Header overlay

Aerobatics

Share this

Gavin Lyall was not the first pilot to take to fiction – Nevil Shute, Ernest K. Gann and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry navigated the skies creatively before him – but Lyall’s thrillers of the 1960s and ’70s set a standard of aerial pace and style that has not been bettered. When his first novel, The Wrong Side of the Sky, was published in 1961 P. G. Wodehouse was prompted to write: ‘Terrific! When better novels of suspense than this are written, lead me to them.’

The novel set a pattern Lyall was to follow in three further thrillers, all featuring the seat-of-the-pants adventures of pilots for hire: The Most Dangerous Game in 1964, Shooting Script in 1966 and Judas Country a decade later, in 1975. His third novel chronologically, Midnight Plus One, published in 1965, features a car chase through France rather than a pilot, but it could just as well be classified in the flying genre since Lyall treated driving the car, the iconic 1950s French Citroën DS, much as he did flying an aircraft.

Common to all Lyall’s flying thrillers are the narrators. Though they may differ in name, they have in common a dry laconic wit and throwaway lines of the kind pioneered by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. All are experienced fliers of battered integrity, seen-it-all cynics who are tough under pressure and have hearts, if not of gold, then at least in the right place. One identifies with them and, thanks to Lyall’s powers of description, one is with them up there in the cockpit – of a Dakota, the wartime and post-war workhorse of the skies, in The Wrong Side of the Sky; a Beaver amphibious float plane in The Most Dangerous Game; a de Havilland Dove and a worn-out US wartime Mitchell bomber in Shooting Script; and a Beechcraft Queen Air in Judas Country.

Gavin Lyall knew about aeroplanes because he’d both flown them and covered aviation as a journalist. Born in 1932

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

Gavin Lyall was not the first pilot to take to fiction – Nevil Shute, Ernest K. Gann and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry navigated the skies creatively before him – but Lyall’s thrillers of the 1960s and ’70s set a standard of aerial pace and style that has not been bettered. When his first novel, The Wrong Side of the Sky, was published in 1961 P. G. Wodehouse was prompted to write: ‘Terrific! When better novels of suspense than this are written, lead me to them.’

