Friday, September 19, 2008



Gavin Lyall (along with Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes, and Alistair MacLean – all of whom are forgotten/out of favor today), was one of my favorite authors working in what was once called the High Adventure genre. Lyall’s first person narratives of aviation daring-do and intrigue filled my teenage head with dreams of adventure.

Published in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Lyall's first seven novels were action thrillers with different settings around the world. His first novel, The Wrong Side of the Sky, drew from his personal experiences in the Libyan Desert and in Greece, and set the standard for his meticulous research.

The Wrong Side of the Sky was an immediate success and allowed Lyall to quit his job as a reporter and take up novel writing full time.
The protagonist, Jack Clay, was typical of Lyall’s early heroes – an ex-Royal Air Force military transport pilot now making a threadbare living flying charter cargo flights of dubious legitimacy around the Mediterranean and other parts of Europe in an old Douglas DC-3.

His dreams of having his own airplane and own charter company are rapidly fading due to age and lack of money, but at least he is flying. While in Athens, Greece he has a chance encounter with an old wartime friend and rival pilot, Ken Kitson, when he lands in a luxurious private plane.

Kitson is personal pilot to the immensely wealthy former-Nawab of Tungabhadra in Pakistan, who is searching the world for his family's heirloom jewels, which had been stolen by a British charter pilot during the Partition of India. However, the Nawab is not the only one looking for the missing jewels, and is not the only one who would cheat, steal or murder to find them first.

This is all good stuff and typical of Lyall’s early work. His second novel, The Most Dangerous Game (1963) was set in Finnish Lapland, and was again meticulously researched with local details.

The film rights to Midnight Plus One (1965), in which an ex-spy is hired to drive a millionaire to Liechtenstein were purchased by actor Steve McQueen, who had planned to adapt it to the cinema before he died.

Shooting Script (1966) is about a former RAF pilot hired to fly a camera plane for a filming company is set around the Caribbean. The protagonists of Judas Country (1975) are again former RAF pilots, and the setting is now in Cyprus and the Middle East.

Later in his writing career, Lyall adapted to the demands of the market, turning to more LeCarre type espionage stories. These were told in the third person and, while they might have sold better than his early works, I found them stodgy and tough reading.

Lyall won the British Crime Writers' Association's Silver Dagger award in both 1964 and 1965, which I think speaks to the excellence of his early titles.

If you can dig up a copy of The Wrong Side of the Sky, I can guarantee you an evening of adventure and excitement, which will have you scrambling for more of Lyall’s novels.

1 comment:

The King Of Cool said...

I've heard of him, but never read any of his work. Sounds awesome though.