Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gavin Lyall’s Shooting Script

Shooting Script was the fourth of Gavin Lyall’s very successful thrillers. It appeared in 1966. 

Gavin Lyall (1932-2003) had been an RAF fighter pilot before turning to journalism. He was for a time an aviation correspondent. Not surprisingly aviation plays a very major role in several of his early thrillers including the superb The Most Dangerous Game.

Shooting Script is another aviation thriller. Keith Carr is an ex-RAF fighter pilot who makes a precarious living as a charter pilot in the Caribbean, flying his own twin-engined De Havilland Dove. He is both surprised and annoyed when he is jumped by two Vampire jet fighters from the air force of Republica Libra, a mythical tinpot dictatorship. He is even more surprised when he discovers that he has attracted the attention of the FBI. They apparently believe he is involved in flying arms to rebels in Republica Libra. This is rather odd. He is a British subject and in any case why is the FBI interested in goings-on in Republica Libra - surely that would be a matter for the CIA?

An encounter with an old flying buddy, an Australian, from the Korean War deepens his mystification. Ned Rafter now runs the air force of Republica Libra (a grand total of twelve ancient De Havilland Vampire jet fighters). It appears that the joint dictators of Republica Libra also believe Keith is aiding the rebels but Ned offers him a job (an extraordinarily well-paid job) as his second-in-command. The most puzzling thing of all is that Keith is determinedly non-political and has no involvement whatsoever with rebels in Republica Libra or anywhere else. He declines the job.

He does get another fairly lucrative job, with a film company operating in Jamaica. The company is run by Walt Whitmore, an ageing but very successful cowboy/action movie star universally referred to as the Boss Man (and bearing more than a passing resemblance to John Wayne). They want Keith to fly a camera plane, an old B-25 medium bomber, for Whitmore’s latest  action epic. In the meantime Keith is to fly them to Republica Libra to scout locations. He has another encounter with a Vampire jet fighter, this time with much more serious consequences. 

Keith might not be interested in Caribbean politics but it soon becomes clear that Caribbean politics is interested in him. In fact he finds himself right slap bang in the middle of it, and there are some very unlikely players in this particular political game. And an extraordinary scheme that is more like something from a Walt Whitmore action movie.

Lyall was exceptionally good at incorporating aerial action into his thrillers. The dogfight between Keith’s lumbering unarmed Dove and a Vampire jet fighter is imaginative and exciting, made all the more tense by the fact that it’s a deadly game of chicken with no-one quite sure just how serious the dogfight is.

Gambling scenes in thrillers were the specialty of Ian Fleming but in this novel Lyall proves himself to be equally adept at using gambling as a metaphor for much more dangerous games.

The single greatest strength of this novel is the way Lyall uses both gambling and movie-making not just as colourful background but as the central engines of the plot (along with aviation of course). Keith Carr is caught up in an adventure that really does play out like a shooting script for a movie.

There are some fine and very imaginative action set-pieces. There’s plenty of sardonic humour and wise-cracking dialogue with more than a hint of the hardboiled school. There’s  romance, there are unexpected betrayals and equally unexpected loyalties.

Keith Carr is a fine and somewhat complex hero, a man who has found that killing is the one thing he’s really good at which is why he doesn’t want to do it any more. He was too good at it and started liking it too much. There are plenty of colourful larger-than-life characters but no real villains - all the major players in this story are a bit cynical but they all have some honour in them somewhere.

This really is a superb tautly-plotted thriller, possibly even better than his earlier The Most Dangerous Game (which was superb). Very highly recommended.


  1. I'll track down a copy of this one; it sounds like something from Martin Caidin, but better written.

    I don't know what reason Lyall gives for the FBI's interest in the hero, but since Nine-Eleven the Feds' ambit has been enlarged to "intelligence gathering" (to the detriment of personal freedom), meaning their mission sometimes overlaps the CIA's.

    Since we've had a big government ("and let's make it bigger") administration for the last eight years, it's small wonder American media is saturated with dramas that glorify the federal police (the law enforcement arm of big government); what few local cops might show up on screen are usually stereotypical racist knuckle-draggers.

  2. Haven't read the book yet but it looks up my alley.

    But back in the 1940s the FBI was the main US intelligence agency, through the its own SIS (Special Intelligence Service), involved in tracking Nazis and Axis agents and sympathizers in the Caribbean and the North of South America.

    Though the SIS was was replaced by the CIA in 1946-7 as the cold war began, almost none of its personnel who were FBI agents were retained. Thus they continued to be heavily involved informally due to close ties with various local criminal police forces, who often favored them because Director Hoover was more concerned with crime, and by extension subversion, than in protecting American commercial interests. This was particularly true in the pre Castro Caribbean (which the US regarded at the time as pretty much domestic territory anyway) and more intensively Mexico where the OSS and later CIA were definitely not welcome. Bureau agents were pretty much the only US police, secret or otherwise, tolerated in Mexico until the last years of President Lopez-Mateos in the 1960s because of long standing cultivation of the Policia Federal Preventiva by Hoover personally. This made it the reverse of Cuba where the FBI was most definitely not welcome.

    This lead to some interesting conflicts that I have never seen a book on though it could make a fantastic thriller.

    Similar things happened when the CIA displaced Naval Intelligence and the Treasury's Secret Service along the Panama Canal approaches and in the Dominican Republic, but those operations were largely absorbed by the CIA completely.

    Btw, European territories in the Caribbean were part of the OSS's bailiwick during the war, while all the mainland republics were SIS responsibility.