Jack Higgins’ “The Eagle Has Landed”

It’s now forty years since Jack Higgins published his bestselling war thriller “The Eagle Has Landed” and a good ten years since I last read it. Time for a re-read and a very satisfying read it was.

Now if you’ve only ever seen the very inferior film version put it out of your mind and find the book. And when I say find the book I really do mean find the extended version published in more recent years, rather than an early edition or the film tie-in edition. You can usually tell the one you want by the fact that it has an author’s preface by Higgins.

The more recent editions give the text as Jack Higgins actually wrote it. Higgins had published a number of thrillers under various names before this breakthrough novel. When he presented the idea of “The Eagle is Landed” his publisher commented that it was the “worst idea he’d ever heard of.”

But Higgins persisted. The first edition was butchered during editing, with whole scenes and characters cut. This is why I suggest buying a later edition where Higgins has restored the book somewhere nearer to his original intentions.

Not for the first time, a publisher has been proved wrong. “The Eagle Has Landed” proved to be an immediate bestseller, first in America and then everywhere else. By the mid nineties, when my copy was published, Higgins could remark – no doubt with some glee – that his book had sold 26 million copies and been translated into 55 languages.

The plot is relatively simple. Following the rescue of Mussolini from Italy by Otto Skorzeny, Hitler demands to know why his secret service, the Abwehr, can’t bring him Churchill out of England? The head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, instructs his operative Max Radl to produce a feasibility study. As Radl progresses he finds that the task could actually be accomplished.

The plot soon takes wing: Radl finds that Churchill will be visiting a lonely village in Norfolk for a quiet weekend. Furthermore, the Abwehr has a spy in the village, a seemingly respectable mature lady called Joanna Grey. He sends in a skilled IRA gunman, Liam Devlin, to assist her ahead of the kidnap attempt. To carry out the mission he finds a disgraced paratrooper Colonel Kurt Steiner and his men to parachute into Norfolk and then…

I’ll leave it there, for this is so good a thriller that you need to read it for yourself.

Now if all of this sounds like common thriller material you couldn’t be more wrong. By the time he wrote “The Eagle Has Landed”, Higgins had learned a great deal about his craft. This is not just a thriller but a terrific novel full stop, written by a writer at the height of his powers. It always irritates me that, certainly on this side of the Pond, we have an awful snobbery about genre fiction. Thrillers and their like are somehow considered to be inferior to many other kinds of novel. And that’s a pity for some of the finest writing is in that genre.

“The Eagle Has Landed” becomes superior to the many similar war thrillers because of the tremendous characterisation. For a start it was written at a time when war thrillers abounded in Britain, where the Germans were portrayed – usually – almost as cartoon villains.

Higgins has said that he wanted to write about good men fighting for rotten causes. We see the horrors of the Nazi regime here, but we are also shown how people get caught up – for good or bad – by the march of history.

Max Radl, is a disillusioned war hero, slowly dying of wounds sustained on the Russian front. Kurt Steiner had been disgraced for rescuing a Jew from the Warsaw Ghetto. Joanna Grey, the Abwehr’s enemy agent in Norfolk, is being torn apart by her love for England and her hatred of the English, because of her experiences in the Boer War. Liam Devlin is a member of the IRA who’s become tired of some of the methods used to achieve a united Ireland.

Devlin is the star turn of the novel. (Higgins uses the character again at different ages in other books). He is by the English definition an Irish terrorist, though a very questioning terrorist. He is a poet who starts the book lecturing in English literature at the University of Berlin. He remains loyal to his cause throughout, but deeply suspicious of everyone else’s. This character is portrayed with such depth, integrity and understanding that any writer of literature would be glad to own him. Devlin stays in your mind a long time after you close the pages.

“The Eagle Has Landed” has one of the best openings of any thriller, with Higgins himself, as a character, visiting Norfolk in the 1970s; gradually uncovering the truth about what happened there in 1943. This beginning is a wonderful example of just how an opening chapter should be, each sentence drawing the reader further and further in. You’ll learn more from studying it than you would from a hundred text books or writing courses.

While the idea of Nazis arriving undercover in an English village is not new – it was first contemplated in an exciting film called “Went The Day Well” made during the war – Higgins was the first to portray the situation fairly from all sides. And to include an IRA gunman as a hero, well an anti-hero I suppose, in a thriller written at the height of the Troubles of the 1970s was a particularly brave move. Higgins moved the thriller genre on by providing a greater depth of understanding. Thriller writers have benefitted ever since.

The film version might pass an hour or two on a wet afternoon, but it shows none of the subtlety of Higgins’ writing. Whole sections of the book are lost and one major character is not there. Michael Caine’s Steiner looks as though he’s wandered in from some other film, Jean Marsh’s Joanna Grey is good but far too young. Larry Hagman’s American Rangers Colonel is a bit like JR Ewing doing his war service. Only Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin comes close to the literary original. (Incidentally, Caine was originally supposed to play Devlin, but apparently thought that portraying an IRA soldier might be a bad career move. The late Richard Harris had a go as well, before the director decided on Sutherland). The direction of the film is unimaginative and some of the dialogue is occasionally risible.

“The Eagle Has Landed” deserves a more intelligent remake, perhaps as a mini-series where some of the depth of Higgins’s original could be explored.

But if you enjoy thrillers – certainly if you’re thinking of writing one – do read or re-read “The Eagle Has Landed.” Jack Higgins is a master of the craft.

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