There comes a time in most authors lives when they go past their best and need a little help. A writer may still be churning out novels well into the twilight years of their existence, but for many these books do not compare favourably to their peak. Jack Higgins is one such author. During the 60s and 70s he was one of the leading lights of action thriller fiction for men. Now he churns out a Sean Dillon novel every year with the aid of someone else and to be honest its difficult to tell one from the other. One way that Higgins has found to supplement his pension is to re-release books from his vast back catalogue that never reached a wider audience because they were written under a pseudonym. Do these older 1960s thrillers still hold up today? Or are they as poor as Higgins last few rambling odysseys?
Its 1995 and an aging ex spy is visited by two men. The spies name is Paul Chavesse and he has led an interesting life that has finally come back to haunt him. Chavesse is asked to remember a particular mission that he took part in the 1960s that saw him infiltrate Albania in search of a missing religious icon. During the mission he would meet new friends, be betrayed and escape death. Why have the events of 30 years ago come back now?
The Keys of Hell is a very old fashioned feeling thriller and this makes perfect sense when you realise that it was originally written in the mid 60s and the James Bond popularity of the time. Higgins has added a fresh beginning and end to the story that brings the story into the modern era, but the bulk of the book is the original tale told via a flashback. The story itself is pure nonsense and Higgins at his daft best. At around 300, short pages, long this book rattles along at such a pace that you feel mean picking too many holes in it.
The story itself is actually pretty interesting as the 1960s was a good decade for espionage with the Soviet states and the Chinese being a real threat to the British. I also found that the setting of Albania was an interesting one as it is not the kind of country that gets written about often. Chavesse and company must sail a boat into the uncharted swamps of the country to uncover a missing artefact that has deep religious meaning for the people of the Albania. I liked the fact that the pace rarely let up and as soon as one problem was resolved another popped up.
Another area that can not be criticised too much is the characters. The chances are that if you are reading this you will have read Higgins before and know that his idea of character development is that you are lucky to know the main characters first name! However, Chavesse has actually appeared in several Higgins books and is a Bond clone. I like the characters and although he is pretty cliché, you want this type of hardened and intelligent Englishmen in this sort of book. Chavesses character is the main reason that this book feels so old fashioned as he really is black and white. The supporting characters do little in the book to stop you from thinking that this is an old book republished as they consist of loose women and ugly brutish men with hearts of gold.
The fact that the story and characters in The Keys to Hell are reasonable is not enough to make this a must read. The book is far too similar to the majority of Higgins work and especially the Sean Dillon novels of the past few years. Higgins is also unable to disguise the fact that this book is really a re-release and not an original piece of work. Seeing as it is set in the 60s the fact that the characters and setting are dated is fine as that is of the period. However, there is no such excuse for the writing style itself. This book reads far too oldie worldly, with a chauvinistic tinge throughout. The female characters are eye candy and untrustworthy and I think that society has moved on from this type of portrayal.
I would recommend this book to fans of Higgins only as they will see it as yet another decent, if mediocre, title from one of the most prolific thriller authors of all time. However, I would say to borrow it from the Library or buy it cheap as it is a very short book. For new readers of Higgins I advise something like Solo or Lucianos Luck as these were written at the authors peak and you will get a good taste for how appealing boys own fiction for grown men can truly be.
Super-spy Paul Chavasse embarks on a mission to Albania, to find a double agent whose cover has been blown and put him out of commission, permanently. Once there he finds himself at the centre of a deadly double-cross, fighting for his life. It's a trip that agent Paul Chavasse will never forget. His destination: the isolated republic of Albania on the Adriatic coast, at a time when the regime is at its most repressive and the people live in daily fear of the secret police. His job: to find a double agent whose cover has been blown and put him out of commission - permanently. But what Chavasse doesn't know is that deep within the twisting channels of the perilous coastal marshes, someone has set a trap for him - someone who holds the keys of hell.