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"A Bit of a Ding-Dong with the Hun"
on 19 September 2012
When I was growing up in the 1970s, "War and Westerns" was an established section of the average WH Smiths, and authors like Sven Hassel and Leo Kessler were practically household names (at least to the boys, sorry "young adults" of my generation). But while military history still takes up half the non-fiction shelves in Waterstones, military fiction seems to have slipped out of the mainstream. Recently, however, it's been making something of a comeback, pioneered by gritty WW2 series from the likes of James Holland and Michael Asher. And indie authors have followed them into the breach, including Jack Badelaire, whose Commando: Operation Arrowhead kicks off an action-packed new series of its own.
Badelaire writes an insightful blog on what he calls post-modern pulp fiction and he highlights the suitability of the ebook format for short, punchy, 'disposable' stories written primarily to entertain. Operation Arrowhead follows the body-littered progress of a British commando mission into occupied France, a focus that is particularly welcome coming from an American writer, given that Hollywod tends to focus exclusively on the US experience of war. Badelaire clearly has an interest in the subject, backed up by detailed research, and he largely manages to make his British characters sound British (No mean feat, as Dick van Dyke could testify). Tom Lynch, the hero, hails from Ulster, and I didn't really get a sense of his Irishness, but his sergeant is unmistakeably Scottish! More significantly, Lynch can serve in the British Army with scarcely a qualm even though his father was killed by the British during the war of indepence. They're uniting against a common enemy, of course, but I think Badelaire could draw out a more conflicted aspect to his character in future stories.
The real appeal of this kind of book is that it cuts away the fat and gets stuck in to the action in short order, with numerous gunbattles, air strikes and scenes of wholesale slaughter packed into its 190 pages (I read the printed version). But there's also some insight into the characters and an appreciation of the tensions between hit-and-run raiders and their French allies who have to stay and fight on their own soil. Badelaire cites films like Where Eagles Dare and the Dirty Dozen as an inspiration, but I was put more in mind of straight-ahead commando movies like Attack on the Iron Coast and the recent Age of Heroes. He also mentions pulp war fiction such as the Rat Bastards series. I haven't read any of these, but Badelaire doesn't go for the exploitation jugular in the quite same way, at least if the Amazon previews are anything to go by. In Operation Arrowhead, a beautiful French girl must be rescued from her evil captors, but there's no time for any steamy sexual encounters amid the ongoing mayhem.
As befits the genre, the Nazi characters are reliably cruel, sadistic and/or stupid. After a spectacular final battle, I felt that the chief villain was dispatched a bit too easily, but the book ends with the arrival of a new and formidable opponent whose SS unit will obviously feature in forthcoming tales.
Those of us who take an interest in World War 2 are sometimes asked why we're still talking about it 70 years after the event. The obvious answer is that people will be reading, writing and myth-making about World War 2 for as long as they have about the Trojan War. It is an archetypal human conflict, the most dramatic (and dramatically satisfying) event in the whole of history. Operation Arrowhead is an enjoyable, fast-moving read which continues that tradition, and I look forward to the next instalment.
(The title of this review is a comment quoted in Nicholas Rankin's book on Ian Fleming's Commandos, referring to a vigorous shoot-out. It seems to sum up the attitude quite nicely)