Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Pay The Devil Jack Higgins by Ben Boulden

Pay the Devil is the seventh novel published by Harry Patterson.  It was released as a hardcover by Barrie Rockcliff in 1963, and it languished out of print for nearly four decades until it was reissued in mass market in 1999.  I haven’t been able to corroborate this, but the paperback reissue has the feel of a light reworking; the dialogue, particularly in the opening chapter, has that peculiar light wispy droll of Mr Patterson’s later work—

“‘I’d say so, Josh.  Let me have that spyglass of yours, and I wish you wouldn’t call me general.  I only had one hundred and twenty-three men left in the brigade when General Lee gave me the appointment.  Now it’s more like twenty.’”

There is also the oddity of the protagonist’s man servant—former slave—Joshua who is referred to, both in narrative and dialogue, as “Josh” in the prologue and “Joshua” throughout the rest of the novel.  My guess is Mr Patterson added the prologue for the mass market issue, and (perhaps) lightly touched up the remainder. 

Clay Fitzgerald is a worn out Confederate surgeon and cavalryman.  He has been at war four long years, and as the novel opens he joins General Lee on his march to surrender to Ulysses S. Grant.  General Lee summarily releases Clay and his men from duty, and they quietly slink away before the surrender. 

Clay inherited a family estate in the West of Ireland called Claremont, and he and Joshua make the journey as something like a long overdue vacation. Unfortunately the Ireland they find is less than an idyllic playground.  It is inhabited by a poverty-stricken working class, and an abusive ruling landowner class.  On arrival Clay is disinterested in the politics of the place, but circumstance and conscience prohibits neutrality.  Clay takes the identity of a local folk hero called “Captain Swing,” and metes out a sort of vigilante justice.

Pay the Devil is the longest, and most complexly plotted of Mr Patterson’s early work.  It is something of a gothic with its Irish moors, night rides, and even a forbidden romance.  The setting is beautifully rendered by Mr Patterson with his usual deft, and almost lyrical prose—

“Clouds moved over the face of the sun and a great shadow spilled darkness like a fast-spreading stain across the ground.”

The historical aspect of the novel is also nicely rendered.  The description of General Lee on his march to surrender.  The idea of Irish Home Rule, and even better the names of the secret societies that advanced the idea, “Fenian Brotherhood,” and “Ribbonmen.”  The contempt the landowners had for the working class; primarily protestant vs. Catholic.  The primary antagonist, Sir George Hamilton, summed the gentry’s view of the Irish—

“‘But the standards one would apply in England cannot be applied here.  These people are animals.’”          

However, there are also elements of the novel that are flat.  The narrative is too reliant on dialogue to set up major plot twists, setting, and character development.  The antagonists—land owners—are described as nothing short of the embodiment of evil, while the working class are something close to trodden angels.  A little too black and white even for an adventure novel, but forgivable because of the swift action and the well-developed setting.

Pay the Devil is not an example of Mr Patterson’s better work, but it is an entertaining novel.  It has an abundance of action.  The Captain Swing concoction is something akin to Zorro.  And there are several entertaining vintage slang words, including “lucifer” matches, “moonlighters,” and a wonderful summation of 19th century cesarean section as “a form of homicidal witchcraft.”

No comments: