SOLO (1980) – Written by Jack Higgins. Solo is not exactly one of my favorite espionage novels but it is definitely my favorite by Jack Higgins. It’s the story of efforts to catch an international assassin code-named the Cretan Lover. Luckily that ludicrous codename is often shortened to just “The Cretan” throughout the novel. I’ll use the same review format that I used for my look at The Top Seven Robert Ludlum Novels.
TIME PERIOD: From approximately 1960 to the late 1970s.
MAIN CHARACTER: John Mikali, a Greek concert pianist of much renown who leads a double life as the aforementioned Cretan Lover aka The Cretan. Mikali is descended from a fictional naval hero of the Greek War of Independence in the 1800s. His family remains wealthy and prominent, with his grandfather being an erudite and outspoken critic of the Colonels who seized control of Greece.
Young John himself is a gifted pianist but after getting drawn into a vendetta against the man who accidentally killed his beloved grandmother he fled into the French Foreign Legion. Despite his fey background John Mikali thrived in the Legion AND in the Algerian War, proving to be a ruthless, cold-hearted man who could kill enemy soldiers or non-combatants with equal skill and nonchalance.
Seriously wounded the day before Algerian Independence (July 2nd, 1962) our hero’s 2 year run in the Legion comes to a close with an honorable discharge thanks to pressure from his influential grandfather. Returning to music, by the 1970s Mikali is a fabulously successful classical pianist and often performs “solo” around the world.
When the military junta in Greece finally kills off his outspoken grandfather, John wants revenge. To his own surprise, he finds he can easily shift back to Foreign Legion Mode and with military precision pulls off the assassination of the officers behind his grandfather’s torture and murder. To throw off suspicion our masked assassin pretends to be a political activist, which causes the authorities to round up assorted left-wing suspects.
This has the unintended consequence of galvanizing the local left, making them even more disgruntled than usual. Enter a secret agent for Soviet Military Intelligence in deep cover as a Parisian lawyer. The Soviets have an interest in recruiting a skilled assassin like the Cretan, both to kill off enemies of the international left AND to act as an agent provocateur when need be.
Mikali’s civilian guise as a harmless musician and high-brow celebrity allows him to travel the world at will, never even having his luggage searched as he is hustled to VIP lounges at assorted airports. The assassin spends years being run by his handler, the French lawyer, and between jobs enjoys his life of money, public performances and classical music groupies. (This aspect of the novel gets even more ridiculous than James Bond stories as Higgins writes like a horny 19 year old when describing Mikali’s “legendary” lovemaking abilities.)
SECOND LEAD: Colonel Asa Morgan, a figure seemingly based on Colin “Mad Mitch” Mitchell and other assorted British army officers. Morgan is Welsh, of working class background and like John Mikali he found that war brought out a certain something in him.
For Morgan that war was World War Two and we’re told that Asa was one of the paratroopers dropped in at Arnhem during Operation: Market Garden. After the war he was posted in the Far East, then Aden and Cyprus and as the novel begins he’s a Colonel overseeing action against the IRA in Belfast.
Asa is divorced and very estranged from his ex-wife. The only thing he cares about other than his career is his thirteen year old daughter. When that daughter gets killed as collateral damage in a London assassination that the Cretan pulls off for Black September the Colonel is determined to find and kill the man responsible.
FEMALE LEAD: Katherine Riley, PhD, an American woman teaching at Cambridge. Her specialty is terrorism and the philosophies behind it. She’s even written a book on the subject titled The Terrorist Phenomenon.
We’re told that Dr Riley’s notoriety and expertise has led to her being permitted to interview every high-profile terrorist in custody throughout Europe. Little does she realize that right under her nose a man she’s romantically involved with is idolized by many of the figures she’s interviewed.
John Mikali and Katherine have been having an affair ever since Mikali needed to pump (sorry) Dr Riley for information about one of the imprisoned terrorists she had just interviewed. Turns out her field of expertise makes her and John sympatico, though she is unaware of his other life as an assassin.
The good doctor’s previous experience with a female terrorist who met the Cretan in person prompts the revenge-seeking Asa Morgan to seek her out. Asa’s own violence-prone personality intrigues Katherine and soon a quasi-love triangle forms.
THE BRIGADIER: Technically this novel is part of Higgins’ series of books featuring retired Brigadier Ferguson, a mover and shaker in British Intelligence. Ferguson excels at manipulation – often of his own personnel. He’d have fit right in as a resented superior of Neil Burnside on Sandbaggers.
The Brigadier is not always – or often – the central character of the novels he appears in. He’s more like James Bond’s “M” crossed with Nero Wolfe, only fatter and even more of a snob. He sends forth various agents to do the leg work and take the risks while he pulls the strings and dines on gourmet meals prepared by his Ghurka chef.
In Solo the leg man is Asa Morgan, a former military subordinate of the Brigadier. Asa’s desire to kill the Cretan provides Ferguson with a tailor-made situation to ensure that the international assassin is taken out for good. The Brigadier is happy to use his old associate’s grief and rage in an operation against the Cretan.
Comment (Includes Spoilers): The real strength of this novel is Higgins’ study of two adversaries who are incredibly alike in very many ways. That may be a frequent element of pulp action fiction but Solo is a stellar example of the approach.
The novel’s weakness in my opinion is the often silly fixation on John Mikali’s virtually magical ways in bed. He’s handsome, fit, wealthy and a talented musician. He would get lots of women no matter what he’s like in the sack so the book could still have had plenty of sex scenes even without this Penthouse Letters element. The more John Mikali is described as a virtual human vibrator the more you’ll find your eyes rolling.
According to other reviews I’ve read I’m not alone in thinking that the sub-plots regarding Colonel Morgan’s revenge quest are often more interesting than the main story. Morgan’s hunt for the Cretan leads him into a clash with a pair of Kray Twins-esque gangsters and to a renegade IRA man’s plot to launch a missile on London.
Katherine Riley is just there to be a love interest for our two leads. She adds nothing else to the tale unfortunately despite the incredible potential her character brought to the table.
SPOILERS: In a cleverly handled climax at the Promenade Concerts our man Asa Morgan successfully kills the Cretan. Knowing he was exposed and finished, John Mikali basically commits suicide by Welsh Colonel (Asa). Spitefully the Cretan had managed to leave Morgan on the outs with Dr Riley, however, in a bit that really does not reflect well on her character.
She’s depicted as just a silly woman, giving her heart to Mikali even in death just because of some good tumbles and a few romantic words. She conveniently forgets that her relationship with John was based on deceit from the start and he was playing her for a fool for years. I’m not implying she should have ended up with Asa, mind you, but her attitude in the end is a real disappointment.
Brigadier Ferguson summarizes the book’s approach to Doctor Riley when he reflects aloud “Women really are the most perverse of creatures. Why is it the Mikalis that attract them?”
Overall, this is certainly an enjoyable espionage novel but whenever I’ve returned to it over the years I usually find myself just re-reading the bits with the IRA and the gangsters. The “Cretan Lover” silliness (really Cretan Rapist since he tied up the first woman and held her at gunpoint) can’t help but mar an otherwise riveting story. +++
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