Reviewed by Ian Lipke
This novel is presented as a story by Wilbur Smith with one reference to David Churchill. It is never clear whether Smith created and wrote the story or gave David Churchill the right to write the story on behalf of the Wilbur Smith Foundation. A little research unearths some information about David Churchill – the pseudonym of an award-winning journalist, who has conducted several hundred in-depth interviews with senior politicians, billionaire entrepreneurs, Olympic athletes, movie stars, supermodels and rock legends. He has investigated financial scandals on Wall Street, studio intrigues in Hollywood and corrupt sports stars in Britain, and lived in Moscow, Washington DC and Havana. He has edited four magazines, published seventeen books and been translated into some twenty languages. This makes the precise situation even more intriguing.
Whoever wrote the book has delivered a very good example of action writing. There is never any doubt that one of Smith’s golden creatures will win the day against insurmountable odds. The very name Courtney invokes tales of derring-do as far back as Sean Courtney in When the Lion Feeds. I have read few of Wilbur Smith’s works since about 1990, and at my request the publishing house made a copy of Assegai available. This is the first of a trio, Courtney’s War being the third. His novels have changed not a whit since then, and one could almost argue, since the 1960s. Assegai turned out to be When the Lion Feeds all over again. This is not a negative criticism. Smith happened to discover a winning formula all those years ago and has stayed with it. One would imagine he would not change until his readership requires something different and reflect their changed disposition in a lessened demand for his books. I must admit that I am very surprised that his readers have not boycotted the bloodletting of the magnificent animals of the African veldt. Assegai, as representative of one of his more recent works, is sickening in this regard.
Courtney’s War is particularly exciting. Two impossibly beautiful lovers Gerhard and Saffron discover each other and the world shines brightly on them. But war separates them – Saffron to fight for the Allied Forces, Gerhard to answer the call to arms by the German Reich under Adolf Hitler. She is trained in viciousness by her people and sent into Belgium to discover if the wireless network has been compromised. Successful, she is based in England and meets a young American with whom she has an affair.
Gerhard is an officer who takes part in a number of theatres of war but most notably in Stalingrad. Betrayed by his own people he is offered an alternative to the death penalty that requires him to give an oath of allegiance to Hitler, an oath he cannot take. Beaten and starved he is consigned to a bitterly cold camp where he comes close to death with typhus.
The plot is not the only element of a good story. As I wrote earlier, or implied if I did not come right out and say it, Wilbur Smith’s plots are by no means complex. But the way he stitches them together is what makes his stories very acceptable. Action is described with short, sharp verbs. The scenery or setting relies on a slower tempo that gives the reader some breathing space. The sex scenes are beautifully done. It is what is implied that makes them a success. Take these two as examples.
Saffron kicked off her shoes, yanked her dress over her head and threw it to the ground without the slightest concern for its delicate chiffron fabric. She unhooked her bra and stepped out of her French knickers, laughing as she gave them one last flick with her toes and sent them flying towards Gerhard, a missile of white satin….And then he was on her, and in her, and she felt completed by him, as though they were two halves of one single organism. Her moans turned to screams and she gave herself over, body and soul, to the man she loved, as he gave himself to her (5).
Note the specifics in the first description. Saffron is alive with the joy of being young and in love. Her joie de vivre is contagious. She wears chiffon and her knickers are French. The author uses verbs like ‘kicked’ and ‘yanked’ – verbs that help build the tension. And then that wonderful shorthand ‘he was on her, and in her’ followed by the word ‘organism’ which in the minds of most readers blithely suggests ‘orgasm’. It is beautiful sleight-of-hand, suggesting in a few words the glory of sex in love.
The other description is just as telling. Its emotional content is shown rather than written about. The whole setting is suggestive of a hunting scene where the hunter has captured his prey. It is different from the usual scene because the prey is more than willing to be captured.
Saffron won the race to be free from their uniforms. She didn’t care any more about anyone or anything except for herself and Danny and the craving to feel him inside her….His body was lean, broad-shouldered and strong, and he was looking at her with the fierce determination of a hunter.
Saffron looked him in the eye and said, “Here I am.” (334)
Hunting is the image that glues the story together. The lover hunts the beloved, Saffron hunts the reason for the problems the allies are experiencing with the reports their agents are purportedly sending from Belgium; in turn, the Nazis hunt her down. There are similar descriptions that attach to Gerhard.
Throughout the book we witness the age-old techniques that Smith has used to tell his stories since the early sixties. His claim that his depiction of the basic elements of humanity – sex, action, speed, more sex – is what sells his books may not be all that far from the truth. He is, after all, one of the most readable writers of today’s world. He is not a literary giant, and never claims to be, but he is the man most likely to sell a good yarn.
By Wilbur Smith
Zaffre/A & U