Light Blast

Film GenericLight Blast is a trashy B-grade cop thriller starring Erik Estrada who was swept to fame in the late 70’s and early 80’s playing Frank ‘Ponch’ Poncharello in the TV series CHiPs. For those too young to remember CHiPs, it was a show about two California Highway Patrol police officers, Estrada, and Larry Wilcox, who rode motorcycles and arrested crooks. In Light Blast, again Estrada plays a cop, but this time he’s decidedly more ‘Dirty Harry’ than ‘Ponch’.

To readers, it must seem lazy for a reviewer to continually mention Dirty Harry, but Harry casts a very long shadow. If a cop film features a tough, violent loner who is good with a gun, then the film is undoubtedly influenced by Harry Callahan and his 44 magnum. Likewise, if a film is more gritty and character driven, it probably owes a debt to The French Connection. And in keeping, if a film features a black actor as the lead, then the film is measured up against Richard Roundtree’s Shaft. All three films were made in 1971. It was a good year for cop movies (although Shaft was a ‘private dick’). And all three films provide the template for the cop films that followed.

It could be argued that over the years in police films, although the cops have battled a various assortment of psychos, it wasn’t until the success of The Silence Of The Lambs, that the style of cop films changed from the model set up in the early 1970’s. These days, cop shows on television (like C.S.I.) and at the movies are pretty dark affairs, with serial killers, stalkers, paedophiles, and bizarre cults plaguing society.

As entertainment, I must admit I find it all rather distasteful – that’s not to say that some of them aren’t good productions. But I long for the days of good old fashioned ‘cops and robbers’. It’s easier to understand the motives of your old style villain. It’s greed and selfishness. He wants money. But today’s villain tends to keep a collection of body parts in his basement, which I can’t really relate to. And furthermore, I am not too enamored when it is served up as entertainment night after night (C.S.I. and Bones – I am looking at you), and yearly at the movies (how many Hannibal Lechter films do we need?)

But I have digressed. Light Blast is from the Dirty Harry school of cop films. Estrada is Ronn Warren, a San Francisco cop. The film opens with Dr. Yuri Soboda (Michael Pritchard) test firing a new high tech laser weapon at a railway depot. At the depot a young couple are engaging in a bit of hanky-panky in a train carriage. Unusual location for a secret tryst, but whatever works for you! As the ray hits the carriage, the young lovers melt…yuk!

Then we cut to a hostage situation. Two armed robbers are holding a dozen people hostage in a bank. Police have circled the building and are trying to negotiate a resolution. But it isn’t easy to reason with the gunmen. To prove that they mean business they shoot one of the hostages. They demand a plane. The police officer in charge of the negotiation – the one with the megaphone – tells them that the plane will take time. Next, the gunmen want a meal. They also want the food delivered by someone without clothes, that way they can see if the person is armed.

Naturally the police don’t send a civilian. They send Ronn Warren. He walks up to the bank practically naked, holding a giant turkey and french-fries (or ‘CHiPs’ as I like to call them – sorry, bad pun). Warren quickly overpowers the ‘perps’ and frees the hostages. He does this with a pistol hidden in the turkey – er, yeah!

Meanwhile, a message is sent to the mayor of San Francisco, by Soboda saying that he wants five million dollars. But first he will fire the weapon again at 5:48pm to prove that the threat is legitimate. As a precaution the city’s police officers are sent to cover and protect all the public event happening that day. Warren is sent to the Freemont Speedway. And of course, that’s where Soboda and his team of extortionists strike. They fire the weapon and melt the announcers booth at the speedway.

Warren observes this, and pursues the laser, which is housed in a television broadcast truck. This leads us to the first of the films four car chase scenes. As the film is set in San Francisco, you will naturally think of Bullitt when you see the vehicles speeding around the undulating San Fran street scape. Needless to say, that none of these chases even comes close to the level of excitement in Bullitt. After each chases, Soboda raises his ransom demands. The final chase starts with a citizen exclaiming, “Hey! What the f*ck are you doin!”, and that perfectly sums up the viewing experience.

