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Men like action books. Well men like me anyway. Sometimes you just want to read a book that has men with surnames shooting each other over a lost microfilm or a supple damson. Over the years Jack Higgins has become a master in this Mans Fiction for Men genre churning out at least one book a year. He has grown so popular that publishers have decided to re-release some of his older books that he originally wrote years ago under aliases. With recent Sean Dillon books being pretty poor its with some relief that the like of the 1971 novel Toll for the Brave come out again.
Ellis Jackson is a drunk; a haunted man he struggles with memories that have been with him since being captured in Vietnam. It was in captivity that he met the charismatic St Clair, a highly decorated US marine. Together they were put under harsh psychological torture to make them convert to Communism. Instead they escape with only their lives.
Some years later St Clair has gone on to be a successful ambassador for the Marines whilst Jackson can barely make it home to his cottage in the woods. Things become grimmer when Jackson wakes one day to find himself covered in blood and playing host to two headless corpses. With LSD coursing through his body he has visions of Vietnamese solders from the past coming to kill him. Under arrest and in an asylum can Jackson prove his innocence even if he is not sure himself that its true?
Although quite far fetched Higgins has created in A Toll for the Brave one of his more effecting books. The first half in particular is a great look at what mental illness could do to an ex-soldier. Higgins flits between the present day and the events in Vietnam. This is actually very good writing for Higgins who in recent years has had a sharp reduction in the quality of his output. The central character of Jackson is a flawed and violent man but Higgins makes all his actions justifiable.
The additional roles in the book are not particularly fleshed out with St Clair being interesting but flat and the bad guys pretty one dimensional. Criticisms could also be levied at the characterisation of the females who only appear so that they can get into trouble or bed!
That brings me to another point about A Toll for the Brave the sex. Higgins does not actually write that much sex in his books as a rule (leaving out Memoirs of a Dancehall Romeo), so when it appears here I was shocked. Lets just say that with the amount of sex and violence in this book, its for adults only. Speaking of violence, its this that gets in the way of what could have been an absolute classic. The story rockets along in a well written and exciting way until about the final third. Unfortunately, the narrative descends into a bit of a killathon and leaves the reader feeling a bit let down. Surely the big bad guys that had been built up throughout deserve a better ending?
Finally what exactly is a toll for the brave? I get images of people crossing Sydney Harbour Bridge; those that cross on the path go for free. Those that decide they want to go over suspension part pay a $2 fee a toll for the brave as it were. I dont know were Jack Higgins gets his book titles from but they are so random that I often go back to his older books thinking I have not read them because I have forgotten the title. Keep them simple Higgins.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the chauvinistic, violent, sex filled filth, Toll for the Brave is a great little book. Not particular long, you are never there to discover the deep, intricate feelings behind Jacksons actions because you are too busy enjoying the actions themselves. This book feels a lot fresher than Higgins more recent work and reflects the huge gulf between his peak and long fall.
For fans of action books and/or Higgins this is a must. However, for those that do not enjoy the more chauvinistic things best avoid.
From the first name in heart pounding thriller fiction. Ellis Jackson woke up hugging a twelve-bore shotgun. In the next room, his mistress and his best friend lay naked on the bed, their heads blown to pulp. Back in England at last, Ellis Jackson had finally cracked. Active combat, a Viet Cong prison camp and the callous treachery of his lover and interrogator, Madam Ny, had taken their toll. Ellis Jackson was out of his mind. Or was he? Maybe it would all have been easier to take if he really had been mad.