|© Berkley Books|
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.
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.