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
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