PHILIP McCUTCHAN – A Very Big Bang. Simon Shard #2. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1975. No US edition.

   â€œI have the date, positive.”


   â€œMay fourth.”

   Shard said, “Ten days … fair warning. Well done! Where?”

   There was a curious, almost virgin surprise in Casey’s voice as though he still couldn’t believe it. “The underground,” he said. “London underground —”

   â€œA station?”

   â€œNot a station. A section of track … this is big, Mr Shard, the biggest yet. Four men, no less, to carry the explosives.” There was a pause. “Look, Mr Shard. I’ve a lot to tell. I think we should meet.”

   So opens the second adventure of Chief Superintendent Simon Shard, seconded to the Foreign Office (… tended, ever since the first day of his appointment, both to impress and depress Simon Shard whenever he was called there from the anonymity of his crummy little office among the prostitutes of Seddon’s Way), and the man named Hedge (Hedge could be relied upon to twist and turn in any corner and to contrive his way out; and was ever on his guard to spot any such Hedge-trapping corners before they fully materialised, just in case) he dislikes and hates working for. Shard is a tough cop, married, settled, and efficient, and the man who Hedge turns to when things are rough.

   And things are about to get very rough as Detective Sergeant Tom Casey, a Dublin cop working undercover for Hedge, reveals to Shard when he gets in with an unidentified group of vague Mid-Eastern origins run by a beautiful and dangerous woman (…the olive-skinned girl: she was a good-looker all right, and bad for his immortal soul) and then is killed, castrated and left to bleed to death, before he can tell Shard anything more than what he revealed in a phone call.

   Ten days, something very big, somewhere in the huge complex of the London Underground, and nothing else to go on but a date and four men out of millions.

   Philip McCutchan was a successful British writer of suspense and historical fiction best known here for his Bondian Commander Esmonde Shaw series (continuing well after most of the Bond imitators had moved gone the way of the dinosaur), the WW II Naval Convoy series, the mid-19th Century British navy series about a Hornblower-like officer Halfhyde, and under another name the James Oglivie series about the British Army in 19th Century India. In the mid-seventies as the Bond craze eased up McCutchan moved Shaw onto a series of more fantastic adventures with a science fictional bent along Dr. Palfrey lines and introduced Simon Shard in a more grounded series of espionage related thrillers, beginning with Call for Simon Shard.

   A Very Big Bang is the second of the Shard thrillers, and lives up to the name thriller, as do most of McCutchan’s well-researched novels. He was a sure hand at creating suspense and fast-moving plots with an eye for hair-breadth endings.

   The books are themselves as efficient as Shard, most coming in from sixty to eighty thousand words, old-fashioned satisfying reads, no bloat, no pyrotechnics, just well done and entertaining, this one concluding with a shootout in the London Underground with something much more dangerous than mere high explosives…

   â€œThe plungers plunge, the detonators detonate, the mass becomes critical, all the little neutrons hitting and multiplying, making heat to several millions of degrees centigrade. There is a tremendous explosion — in effect, carried before the train. The rail to roof height of the tunnel is twelve feet six inches. Each car of the train is twelve feet one inch high from rail level to roof — leaving a gap of five inches above and a little beneath also. The width is nine feet eight inches, leaving one foot five inches free on either side. This will provide at least some tamping —”

   Though published in 1975, this one seems more contemporary, thanks to the subject.

   Currently all the Shaw books are available in e-book form and the Shard books are now being released. If you like well-written British thrillers that entertain and keep you turning pages, McCutchan is a good bet, and Simon Shard a good companion to explore them with.