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Friday, May 13, 2011

FORGOTTEN BOOKS: PATTERSON’S VOLUNTEERS!

FORGOTTEN BOOKS: PATTERSON’S VOLUNTEERS!

JOHN SMITH

Often compared to Desmond Bagley, or Craig Thomas, adventure writer John Smith has also been called flying’s answer to Dick Francis. For me, however, Smith comes closer to one of my all time favorite authors, Nevil Shute – and never more so than his novel Patterson’s Volunteers, it’s Greenland setting and action flying scenes comparing favorably with Shute’s 1930 novel An Old Captivity.

Smith served in the RAF and has held numerous flying jobs since, so much of what he experienced firsthand appears in his books. The flying scenes are always exceptionally well done and his plots, while sometimes obscure, are always intriguing.

PATTERSON’S VOLUNTEERS

In 1945 a squadron of Mustangs led by Colonel George Patterson flew over the icy wastes of Greenland on their way back to America – and vanished. And for fifteen summers after a strange American returned to search for the missing warplanes – now buried under innumerable feet of drifted snow.

Then he, too, disappeared . . .

That’s how the story went. Luke Spence, ferry pilot, Vietnam veteran, with seven years experience flying over the Polar ice cap, had heard it from the meteorologist at Narssarssuq. But when entrepreneur Rollo Scarth arrives and tried to hire Spence to find the Mustangs, Spence turns him down flat. For he knows the Arctic is God’s own hell on earth, where the silence can drive men mad, where the penetrating cold tightens like steel bands around toes, face, fingers, and where the Eskimo, inscrutable and unsmiling, remains hostile to the white man.

No force on earth except blackmail could have made Spence change his mind. And when he finds himself setting out in an aging de Havilland Beaver with Scarth and two women, he had no doubts the mission is doomed, and the four of them with it. The question is how doomed? And by whom?

The edge-of-your-seat excitement in the flying sequences, the cruel beauty of the Arctic, the strange, tough world of the international ferry pilots, all this can come only from the pen of a man who has himself experienced the world of his heroes.

Reviews also put Smith in the same category as Hammon Innes and Gavin Lyall. I wouldn’t go that far, and despite three solid novels and several others following after, he never achieved anything like the level of followings obtained by those authors. Still, Patterson’s Volunteers, is a good High Adventure read. His main characters are very Dick Francis-like, his plots very Hammond Innes-like, his action scenes very Gavin Lyall-like and Desmond Bagley-like, and therein lies the difficulty – Smith is a patchwork of those other authors. And while he cobbles together those elements in a very readable fashion, there is no element to make him stand on his own.

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