Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Touch the Devil and The White House Connection by Jack Higgins

I've slowed down on blogging so that I can read more and post less. Doesn't that sound like music to the ears? Well, this is in terms of my own posts and not my visits to other blogs. A direct beneficiary of this slack in blogging, at least in recent days, has been Jack Higgins, the British novelist whose real name is Harry Patterson. I read two of his thrillers—Touch the Devil (1982) and The White House Connection (1998)—back to back. Regular visitors to the 3Cs will know that I rate Higgins very highly and he remains one of my favourite writers.

Higgins is the author of sixty-plus thrillers including his most famous The Eagle Has Landed (1975), which is about Himmler's audacious plot to kidnap Churchill on English soil during World War II. However, instead of writing about Higgins and his fiction, which are already well known, I'll talk about three of his many unforgettable heroes in the context of the two novels I read.


The three characters are Liam Devlin, Sean Dillion, and Martin Brosnan. They appear in many novels; Dillon figures in as many as twenty. All of them have several things in common: Irish lineage, legend, idealist, wealthy, romantic, poet, scholar, philosopher, ruthless yet kind, a love for Bushmills, rebel, crack shot, and ex-IRA gunman. They once believed in the cause, a united Ireland, but became disillusioned after the Irish terrorists resorted to savagery and bombing. They are not cold-blooded killers and the one thing that is anathema to them is killing innocent people, particularly women and children.

They wear their hearts on their sleeve. They often leave behind a calling card, a rose, to convey a chilling message that seems to say, “I got this far and I could have killed you, but I didn't because I like peace more.” In Touch the Devil, for instance, Martin Brosnan, who is also a Vietnam War veteran, wants to hold someone accountable for all that he has been through. As he says, “Where does it stop? Somebody has to pay, Liam. I’m tired of being used for other people’s purposes…” He decides to go straight to the top, to the nameless British Prime Minister. Disguised as a waiter at a Christmas party in 10, Downing Street, Brosnan makes his way to her office, with a bottle of champagne and two glasses, but then walks away without firing a bullet or saying a word. He leaves a rose on the tray. The Iron Lady looks up and realises how close to death she really was. Brosnan’s is a desperate cry for redemption.

Skilled in guerilla warfare and secret operations, their services are available to anyone, at times for a price; including, in the case of Liam Devlin, Gestapo chief Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed, and to British Intelligence, often reluctantly. But, they won’t go beyond a point. They have no hopes of a normal existence. Their past is violent, their present uncertain, and their future obscure. Haunted by the IRA and hounded by British Intelligence, Higgins best describes his self-righteous and notoriously famous heroes as “dead man walking.” 

So legendary are Liam Devlin, Sean Dillon, and Martin Brosnan that they evoke awe wherever they go, in England or Ireland, among compatriots and veterans of the IRA. They are often received with exclamations of “Dear God!” or “Christ Jesus!” by old acquaintances. Higgins portrays them as hopeless romantics in their relations with lovely and sensible women whom they address softly as “Girl, dear.” It must be an Irish thing.

Most of their stories are narrated in the backdrop of the IRA and its fight against British rule in Northern Ireland. This is because Jack Higgins was born in England and raised in Belfast amid religious and political upheavals of the time. His formative years may have influenced his writing. He gives the impression of being sympathetic towards the IRA but he doesn't make them look good as much as he makes the rogue elements within the organisation look bad.

One such rogue element is the Sons of Erin, a splinter outfit of the IRA responsible for some of the worst crimes against the British, its army and its special forces. The secret organisation is made up of rich and influential members with Irish connections, including a gangster and a US senator, and is led by IRA renegade Jack Barry in The White House Connection and Frank Barry in Touch the Devil, both one and the same person. Sean Dillon in the first novel and Devlin and Brosnan in the second are “hired” by Brigadier Charles Ferguson, the powerful head of an elite and secret British security service known as Group 4, to track down Barry and eliminate him. Ferguson, whose description reminds me of actor Ernest Borgnine, reports only to the Prime Minister. He is utterly ruthless when it comes to protecting his country, even if it means using blatant lies, coercive tactics, and emotional blackmail to get the three IRA gunmen to “work” for him. For Ferguson, the end justifies the means, but he is not unkind. 

Liam Devlin is by far the most popular of Jack Higgins’ characters, appearing in about half a dozen books. I’ve never understood why Higgins didn’t give him more thrilling adventures. He is like the wise old sage, admired and respected by his protégés like Martin Brosnan and feared by his enemies. At 60, he is still fast with a gun. Post-IRA, he is a professor of English Literature at Trinity College in Dublin. 

Apart from Dillon and Brosnan there is Martin Fallon, another IRA hitman who wants out but can’t get out. They all have their own series, as do Higgins’ many other inimitable characters.

Jack Higgins often tells improbable stories where mercenaries like Sean Dillon have easy access to the American President in The White House Connection and Martin Brosnan enters 10, Downing Street without a hitch in Touch the Devil. His novels lack the brutal reality of a John le Carré, the technical brilliance of a Tom Clancy, or the researched narrative of a Frederick Forsyth. But Higgins more than makes up for the deficit by telling uncomplicated stories through some very memorable characters of espionage fiction. Characters who have "the Devil on their side," as Higgins tells you.



