The book was in the house, probably my father's. It scared me when I first read at 13 or 14 and it retains its power even now. An unusual Biggles book, with an exotic story of mysterious foreigners who wield death rays and can turn themselves invisible. It is unusual for these elements, but also for because it is particularly imaginative.
Set in the mid-1930s (published in 1935), Biggles adventurer Uncle Richard Bigglesworth, is being menaced in his country seat by mysterious, invisible, foreigners wielding paralysing blue rays, encounters which lead Biggles and his trusty crew (Algy and Ginger) to the Himalayas. Captain WE Johns imagination comes up with a drug addicted medical student with sufficient inherited wealth to finance the whole expedition. The party discovers a civilisation which has been working for centuries to harness the power of a mountain (literally) of radium, with a view to world conquest. Our heroes overcome a variety of hazards, including electrically controlled white centipedes, aided by a crusty old Scottish ship’s engineer kidnapped by the baddies 40 years earlier.
The beauty of the story is the ways in which Biggles and his party deal with the unusual and perplexing adversities they encounter, with a combination of ingenuity, clear thinking, imagination, pluck and luck.
My favourite sequence comes at the end of the story when the our heroes desperately clamber into their sea plane sitting on a dam as a towering mountain spur they have unsettled with cordite crashes into the water, creating a giant wave which will swamp them. As the plane slowly gathers pace in the direction of the dam wall, the only way out, Biggles realises they do not have enough speed up to clear the structure. When a collision is all but inevitable, the wall disappears before their eyes, cracked and broken by the unbearable water pressure. Our heroes are airborne and on their way back to the safety of Chittagong air base in British India (now Bangladesh). Fantastic.
My first Biggles book was Biggles of the Camel Squadron, which I got as a birthday present. This was a collection of pretty much stand-alone stories of Biggles World War One exploits. And while they were thrilling adventures they had a hard edge to them, at times Biggles pursues his enemies with white hot hatred which led to ruthless retribution on his part. Johns was still alive when I started reading Biggles and getting a new Biggles book was an eagerly awaited event. I was not conscious of the time span between the stories and I read them mixing up the eras: Biggles in Australia, Biggles and the Lost Sovereigns, Biggles in the Baltic and Biggles in the Jungle (bit silly that one).
But the stories which captured my imagination completely were the four books brought together as the Biggles Air Detective Omnibus: Sergeant Bigglesworth CID, Biggles Second Case, Another Job for Biggles and Biggles Works it Out. The best Biggles tales are the ones Johns wrote in the thirties and forties.
The air detective series is great because it taps into several strands of history to produce diverse stories. The biggest, most widespread conflict in history, World War Two, has just finished, with some countries victorious but exhausted and others defeated. All of them had a surplus of men trained for war but with little to do now.While not quite a lost generation, Biggles and his men are like so many other aviation veterans, at a loss, until the air detective gig comes along. So we get: jewel thieves trafficking between Europe and Africa using stolen high performance German prototype aircraft; a renegade U-boat in the Southern Indian Ocean: a new drug being grown in the Middle East and international thieves shifting Australian gold out of the country without going through customs. Biggles was not in Australia for very long and Johns did not seem to have a clear notion of what an Australian stockman might be like. But Biggles amazes the Aussie and his tracker (who had previously impressed Biggles with his skills), when Biggles uses his aircraft engines to blow away desert sand to reveal the tracks of the bad guys’ aircraft. That was pretty good.
eBook Biggles Hits the Trail