Cold Harbour by Jack Higgins
Even at that crucial moment, when books were brand new to me, Jack Higgins filled my time with his epic volumes. Higgins wrote thrillers, but then he was a published poet and thriller writer. A poet of the war, a poet of the kind of tame thrills and well-constructed stories that took us mystifyingly from one fight to another, via the wired mysteries of his imagination. That’s because Jack Higgins wasn’t averse to re-writing history as he went, and it gave him a hell of an edge.
Cold Harbour by Jack Higgins begins with an extremely unwarranted ‘it was all a dream’ sequence. There are many genres in which ‘it was all a dream’ is acceptable, and some such as science fiction and horror in which it’s a common technique but in the case of action and adventure, it seems highly curious. Imagine a James Bond story which opens with a thrilling fight to the death, which concludes with the bathetic waking of Bond, to find that he wasn’t really having an adventure, merely a dream.
Were it not for the powerful cover of this book (Gothic font and swastika works wonders) I would have maybe stopped there. As it was I continued with a feeling of distrust, unsure if I was being played or not. There were no more dreams however, just action, duplicity, and improbability on an ever increasing scale.
‘Craig Osbourne’s war finished one dark night in 1944 when he was pulled from the sea by the crew of a German E-boat — helpless, half dead, frozen. Until he found out who the Germans really were…’
Reading the reverse of Cold Harbour, I have to confess that I was secretly hoping the Germans would turn out to be — the French? — aliens — but the plot in question is in fact pretty much to be expected if you’ve read any more jack Higgins and seen a reasonable selection of WWII movies. The delight of such a novel for me is just how far the preposterous plot can stretch, and lesser writers often get bogged down here, as they lose track of their complex creations. True, there are a few knots here that are for the reader to untie, if they can be bothered.
As for the options there, a reader won’t be intrigued for long, and jack Higgins is at pains here to portray a dirty, terrible war, but there aren’t any surprises, really. I’m not saying that Cold Harbour isn’t worth reading to the end, but this is an incredible demanding genre and if you don’t get it right every time, you’ll find yourself with doubting readers. Higgins lays on the Nazis pretty thick, with Himmler
So much depends on who you are, where you are and how old you are when reading and judging a book, so much so that the further down the genres you drop you find that there’s less notion of there being such a thing as a timeless classic. If this wasn’t the case I would have to number Storm Warning and The Eagle Has Landed among my favourites, but of those two (both reading when I was 14 or so) only Storm Warning has coped with re-reading. As it was, I barely made it through Cold Harbour the first time.