Previous reviews of Jack Higgins novels

October 9, 2013 - Hell Is Too Crowded, 1962
May 20, 2013 - The Iron Tiger, 1966
August 10, 2012 - A Prayer for the Dying, 1973
June 7, 2012 - A Fine Night for Dying, 1969
October 11, 2011 - The Keys of Hell, 1965
May 14, 2011 - Storm Warning, 1976

18 comments:

  1. Great post, Prashant. I still haven't read any Jack Higgins, but your reviews have inspired me to do that. I have a few of the books in e-book format.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. The plots in Higgins' novels often seem banal and stereotyped but I enjoy reading them all the same because he writes in a way one can understand easily. He keeps his prose simple. You can read his books in one sitting. I recommend his early novels like THE SAVAGE DAY, THE EAGLE HAS LANDED, THE LAST PLACE GOD MADE, TOLL FOR THE BRAVE, and STORM WARNING. I'd like to know what you think of the ones you read.

      In 1991, he came out with a sequel titled THE EAGLE HAS FLOWN but it didn't have the same impact as the original, in spite of the return of Liam Devlin. THE EAGLE HAS LANDED was made into a successful film by John Sturges. It'd Donald Sutherland as Devlin, a misfit since the IRA gunman turned English professor is short, about 5'6". The movie has a good cast. By a coincidence, in their younger days, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne would have fit the role of Devlin while I can picture Tom Berenger as either Brosnan or Dillon.

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  2. Thanks Prashant - wonderful to see your passion for Higgins in full flow. By the way, he was recently in the news for a recognition at the University of London where he was awarded an honorary doctorate (http://bit.ly/1mgIp3s) and, rather less honourably perhaps, for the fact that the 'Higgins' name is being used by another author of (ahem) rather different style of fiction (http://bit.ly/1bFCbGH)

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    1. Sergio, thank you. I'm passionate about certain authors who, apart from Jack Higgins, includes Oliver Strange, the late British writer of western novels. They created some nice, old fashioned characters founded on the bedrock of principles. In recent years Higgins seems to have lost the plot in some of his novels, though he remains a prolific writer. Thanks, Sergio, for informing me about the honour he received from the University of London, where he was educated. I didn't know about the misuse of his name by another namesake writer. Very interesting! The real Jack Higgins looks very angry, doesn't he? I'm surprised he hasn't been knighted yet.

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  3. I read quite a bit of Higgins back in the day and still have some of his books around unread. He was always reliable. I need to get back to some of his work. Most of the ones here you mention, I haven't read.

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    1. Charles, I agree, Jack Higgins is a "realiable" writer churning out thrillers at regular intervals. His compatriot Jeffrey Archer is another. They are both very popular in India; Archer probably a bit more, as he visits India often.

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  4. My husband's read a lot of him. Nice piece.

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    1. Patti, thank you. I've yet to come across one who hasn't read Jack Higgins at some point in his or her life. I suspect he is more well known in Asia and Europe than in America. His stories are very readable.

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  5. Prashant, great post. I may have read one of his in the past, but ought to read a couple more at least. I can tell he's a favourite of yours by your enthusiasm.

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    1. Col, thank you. I admit to getting carried away sometimes but in spite of my "enthusiasm," I haven't read all of his novels. Higgins is a decent writer both in terms of style and substance and, if I may add, the near total absence of sex. There is romance in the air, often just a hint. Most of his main characters are tragic heroes. I've a few of his unread books in my cabinet.

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  6. Terrific post, Prashant. I read THE EAGLE HAS LANDED ages ago and it remains one of my all time very favorite thrillers. I've also read a couple of other Higgins books, but my memory remains blank on the actual details, such as title, etc. When memory fails big time it is very frustrating for a reader - or anyone, for that matter. I'm also a big fan of Frederick Forsyth and Eric Ambler. Have you ever read any Ambler, Prashant? I think you'd like his stuff.

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    1. Yvette, thank you! I'm glad you liked the post. It's one of my favourite thrillers too. I read it again a couple of years ago. Higgins makes even the crack German troops including their leader Kurt Steiner look good with the villagers actually feeling sorry for them in the end. I read a lot of Forsyth in my younger days. He was one of many authors of popular fiction whose novels were read avidly in India. I've never read Eric Ambler but if he's anything like Higgins or Forsyth, then I'm going to look him up. Thanks for the recommendation, Yvette.

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  7. I read some Higgins years ago, and your post really took me back to those books. Perhaps I should try him again...

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    1. Moira, I read and reread a few Jack Higgins novels every year. His early books are the best. A few things are common to all his lead characters.

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  8. Excellent overview Prashant. I love Higgins too - I'm actually rereading The Eagle Has Landed at the moment - and think one of his great strengths is the way he gets you to sympathize with the anti-hero.

    Colin

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    1. Colin, thank you. I have read THE EAGLE HAS LANDED, a gripping tale, at least thrice, though I'm not much of a fan of its sequel THE EAGLE HAS FLOWN. I agree, as a reader you can't help sympathising with his main characters. Higgins' stories are simplistic but I enjoy them nonetheless. NIGHT OF THE FOX was both a fine novel and film with George Peppard in the lead role.

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  9. I read The Eagle Has Flown a few years ago. I thought it was OK but not as good as the first novel.
    Higgins' stories are, I suppose, simple but the best of them are well written and gripping. I'm not crazy about his recent output but the earlier work - up to the mid 90s or so - is a great example of tight pulp writing.

    Colin

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    1. Colin, sequels, books or films, seldom live up to the original. Apart from this book, I remember disliking MEMORIES OF MIDNIGHT, the sequel to Sidney Sheldon's highly successful THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT. I agree, his recent output doesn't match up to his novels written in the 60s-80s period.

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