Thursday, November 4, 2010




The high adventure genre never goes out of reading style for me. Every time I get fifty pages into one of the current non-stop action thrillers dominating the bestseller lists, I can’t help but toss it aside, drag out my proverbial cardboard box of ancient, battered paperbacks, and indulge in the real thing: Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean – and Duncan Kyle . . .

I know, I’ve jumped on this same soapbox numerous times in the past. I’m a traditionalist/purist when it comes to high adventure, so sue me.

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Duncan Kyle, Gavin Lyall, and Colin Forbes (and later Jack Higgins – and much later Clive Cussler) entered the genre and proved constant challengers to the high adventure crown worn by the holy trinity mentioned above.

Duncan Kyle was the pseudonym for John Franklin Broxholme. Born in Bradford, England, in 1930, Kyle served two years with British Army Intelligence, and earned his writing stripes as a reporter and magazine editor.

A bet to see if Kyle could write a novel faster than pulp king Edgar Wallace led to the publication of The War Queen, a historical about Queen Boadicea, under his own name. Kyle then turned his hand to thriller writing, using the inspiration of Alistair MacLean not only in his choice of a Scottish sounding pseudonym, but also in choosing to submit his first thriller, A Cage of Ice, to Collins – MacLean’s publisher

Under the Duncan Kyle name, a string of hugely successful high adventure thrillers followed. Like those who trod the genre before him, Kyle researched his settings – from the Arctic to the Jungles of Borneo – so carefully they became as much a part of his novels as his heroes and villains.

In writing a homage to Duncan Kyle, pop culture historian Steve Holland summed up what makes the high adventure writers of the past different than today’s thriller writers . . .

Like his fellow high adventure thriller writers, [Kyle] realized having your hero simply bump heads with a villain, however villainous, made for dull reading – instead, the thrills came from battling against nature, whether that was sub-zero icy wastelands or the scorching deserts of Australia. There are few writers capable of matching the tension of [Kyle’s] Flight Into Fear where the main protagonist is flying across the Atlantic and has to exit the plane to get to an external fuel tank.

As is standard in the high adventure genre, Kyle's books typically involve a tough, resourceful individual who unexpectedly becomes involved in danger and intrigue in an exotic setting. While usually stronger on plot and setting than on characterization, Kyle’s works are invariably well-crafted.

I’ve enjoyed most of Kyle’s novels, but there are two which standout as prime examples of the art of high adventure writing: Whiteout, an almost traditional locked room mystery on a grand scale reminiscent of the best of Alistair MacLean; and Black Camelot, a WWII thriller, which could easily have come from the pen of Jack Higgins.


Seven thousand feet up on the Greenland ice-cap, in the teeth of 'white-out' blizzards and howling Arctic gales, the American army Polar research station lies cut off beneath the snow.

Camp Hundred lay a hundred miles from nowhere in one of the coldest and most dangerous places on earth. And into this strange, hostile world high above the Arctic Circle, Harry Bowes has come to test the TK4 – the most advanced hovercraft ever built – and walks into a nightmare on ice.

Isolated, dependent on technology for survival, 300 hand-picked soldiers have been battling the freezing weather, the loneliness, and the fear. And now they were losing . . . as one by one they begin to die and ‘accidents’ begin to happen too often to be a coincidence.

Outside the camp, a lethal blizzard rages, but Bowes suspects a more deadly enemy waits within. And there is no escape . . . except in a chilling race for survival against the merciless Arctic and a cold, brutal killer setting snares.


Set deep within the heart of Germany lies an Arthurian fortress – a secret Nazi stronghold where some of Germany's most powerful men sit in collusion around Himmler's Round Table . . . On the edge of defeat, the desperate men seek ways to avert the final collapse and to drive a wedge between the Allies.

Their ony weapon lies hidden in the secret archives of Black Camelot – lists of Britons who have supported the German war effort.

35-year-old Hauptsturmf√ľhrer Franz Rasch, a much decorated Waffen SS commando captain, betrayed by his own side, goes on the run with the list of western traitors and Nazi sympathizers – unknowingly acting as a pawn in the last-ditch plot to turn the invading Allied nations against one another. The plan goes awry when the documents are used instead to blackmail English industrialists.

To prevent a split with the Russians, British Intelligence must destroy the original list hidden in Wewelsburg Castle in north Germany, the headquarters of Himmler's SS – modeled on King Arthur's Camelot.

And who better to lead a suicidal attack on an SS castle than a rogue SS commando?

Black Camelot, in particular, includes one of the best siege narratives since The Guns of Navarone, as Rasch and other embittered SS men infiltrate the monstrous castle at the same time that it is being destroyed on Himmler's orders. Fiction like Black Camelot makes history live.

These books are both terrific reads and great introductions to the high adventure genre or refreshers for those of us who long for a style of writing rarely found today.




vangogan said...

I, too, am a fan of high adventure--starting with Alistair MacLean,then on to Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes, Jack Higgins, Duncan Kyle, Peter Driscoll, etc. Are there any modern-day equivalents to those greats?

bish8 said...

Higgin's is still writing, of course, but the quality of his work isn't anywhere near what it used to be.

Early Clive Cussler, came close to some of the greats, but now his stuff is being group written I've lost interest.

Unfortunately, I don't know anyone else who can currently compare . . .