Englishman Gavin Lyall (1932-2003) had established himself in the 60s as one of the best thriller writers in the Alistair MacLean mould. His books up until Judas Country were all first-person narratives. His heroes were men who were moderately honest (although sometimes skirting the lines of what was strictly legal) who get caught up in intrigue and/or espionage. After Judas Country he changed direction and wrote the four Harry Maxim contemporary spy thrillers with third-person narration and then changed direction again, turning out four historical spy novels.
Judas Country follows the story of Roy Case, a pilot somewhat down on his luck. His partner Ken Cavitt ran into some legal unpleasantness in Israel, spending two years in prison there. As a result they lost their aircraft and their business. Roy took a one-off job for a man named Kingsley, flying a twin-engined Beechcraft Queen Air into Cyprus for Kingsley’s Castle hotel chain. Roy has to fly a dozen cases of champagne to the Castle Hotel in Nicosia. Perhaps Roy should have wondered about this - champagne is not something you normally send by air. But he needed the job and in Nicosia he can meet up with Ken again (Ken having been just released from prison).
Unfortunately the Caste hotel chain has run into financial difficulties and receivers have been appointed. This means Roy isn’t going to get paid and he’s stranded in Nicosia and he finds himself helping out the receiver in the management of the now bankrupt but still operational Castle Hotel. This is all rather inconvenient and irritating but Roy isn’t too worried by it until he opens one of the cases of champagne. What the case contains is definitely not champagne.
He’s a bit concerned about the middle-aged Austrian mediæval archaeologist Ken befriended in gaol. Professor Spohr had had some misunderstanding with the Israeli authorities over the matter of an excavation he was making and the professor had, perhaps unwisely, tried to matter to settle the matter by drawing a gun on the Israeli cops.
Roy is not entirely happy about the Mossad agent who has been tailing him.
Roy Case is a fairly typical Lyall hero, a fairly good-natured guy who doesn’t really want trouble but keeps finding it. Like most Lyall heroes he’s intelligent but gets into spots that perhaps he should have avoided. More often he gets into situations for the simple reason that he needs the money. Roy and Ken obviously have pasts that are colourful and maybe a just a little bit dubious. Their aviation business had been quite legal, in theory. Well, mostly legal. The paperwork was always in order. Whether the goods described in the paperwork matched the cargoes they were actually transporting was another matter, a problem they solved by never checking the contents of any crates they loaded aboard their aeroplane.
When they do find trouble they’re philosophical about it. It’s something to which they’ve grown accustomed.
Now they’re mixed up in a situation involving weapons both ancient (or at least mediæval) and modern, weapons the ownership of which is doubtful. There’s the possibility of big money which might be obtainable without breaking the law. Or at least without technically doing anything illegal, or at least without doing anything that could be proved to be illegal. Also mixed up in this is the professor’s daughter Mitzi and Eleanor Travis from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Eleanor has the chance of getting hold of something the museum wants, in a way that is almost ethical if you look at it from the right angle and you don’t look too closely and you squint a bit.
Having possession of something that is worth a great deal of money is a fine thing, if you can figure out a way of selling the item without tiresome interference from the authorities. When you don’t actually have the item but you might know where it might be found the difficulties tend to increase. Roy and Ken could be rich men, but it’s a big could be.
And items that are worth a lot of money attract the interest of other parties with flexible attitudes towards the law. In this case there are quite a few parties interested.
There’s plenty of action, there’s some airborne excitement and there are plot twists in abundance.
Maybe not quite as good as Lyall's earlier and truly excellent Shooting Script but still very highly recommended. I've also reviewed Lyall's The Most Dangerous Game and Midnight Plus One and I recommend them as well.