Monday, 10 April 2000

Jack Higgins: The Eagle Has Landed (1975)

Edition: Pan. 1977
Review number: 475

Probably one of the best known and biggest selling thrillers of all time, The Eagle Has Landed has certainly overshadowed the rest of Jack Higgins' career. I've read several of his other novels - each of which seems to have a quoted review on the back saying that it is his best work since The Eagle Has Landed - and they're mainly third rate, not even up to the standard set by the worst parts of this one.

The story of The Eagle Has Landed concerns an attempt to kidnap Churchill during the war by a group of paratroopers dropped on the north Norfolk coast, after German intelligence learns that he is to be staying in a manor house there after making a speech in Kings Lynn. The purpose of this is to produce a propaganda victory that will shock the Allies into the negotiation of peace as the possibility of a German victory looks more and more remote.

The Eagle Has Landed succeeds because the idea is interesting, a reversal of the plot of many thrillers about British SOE style operations (such as The Guns of Navarone), and the characters are not just stereotypes, from the Norfolk villagers to the German paratroops, the IRA man and the Boer-born spy who are the ground contacts for the Germans. These last two are a nice touch, a reminder that not all those who were apparently British were patriotically devoted to the war effort. (There is also a member of the British Frei Korps, the SS regiment of renegade British troops, who is dropped with the paratroopers.) None of them are the standard characters who populate Second World War thrillers; an example of different behaviour from the norm is that the eventual failure of the plot stems from one of the paratroopers diving into the mill stream to save a child, and having his German uniform exposed (it is worn under a Polish special unit one in an attempt to get around the Geneva convention, which specifies that fighting in the uniform of the enemy is forbidden).

The novel is not without flaws, including what seem to be small errors in a generally well-researched background. The idea that such a raid would have a massive effect on the war is perhaps a little far-fetched, though its propaganda value would no doubt be huge. The final twist I find massively unconvincing; it would be impossible to explain why without giving it away. Some terms are used with an anachronistic reference, the title being an example: its resonance is principally with the Apollo moon landings. The Eagle Has Landed nevertheless remains one of the all time classics of the thriller genre, and continues to be exciting even today.

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