Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Keys of Hell by Jack Higgins

© Berkley Books
Harry Patterson, the British thriller writer, first wrote The Keys of Hell in 1965 under the pseudonym Martin Fallon. In 2001, Patterson brought this novel back into public memory under his most famous pen name, Jack Higgins, and that’s the paperback edition I read last week.

Now The Keys of Hell is not his best work and you’ll probably forget all about it the minute you finish reading it. But if you’re a Jack Higgins fan, and I am one, then you’re apt to like it and, well, remember it too.

The story revolves around expatriate Paul Chavasse, a tough-as-nails undercover agent for British intelligence, who is back from a secret operation in Albania only to be sent back into that communist-infested land for another one. “A little chore” this time, as his Chief tells him calmly. Chavasse must put off his leave, by some three weeks, and go back to Bari, Italy, to kill Enrico Noci before he flees to Albania. Noci is a double agent who’s currying favour with both the British and the Albanians, which was okay till the Chinese decided to milk him as well.

Chavasse, as dutiful as any British intelligence operative, asks, “Do I bring him in?”

“What on earth for?” is the Chief's laconic reply. “Get rid of him; a swimming accident, anything you like. Nothing messy.” Of course not. The British like to keep even their covert operations clean, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Chavasse follows his instructions and kills Noci in cold blood aboard his friend and partner-in-crime Guilo Orsini’s boat Buona Esperanza. Nothing messy, all right. Instead, Chavasse gets into a mess himself when he decides to skip vacation to help the not unattractive Francesca Minetti, a fellow agent and a double-crosser, to retrieve the Madonna of Scutari—a legendary statue of ebony and gold that has protected Albania's faithful for a thousand years.

Once in Albania, Minetti shows her true colours—her allegiance to Tirana's oppressive communist regime led by the real-life Enver Hoxha—and turns the government forces against Chavasse, Orsini, a faithful deckhand, and a native girl, Luri Kupi, who helps them escape. The successful retrieval of the Madonna would mean a resurgence of the Roman Catholic Church within Albania and certain death of the communist government, which is desperate to find and destroy the statue before it destroys the despotic rulers.

The rest of the story is played out in stench-filled marshes between Albania and Italy, as Chavasse and his friends play hide and seek with Hoxha’s forces. They eventually escape but not before killing Minetti and recovering the relic.

Cut to the present. Chavasse closes the detailed file on his Albanian misadventure only to find himself caught between a New York mafia boss, Don Tino Rossi, and his nephew, Mario Volpe, who wants to kill his uncle and take over the mob, and bump off Chavasse too. Can you guess why? No? Chavasse killed his parents—Enrico Noci and Francesca Minetti. Remember them?

In the end Volpe is killed by Chavasse in a firefight and Don Rosi has his way—a renegade nephew out of the way and a secret agent who is important to all his plans. A private jet awaits Paul Chavasse and off he flies to London to run an errand, only this time it’s for the mafia.

What I like about Jack Higgins novels is their clarity in every department—writing style, characters and plot, description of places, and narration. The stories are straightforward and entertaining and entirely believable. The Keys of Hell? Yes, it’s worth a read.


  1. I've never read Higgins before. Which book do you recommend starting with?

  2. Thanks for writing, Cullen. My obvious choice would be the book that made him famous - THE EAGLE HAS LANDED - which was made into a highly successful film. Other titles worth reading are THE SAVAGE DAY, THE LAST PLACE GOD MADE, A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, NIGHT OF THE FOX, STORM WARNING and A FINE NIGHT FOR DYING. Most of his novels are based on real characters and plots that might have been, like the German plot to kidnap Churchill during WWII in THE EAGLE HAS LANDED. The IRA is a recurring theme in his books and his three most popular heroes are Liam Devlin, Sean Dillon and Paul Chavasse. Higgins tends to romanticise his heroes.