The novel set a pattern Lyall was to follow in three further thrillers, all featuring the seat-of-the-pants adventures of pilots for hire: The Most Dangerous Game in 1964, Shooting Script in 1966 and Judas Country a decade later, in 1975. His third novel chronologically, Midnight Plus One, published in 1965, features a car chase through France rather than a pilot, but it could just as well be classified in the flying genre since Lyall treated driving the car, the iconic 1950s French Citroën DS, much as he did flying an aircraft. Common to all Lyall’s flying thrillers are the narrators. Though they may differ in name, they have in common a dry laconic wit and throwaway lines of the kind pioneered by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. All are experienced fliers of battered integrity, seen-it-all cynics who are tough under pressure and have hearts, if not of gold, then at least in the right place. One identifies with them and, thanks to Lyall’s powers of description, one is with them up there in the cockpit – of a Dakota, the wartime and post-war workhorse of the skies, in The Wrong Side of the Sky; a Beaver amphibious float plane in The Most Dangerous Game; a de Havilland Dove and a worn-out US wartime Mitchell bomber in Shooting Script; and a Beechcraft Queen Air in Judas Country. Gavin Lyall knew about aeroplanes because he’d both flown them and covered aviation as a journalist. Born in 1932, he served as a pilot in the RAF before going to Cambridge where he edited Varsity, the university newspaper. As a journalist, he worked for Picture Post and the Sunday Graphic and later became air correspondent of the Sunday Times. In this latter role he wrote an early profile of the Anglo-French Concorde, still under construction, opening his report in typical Lyall style: ‘Concorde has always been a bit of a bastard. When it was officially conceived in . . . 1962, its parents, Britain and France, were not married – although as usual in such matters, one partner expected they soon would be.’ I was introduced to Lyall’s novels by a friend much taken, as I was to be, by the author’s often sardonic style – ‘Pushing fifty and not moving it much’, ‘A few years younger than me and about a century younger than I felt’, or, on entering a hotel bar, ‘I’d forgotten the lighting they went in for there: a small frosted-glass lamp parked in front of each drinker. Just enough light to make every woman look beautiful and every bar bill unreadable. A big hotel thinks of such things.’ In tune with the times in which they were written and set, and like films of the post-war period, Lyall’s stories feature characters who smoke and drink heavily, whether in the air or on the ground. The cockpit floor of one plane becomes its ashtray; a bottle of beer from a sympathetic engineer in the maintenance hangar is de rigueur for a typical Lyall pilot with a hangover landing his plane. It is devil-maycare buccaneering of the highest order, and the rust-bucket planes are as battered as their pilots. The Beaver in The Most Dangerous Game is described thus: ‘one of the floats was slightly out of line, the fuselage was twisted so that none of the doors fitted properly, and the engine bearings were waggling like a film star’s bottom’. Lyall undertook much research for his books, travelling widely and ensuring that scenes and locations live on the page. The Wrong Side of the Sky is set in the Greek Aegean islands and Libya, well before Colonel Qaddafi. The plot, like those of several of Lyall’s early thrillers, involves a hunt for stolen treasure and features gun fights, carousing and pretty, usually intelligent and headstrong women. His next novel, The Most Dangerous Game, is about long-lost treasure, the search for valuable minerals via aerial survey, murder, mayhem and espionage, all set within the Arctic Circle. The ‘most dangerous game’ of the title is Man himself when armed with a gun – and the ending is not pretty. Improbable though they all may be, what nevertheless lifts each plot is Lyall’s ability to carry the reader with him. One is in the hands of a writer skilled in describing exactly what it is like to fly a plane, often in extreme weather conditions. Here is an Italian Piaggio private plane heading into a Mediterranean storm:
[Ahead rose] a rampart of great white thunderheads reaching to 40,000 feet . . . eight-mile high pillars of thunder stuffed with roaring up-and-down currents that could flip a 100-ton jetliner on her back and then tear the wings off her. To a little four-tonner like the Piaggio it would be like flying through a meat mincer . . . For a moment [the plane] was still, passive . . . Then the vertical currents hit us. The Piaggio reared on a wing-tip, fell off before I could catch her. Then we surged upwards, hung and dropped. There was no point in fighting her . . .
In Shooting Script, Lyall’s cynical Jamaica-based British charter pilot takes on flying for a film company in the Caribbean. His passengers include a Hollywood actor in the John Wayne mould and the plot itself is very Hollywood, but the story also features one of the author’s very best descriptions of an aircraft – the wartime B25 Mitchell bomber mentioned earlier. The plane has not been used for years. Then its next pilot-to-be enters the cockpit for the first time:
I took a slow, deep breath. The Mitchell smelled. Of petrol and oil and hydraulic fluid and plastic and leather and sweat, but all adding up to some new, strange smell that would be the way all Mitchells smelled . . . I took a high step forward and . . . eased into the left-hand pilot’s seat, being careful not to touch any lever that might drop the whole plane on its backside. No switch should, of course, but who repairs safety locks after twenty years?
Somewhat improbably, the Mitchell is then used in a Caribbean coup, dropping not bombs but house bricks on an aerodrome, a scenario that Lyall manages to make plausible. Gavin Lyall went on to write about espionage, both contemporary and set in the early years of the British secret service – in the 1980s The Conduct of Major Maxim, starring Charles Dance, was filmed for television. These novels enjoyed commercial and literary success, and Lyall twice won Crime Writers’ Association awards. Yet in the opinion of his wife, the renowned Observer writer Katharine Whitehorn, he was, in creative terms, the victim of bad luck or at least unfortunate timing. In her autobiography Selective Memory, she tells of the actor Steve McQueen wanting to play a lead character in Midnight Plus One and MGM buying the option – only for McQueen to die before the film could be made. Then, when Judas Country, the last of Lyall’s flying thrillers, set in Cyprus, came out, the Turkish invasion of the north of the island effectively dated the story immediately. Gavin Lyall himself was tall and imposing and gracious. When I once met him and enthused about his aviation stories, he said he did not feel he could keep them going endlessly – in particular because, in order to write credibly, he needed to get to know and fly the aircraft featured in each novel. Hence his later move to another genre. Bookshops these days tend to segregate fiction, consigning ‘thrillers’ and ‘crime’ to their own sections away from mainstream novels. But, as writers like Gavin Lyall demonstrate, an adventure-thriller can be every bit as creative in its evocation of a place or an activity as supposedly more ‘serious’ novels. Second-hand bookshops, such as remain, tend to be less compartmentalized. This is where the aviation novels of Gavin Lyall are likely to be found – for those readers ready to fasten their seat belts and take to the skies in the hands of a skilled and entertaining pilot-author.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 56 © Matt Huber 2017


About the contributor

Matt Huber’s first flight was in an old Dakota. Ever a nervous passenger, he Gavin Lyallprefers reading to flying.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.