Tony's Reviews > The Eagle Has Landed

The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins
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Aug 27, 10

Read in January, 2010

Probably like most contemporary readers of this World War II thriller, I first came across it as a Sunday afternoon film on TV when I was a child. But when I saw the audiobook at the library the other day, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to revisit a story I only remembered the outlines of. The book begins in a graveyard in a small English village on the Norfolk coast, where Higgins (the author) is futilely seeking the grave marker of an 18th-century American sailor as part of his research for a freelance article he's writing for a nautical magazine. In the course of this, he stumbles across a hidden gravestone from 1943 engraved with the names and ranks of a platoon of German paratroopers. When the local churchman attempts to run him off the property, he is determined to dig deeper, and so unwraps the secret tale of German paratroopers sent to abduct Winston Churchill.

Apparently Higgins felt there were a lack of English-language books that portrayed German soldiers in World War II as anything other than foaming-at-the-mouth Nazis, and wished to present a more balanced depiction in keeping with his own experience. The idea was to present a thrilling scheme organized and conducted by largely sympathetic professional German soldiers with the help of somewhat less sympathetic, but nonetheless engaging traitorous helpmates. Indeed, the backgrounds of these two traitors -- one is an IRA hit man, the other a Boer widow -- is none too subtly calibrated to highlight the injustice and cruelty of British imperial rule. Although the IRA man probably has the most time on the page (and indeed, returns in five more books by Higgins), there's no protagonist as such, and the cast includes a bevy of German intelligence officers, a village full of typical stolid citizens, and a unit of American troops commanded by a kind of loose cannon (presumably meant to illustrate the ill discipline of the American cousins), not to mention the German commando unit itself. Everyone is kind of a stock character without very much depth, but that's pretty much OK for a thriller like this.

The book's opening graveyard scene appears to be a direct nod to the 1943 film When The Day Went Well (itself based on a Graham Greene short called "The Lieutenant Died Last"), which also opens in a small English village graveyard with a memorial to a platoon of German paratroopers. That story and film, which posit a small force bent on sabotage, must have clearly inspired Higgins, who then raised the stakes to the highest possible level in his version. On the whole, the book is a pretty fun read, and very well paced, with the action moving back and forth between the various players involved (including Himmler). It does get a little heavy-handed at times, especially the scene in which the true identity of the Germans is revealed, but it's all pretty ingenious and well-executed fun, chock full of interesting little details such as the British Freikorps and things like that. Well worth reading by aficionados of WW II thrillers.
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