REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

CAPT. W. E. JOHNS – Biggles in the Blue. Biggles #45. Brockhampton Press, UK, hardcover, 1953. Knight, UK, paperback, 1968. Reprinted several times. No US edition. Readable online at www.archive.org.

   “They say there are snakes in the garden.”

   Biggles smiled. “Snakes don’t bother me. I can handle them. After all, I’ve had a lot of experience – as you know.”

   “I believe it is fact that even the best snake-charmers usually die of snake bite at the end,” said von Stalhien softly. “I merely mention the danger in passing…”

   That bit of classic badinage could have come from any thriller written from the twenties on, but in this case it is between two of the most popular adversaries in young adult fiction in the United Kingdom, James Bigglesworth and his frequent Moriarity Erich von Stalhein,

   The year is 1953, and Bigglesworth of the RAF and the Special Air Police is in Jamaica confronting Erich von Stalhein his old adversary going back to WW I in peacetime. A German war criminal named Wolff has died in Jamaica posing as a man named Hagen and in his home there is the clue to the secret that von Stalhein and Biggles are both after, plans of experimental weapons including the dreaded V series rockets that fell on London late in the war.

   Von Stalhien has connections in Eastern Europe and a new master, the Russian Zorotov.

   The papers are on an island, but which of the many small cays in the area? The clue is somewhere in Wolff/Hagen’s Kingston home

   As Air Commodore Raymond of the Special Air Police explained when he sent Detective Inspector Bigglesworh on the case: “…get things clear. We want these plans, not so much for our own use but to prevent them falling into the hands of a potential enemy.”

   Which finds Biggles, as his friends call him, ace of two wars, and hero of dozens of adventures in war and out, in Jamaica at Wolff/Hagen’s home Rumkeg Haven, with his usual team of Air Constables Algy, Bert, and Ginger.

   W. E. Johns, the author of the popular Biggles series that eventually would include books, radio (Monty Python alumni Michael Palin read Biggles Flies North on radio), comics, a flying teddy bear also named Biggles, and even a big budget movie, Biggles, Adventures in Time, was himself a pilot in the Great War whose greatest success came with the adventures of his young First War ace. Johns also wrote some adult thrillers and even cracked the British pulp Thriller, but none of his other work inspired the long term success as the adventures of Biggles and his friends. Many of the books are still in print or at least easily available.

   Johns’ affections for the character and investment in his adventures make the Biggles series a good deal more personal than many such works.

   The Biggles books run in the fifty to sixty thousand word range and include illustrations by frequent illustrator Peter Archer. The writing is a bit better generally than the equivalent Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew in this country, with somewhat more action and more dangerous villains. The level of action isn’t far off the standard thriller of the twenties and thirties or the hero pulps here though there is a good deal of good old chums business — though that isn’t far off the kind of schoolboy thing Bulldog Drummond got up to with his pals.

   Surprisingly the book is less politically incorrect than you might expect. There is a minor black villain (Morgan, who is at least a would be Napoleon and not merely a thug), but also a strong smart black woman who saves the boys lives and helps them get the best of von Stalhein and the Russian submarine he stalks them in. That hasn’t been true of all the Biggles books I’ve read, but they are generally at least less tiresome than most books of that era about such things.

   As juvenile fiction of the time period — roughly the early thirties through the sixties — the Biggles series reads well enough, contains some genuine thrills, and considering it began as the adventures of a World War One ace has certainly got around over the years, taking Biggles to every corner of the globe. His adventures may not be well known on these shores, but in much of the world his name is one to conjure with.