of his intentions and capabilities, ‘Mannheim’ explodes some small nuclear stockpiles in each country as an example.
I must say, that I was surprised that such a strong anti-nuclear story was written in the early 1960s. I have always thought that nuclear disarmament and ‘ban the bomb’ protesting was a part of the late ’60s – and much of that was predominantly to do with the Vietnam War. Clearly that is not the case. This novel is purely a Cold War novel, and predates Vietnam. Havoc! was published in 1962, the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is generally regarded as the closest the world has come to nuclear conflict. Whether that had an influence on this story is anybody’s guess. Or maybe the author’s anti-nuclear stance is a reaction to the British nuclear tests at Maralinga, which occurred between 1955 and 1963?
Regardless of the author’s viewpoint, what is unusual, is seeing this stance written about in a piece of early-sixties Australian genre fiction, especially considering Australia’s political climate at the time. The incumbent Prime Minister was Sir Robert Menzies who had continued to remain in power after winning an un-winnable election in the wake of the Petrov Affair in 1954. At the time of Havoc!, Menzies was able to exploit Labor’s divisions over the Cold War and the American alliance, and win the 1963 election, with an increased majority. Put simply, most of the Australian populace at that time, were behind the Government, were anti-communist and in favour of a nuclear deterrent (that is not to suggest that wanting Nuclear disarmament makes you a communist!). Of course this is a broad generalisation, but this book would appear to go against the grain of mainstream thinking in Australia – at that time.
But back to the story. Elliot Carr does not only have to contend with American, British, Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies trying to track down Canning, but also thrown in the mix, is a mysterious organisation called ‘Circle of Three’, who appear to be manipulating events in the background. Then there’s a Russian splinter group, known as the ‘Clinic’, run be the evil Miss Cotter – a nurse who specialises in torture.
Havoc! at only 130 pages, may seem like a slight book – and I guess it is – but it does in fact pack quite a bit of plot, a few twists and turns and multiple storythreads into its page count. As I have already suggested, this is the second, Elliot Carr adventure, and on the strength of it, I would happily read the first. However, possibly more tantalising, is the fact, that at the end of the book it is set up for another Carr adventure. I cannot be sure that any more Carr books were written, but as the history of Australian pulp fiction is currently so poorly recorded, there is no reason to assume that there weren’t any.
Australia pulp fiction is a bit of an enigma at the moment, and finding out the truth is getting more difficult with each successive generation. Horwitz doesn’t really exist anymore. During the 1980s it started to focus more on magazines than publishing books (primarily magazines like Playboy). Eventually the company got gobbled up by larger media groups, and now Horwitz and all its imprints (such as its Adult imprint, Scripts, which published Avakoum Zahov vs 07) are quickly fading from memory. I know we can’t all live in the past, but I suggest that ignoring Australia’s publishing heritage strips away a layer of our identity. Sure many of these books were sexist, racist, and in this day and age, verging on litigious, but they are a reflection of our society, good, bad or indifferent in days gone by. They are a signpost of who we were then, and juxtaposed against current fiction, can suggest where we are going.
From David Foster’s collection.
Australian Horror Writer’s Association
Meet Simon Black was the first in a series of children’s adventure books written in the 1950′s by Ivan Southall. The fascinating thing for me, if you’ll forgive this self indulgence, is that they were an Australian series. There was also a good, healthy does of espionage thrown into the mix as well, with the heroes of the stories, the titular Simon Black and his trusted sergeant at arms, Alan Grant often seconded by the secret service to carry out a daring mission.
The Simon Black adventures are the literary equivalent of the cliff-hanger serials that used to show at the movies. Each chapter presents the heroes with a new obstacle to overcome, and generally the result is left up in the air at the end of chapter. Only by reading on, do you discover how the boys managed to extricate themselves from their latest peril.
But before I go any further, you’re probably wondering who is Simon Black? A very good question, and to put it simply, he is the Australian equivalent of Biggles or Tom Swift. He appeared in nine (possibly ten) adventures. Black is essentially a pilot and an engineer, and his greatest creation is a rocket propelled red airplane called the ‘Firefly’. The plane is not only rocket propelled, enabling it to break the sound barrier, but it also has propellers that pop out from it’s wings, enabling it to hover or land like a helicopter. Put simply it is a proto-type VTOL jet. For more information on Black and author Ivan Southall, check out the Collecting Books and Magazines website.
In this book, Simon and Alan are off to the unexplored jungles of Papua New Guinea. It appears that a valuable scientist has gone missing in the wilds (while searching for uranium, no less) and it is up to Black and Grant to rescue him.
The other character you need to be introduced to is Rex the Alsatian. Rex is Alan’s dog, but accompanies them on their adventures. He is rather loyal and protective of his masters, and can be particularly vicious to those who threaten Alan and Simon. Of course, in a jungle adventure, it is pretty handy having a dog along that can lead you to water – and Rex saves the day on more than one occasion.
Once in New Guinea, the story becomes a good old jungle adventure, and brings with it all the pratfalls of a story in that style, fighting mother nature – be it fires and monsoonal rains, or beasts such as giant killer pythons.
One of the real failings of the story is the lack of a decent villain. There is a gentleman named Richardson, who has the aid of an amphibious tank, who is set up early to be the main adversary, but half way through the story, he virtually disappears and becomes a background character. The villainy falls on the mysterious Ugambi people as a whole – but with no particular character singled out as the villain. So the threat to our hero is rather nebulous.
However, it must be said, that author Southall conjures up quite a bit of atmosphere in the Ugambi camp, richly describing the water city, with its huts and roped walkways.
One of the problems with reading a book of this vintage, is that world attitudes have changed – for the better, I’d like to think. This story features an incredibly anachronistic and extremely racist attitude towards the Australian aborigines. At one point, Simon and Alan are forced to land near Ayers Rock (now known as Uluru) due to a time bomb being in their plane.
Upon landing the native’s attack them with spears and rocks. When Alan suggests that they shoot and kill the natives, Simon balks at the idea – not because the character sees it as being wrong – but simply because he doesn’t want to waste his time being dragged through the courts for murder. At least the story has the decency to suggest that killing an aborigine would be murder. But the characters themselves view the natives as a nuisance with no value or worth as a people.
Not to condone this books racist content, but to place it in context, it must be remembered that Australia had an ‘unofficial’ White Australia policy, which limited immigration into Australia to only people of European origin. It was the official policy of all the governments and all mainstream political parties in Australia from the 1890s to the 1950s. Elements of the policy survived even into the 1970s. In fact, Aborigines did not have full voting rights in Australia until 1967. So while this book may have a very ‘screwed up’ outlook on indigenous Australians, it also, rather sadly, reflects the attitudes of the country at that time.
The Simon Black series is aimed at young boys, probably from around 7-8 years of age to mid teens, and as such the emphasis is solely on keeping the story moving. There is little characterisation beyond their hair colour and a few oft repeated phrases. For example Alan always exclaims “My Sainted Aunt!” when something unusual happens. So as genre fiction, they are rather low hanging fruit, if you know what I mean. However, this story is enjoyable in its way. It’s not a lost classic, but an interesting time capsule of days gone by.
From David Foster’s collection.
Cover image: Collecting Books and Magazines