Beware of sequels that revive a dead-and-buried hero in order to get the plot going. As fans of Jack Higgins’ 1975 best-seller, The Eagle Has Landed, will remember, Kurt Steiner — that SS Oberstleutnant with the heart of gold — was fatally shot in the novel’s finale when a wild German scheme to kidnap Winston Churchill in the fall of 1943 went bloodily awry. Now we’re told, however, that Steiner didn’t die from his wounds: ”He was damn lucky there, sir,” says a British captain. ”One round hit him in the right shoulder, at the rear. The second was a heart shot, but it turned on the breastbone.” Hmmmm
So right from the beginning there’s an air of faintly desperate implausibility about this follow-up thriller — in contrast to the fresh, infectious implausibility that made The Eagle Has Landed such a winning diversion. Higgins cranks up the action with more earnest efficiency than panache. The British, eager to set a trap for enemy agents, leak word to German spymaster (and would-be führer) Heinrich Himmler that Steiner is alive and well and being held prisoner — first at the Tower of London, then a few miles away at St. Mary’s Priory on the Thames. Himmler, for less-than-humanitarian reasons, wants Steiner rescued and orders SS General Walter Schellenberg to organize a great escape. And Schellenberg, another of Higgins’ gentlemanly, anti-Nazi German officers, naturally recruits IRA mercenary Liam Devlin to carry out this mission impossible: Yes, the very same Liam Devlin, charming and fearless and lethal, who was Steiner’s sidekick in The Eagle Has Landed. Step by predictable step, it’s rather a plod.
Still, once the basic plot machinery is in gear, Higgins relaxes — and begins to have a bit of crafty fun with the atmospheric details and the supporting cast. Devlin’s coconspirators in England turn out to be a pair of dotty, impoverished blue bloods: boozy Nazi sympathizer Sir Maxwell Shaw and his thrill-hungry sister, Lavinia, an amateur aviator. To get hold of a high-tech radio transmitter, Devlin has to cozy up to London’s leading thugs, the psychotic Carver brothers, who turn thoroughly nasty when the Irishman outwits them. Best of all, the plan for Steiner’s escape puts Devlin in priestly disguise and takes him on an evocative tour of London’s dock area, including the underground river system that just happens to flood the crypt beneath the chapel at St. Mary’s Priory.
In any case, The Eagle Has Flown is a lean, snappily paced adventure is certainly a big improvement over Higgins’ previous effort, last year’s Cold Harbour, with its overwrought romantic suspense. Also, for those who demand at least one assassination conspiracy in every World War II thriller, Higgins provides a teasing subplot: Himmler’s attempt to defuse Die Fuhrer and how it’s foiled by the nobly motivated Schellenberg. No, the Eagle hasn’t landed again. But it hasn’t quite laid an egg, either. C+