Monday, 20 May 2013

BOOKS 

The Iron Tiger by Jack Higgins (1966)

British novelist Jack Higgins, whose real name is Harry Patterson and who is one of my favourite authors, wrote The Iron Tiger early in his writing career. It’s not one of his best novels I have read. Nonetheless, I found the story interesting because it is set in a remote and hostile part of the world that few authors would venture to write about—the India-Tibet border region; it is told in the backdrop of the impending Chinese invasion of Tibet; and it demonstrates the bravery of an officer of the Indian Army.

My copy of the book
Most heroes in Jack Higgins’ novels are tough, dashing and oozing charm by the gallon. Jack Drummond is no less so. The former Royal Navy pilot and intrepid adventurer flies secret missions into Tibet, supplying guns and ammunition to the rebels in their fight against the Red Army. He is about to call it a day when a beautiful woman, a nurse, implores him to undertake one last mission—flying her and an ailing boy prince under her care out of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Balpur and to safety.

But, before Drummond can fly out, the Reds invade the fictional kingdom, kill the young boy’s father, Old Khan, and vanquish his modest army, and destroy his charter plane. The Chinese want both Drummond and the Young Khan alive: Drummond, because he has been working for British Intelligence and could prove useful to Peking (now Beijing), and the Prince, because the communist government wants to quell the unrest in Balpur by installing him as a puppet king. 

This is where the story begins. Over the next 50-odd pages, Drummond and his trusted friend, Major Hamid of the Indian Army, risk everything to save the woman, the prince, and a catholic priest from the pursuing Reds. Higgins’ description of the treacherous land, right up to the nearest Indian Army border check post, is so graphic as to give the impression that it is real and he has been there. Neither is true for Higgins wrote from his own research and imagination. 

The Iron Tiger shows the Chinese in poor light, in context of Tibet and the invasion of Balpur, while India, though not part of the overall narrative, is seen as a friend with close links with the kingdom. Balpur might well be the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan which has close ties with India. It is bordered by India on the east and China to the north. Higgins doesn't say anywhere.

Although there is plenty of action, in the form of gunfire and explosions, The Iron Tiger lacks the suspense of Higgins’ other novels like The Last Place God Made (1971) or The Eagle Has Landed (1975). The narrative tends to drag a bit in the latter half as Drummond and the others, aided for a brief while by Balpur army chief Sher Dil, struggle for survival through stormy mountainous terrain, as they make their way towards the Indian border. 


As the lead character, Jack Drummond conforms to Higgins' devil-with-a-heart hero, though, he lacks the hardboiled image of some of his fellow mercenaries like Paul Chavasse, Sean Dillon, Martin Fallon or Harry Martineau. 

The Iron Tiger, written in the author's easy going style, is a decent read but not decent enough to make it to the top of the pile of books to read. 

I will leave you with what Higgins has to say about The Iron Tiger, as reproduced from his "Forward" to a recent HarperCollins edition of the book (left).

“India has always fascinated me, although I had not visited the country when I wrote The Iron Tiger. I have since, of course, and was delighted to find that, thanks to careful research, I had got it right. The period during which I wrote the book, the early sixties, was one in which the Chinese occupying power treated the Tibetan people with great brutality and many thousands of those unfortunates died. The Chinese invasion of India (in 1962) hardly made them popular in that country and, because of this, The Iron Tiger was a great success with Indian people. However, a strange thing happened. It made me, as the author, highly popular for a while as for some reason people believed that I had simply fictionalised a true story about myself and that the events of the book had actually taken place.” 
— Jack Higgins, July 1996


Previous reviews of Jack Higgins novels

1. October 11, 2011: The Keys of Hell (1965)

2. June 7, 2012: A Fine Night for Dying (1969)

3. August 10, 2012: A Prayer for the Dying (1973)

8 comments:

  1. Fascinating to get your take on this book and the subject at hand - I've not read this one (in fact I'm not sure I have read any of the Higgins books pre EAGLE HAS LANDED) and it soinds like he headn't really matured as a writer yet. Cheers mate.

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    1. Thanks, Sergio. You have a point about Higgins not quite having "matured" as a writer here. THE IRON TIGER does lack the solidity and sense of purpose one finds in his latter novels. The term "thriller" would apply rather loosely to this book. I have in possession some half-a-dozen of his books, including two early paperbacks that I hope to read and review in coming weeks. His novels have a way of finding me.

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  2. Always nice to see Jack Higgins featured. I own and have read a lot of his stuff over the years, and the quality varies. Personally, I like his earlier stuff - it may lack a bit of polish but there's also a bit more honesty and less of the repetition and blandness that have blighted his later books, especially the Dillon novels.

    The fact that he lived for a time in my homeland, Northern Ireland, even spending time very close to where I grew up always drew me to him.

    By the way, I like that you mentioned THE LAST PLACE GOD MADE as one of his best books. I quite agree with that - it was one of the first Higgins books I read and really gripped me.

    Colin

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    1. Hi Colin, I read Higgins on a regular basis. I re-read THE EAGLE HAS LANDED recently and I was pleased that it still holds up. I saw the film adaptation years ago and remember not being too happy with the choice of Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin. I don't remember why. I didn't know Higgins lived in Northern Ireland which might explain why his books centered around the IRA are good. He draws a sympathetic picture of his ex-IRA heroes, Devlin included. I have enjoyed reading his non-series books too, particularly THE LAST PLACE GOD MADE, NIGHT OF THE FOX, and STORM WARNING. As far as I can remember, Higgins is the only prolific author who romanticises all his heroes, drifters actually, with women inevitably falling for their poetic charms, albeit in vain most of the time. I agree with Tom Clancy's description of Higgins as a "Master" of the spy thriller. He has been around too long and, I admit, the quality of his work has dipped in recent years.

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  3. I don't think I have read any Jack Higgins and definitely not within memory. Looks like I should try to find a few of his books, maybe at the next big booksale I go to.

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    1. Track, I think you like reading spy fiction and so you will like many of Higgins' novels that are written in a simple and engaging style. His stories may lack the glamour of, say, Tom Clancy's books but he writes about interesting characters and places, and there is never a dull moment.

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  4. Action-adventure against a recent geo-political upheaval, a genre that British writers mastered, I think, being used to imagining in those terms from the days of the Empire. [Sorry, that's not a sentence.] This is a jump, but I'm wondering how you might have felt about the Sikh character in THE ENGLISH PATIENT.

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    1. Ron, you're right about British authors using geo-political events (particularly during the WWII-to-Cold War period) to write their action-adventure stories. I have read a number of these. On the other hand, I have not given much thought to reading action thrillers (as opposed to regular fiction) set in and around the Empire. I haven't read Ondaatje's THE ENGLISH PATIENT though, I think, I might have seen its film adaptation; always the easier thing to do.

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