Gavin Lyall (1932-2003) was an English writer who made his reputation with a series of thrillers between 1961 and the mid-70s, all featuring first-person narration and often with an aviation theme. After this his work went through several dramatic changes of style and direction. At the moment we are concerned with his second novel, The Most Dangerous Game, which appeared in 1963.
Lyall had served in the Royal Air Force and had worked as an aviation correspondent for the Sunday Times so it’s hardly surprising that flying plays a crucial role in so many of his books. It plays an absolutely central role in The Most Dangerous Game.
Bill Cary makes a somewhat precarious living as a floatplane pilot in Lapland, the northernmost province of Finland. The reason he came to be living in Finland will prove to be rather important. In fact Cary’s past, about which he is extremely vague, will prove to be very important. He does all kinds of flying jobs but mostly he does mineral survey work - searching primarily for nickel which a certain company is convinced is to be found in commercial quantities although so far no-one has succeeded in actually finding any. The reason the company believes there is nickel to be found will also play an important part in the story.
Cary flies a battered De Havilland Canada Beaver. Battered is putting it mildly. A Finnish Air Force pilot had crashed the plane. It was put back together again which is why Cary was able to buy it cheap. Unfortunately it wasn’t put back together again very well and the fact that it actually flies is a matter of some surprise to everyone, not least to Bill Cary.
With his mineral survey work having come to an end for the season Cary is happy to get any work he can. So he is happy enough to fly Frederick Wells Homer off into the wilderness to hunt bear. Frederick Wells Homer is a wealthy American, a true southern gentleman from the state of Virginia. Homer apparently spends his entire life hunting big game. Bill Cary doesn’t really approve of hunting but a job is a job. He also doesn’t entirely like the idea of having to fly into the prohibited zone - an area of Lapland close to the border of the Soviet Union where the Finnish government prohibit flying in order to minimise the risk of border incidents.
Having flown Homer off into the forest to hunt his bears Cary gets another job. Homer’s sister has suddenly arrived from the US and she is anxious to find her brother although Cary has the impression that her brother would prefer not to be found. Cary’s life starts to get even more complicated when he responds to a distress signal - a British Auster floatplane has crashed. Cary is able to rescue the pilot and his passenger but there are a coupler of things that bother him. Firstly, the Auster was equipped with a radar receiver - a device which tells a pilot when he is being tracked by radar. Hardly standard equipment, and not the sort of thing you would need unless you were doing something that was perhaps not quite legal. The second thing that bothers Cary is that he is quite sure that the passenger of the Auster is an SIS man - a British spy.
Other strange things start to happen. Lapland seems to have become rather a dangerous place for floatplane pilots, and the Finnish security police are taking a great deal of interest in Bill Cary’s activities. There’s also the matter of gold sovereigns minted in Bombay, and the famous Volkof Treasure (supposedly a fabulous hoard of jewels hidden by a White Russian exile shortly after the Russian Revolution). And there’s the little matter of the Messerschmitt 410 at the bottom of a remote lake. Suddenly people who normally never carry guns seem to feel the need to do so and people start getting killed. Bill Cary seems to be at the centre of it all which is rather annoying since he has no idea why any of this is happening.
Bill Cary is a character almost as battered as the plane he flies. He is only just holding himself together, mostly with the aid of whisky and black coffee. He is not the happiest of men but he is even more unhappy to find himself caught in the middle of a web of double-crosses, family dramas, murder, criminal conspiracies and espionage. His biggest cause of unhappiness is finding that the past that he hoped he had escaped from has come back to haunt him.
Lyall is sometimes considered to have been influenced also by the American hardboiled school and there is perhaps something in that although it seems to me that by far the biggest influence on his work is Alistair McLean. This is very much a thriller in the MacLean tradition and in fact in this book Lyall makes use of a particular technique that MacLean was very fond of (I won’t say any more for fear of revealing spoilers). In general the structural similarities to MacLean’s work are quite striking.
The avoidance of graphic sex and violence is also very much in the MacLean mould. MacLean was (justifiably) confident enough in his story-telling abilities not to have to resort to such things. Fortunately Lyall is also a sufficiently competent spinner of adventure yarns to be able to dispense with these elements.
One of MacLean’s greatest strengths was his mastery of atmosphere, especially if the setting of a story happened to be the sea or some cold remote hostile place. Lyall has rather boldly chosen exactly the kind of location that MacLean favoured - a land of bleak snowswept forests and remote lakes. Lyall might not have quite the same gift for making the reader actually feel the cold in his bones but he does a fine job nonetheless.
Lyall’s plotting is complex but assured and has a very pleasing symmetry to it. He ties together a mass of apparently unrelated mysteries and does it with commendable skill. His style is lucid and there’s some nicely hardboiled and cynical dialogue, with generous touches of sardonic humour. There’s also no shortage of action.
If you’re an aviation geek you will love the way Lyall handles the flying elements - with a mixture of high excitement and technical detail which manages to be fascinating without being baffling to those of us who are not flyers. You’ll also appreciate the fact that there’s a great deal of flying in the book. Even if you’re not an aviation geek this is a superb suspense thriller. It might be in the Alistair MacLean mould but Lyall is no mere imitator - he has his own style and The Most Dangerous Game has its owen distinctive flavour. Highly recommended.