Light Blast is trash. The only reason to watch it, is if you are old enough to remember CHiPs fondly, because Erik Estrada is all this film has going for it. The acting is generally atrocious, and the action scenes are repetitive. Each one is a car chase!

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Light Blast

Darker Than Amber (1970)

Director: Robert Clouse
Starring: Rod Taylor, Suzy Kendall, Theodre Bikel, William Smith, Ahna Capri, Janet MacLachlan, Jane Russell, Robert Phillips, James Booth
Based on the novel by John D. MacDonald

With the buzz on the blogosphere about a cinematic revival of Travis McGee I thought it was worth revisiting Rod Taylor’s Darker Than Amber. As you all know by now, I am a pretty big fan of James Bond. As a kid reading the Pan paperbacks, I was always interested in the adverts for other similar spy adventures that were at the back of the novels. One of the ads that continually caught my attention were for the Travis McGee books by John D.MacDonald. The blurb ran like this:

The tough, amoral and action crammed stories of the popular Travis McGee as he tangles with passionate women and violent men to uncover blackmail and corruption from California to Mexico.

First of the Travis McGee series now filming starring Rod Taylor.

Call me stupid, but these Travis McGee blurbs imparted two bits of misinformation to me. The first, because these ads ran at the back of spy novels, I thought that Travis McGee was a spy – well I was mistaken there. And secondly, underneath the spiel, there was a list of Travis McGee books available, so I assumed that Rod Taylor was starring in a film called The Quick Brown Fox. Wrong again. Before the days of the internet, all this information was impossible to verify. I used to scour TV guides looking for the ‘lost’ spy film The Quick Brown Fox.

Now with the benefit of hindsight, and the resource of the world wide web, I now know that the film I was looking for was Darker Than Amber. And I also know that Travis McGee did return one more time in a TV movie, Travis McGee: The Empty Copper Sea in 1983, starring Sam Elliot in the role. I’ve never seen it, but most reports are that it is pretty abysmal, but I digress. So after twenty-five years, I have finally I tracked down a copy of the Rod Taylor Travis McGee movie. Was it worth the wait?

The film opens at night with a pretty wild pumping jazz pop tune. No musical credit is listed on the version of the film I have seen, but it is groovy, man! As the tune plays and the credits roll, a convertible speeds along a road and over a bridge. On the river, below the bridge, in an outboard skiff, Travis McGee (Rod Taylor) and Meyer (Thedore Bikel) are doing a spot of fishing.

The racing convertible does a U-turn and returns to the centre of the bridge. The car contains four people, Terry Bartel (Willian Smith), Griff (Robert Phillips), Del Whitney (Ahna Capri), and Vangie (Suzy Kendall). Bartel gets out of the car and lifts Vangie out of the back seat. She seems to be doped up on something. Her eyes are open but she seems incapable of movement. Bartel has tied a 85 pound set of dumbbells to her feet. Not realising that McGee are Meyer are underneath the bridge at this time of night, Bartel throws Vangie over the side and into the river.

As Bartel and friends speed off, McGee dives into the river, swims down and cuts her free from the weights. Despite her being tangled up in their fishing lines, McGee manages to get her to the surface and into the skiff. McGee and Meyer take Vangie back to McGee’s houseboat, ‘The Busted Flush’, where they remove a fishing barb from her leg and patch her up. Despite her ordeal, Vangie doesn’t want any police involvement.

On the next day, McGee takes the skiff back to the bridge and to the spot Vangie was dunked. He dives down with a rope and finds the set of weights she had been tied to. He ties the rope to the dumbbell and swims back to the boat. Then he hauls up the weights. Watching from the bank, pretending to be fishing is a bloke named Farnsworth. Once he sees what is going on, he makes his way to the nearest phone booth and calls Bartel.

Maybe the smart thing for McGee is to be thankful that the girl is alive and leave it at that. But he’s always been a sucker for a damsel in distress, He decides it’s best that he takes Vangie away for a little while. He releases the moorings on his houseboat, and with Meyer along for company, the three of them cruise off.

It isn’t long after that Bartel comes looking for McGee, but the landing master refuses to tell him where he has gone. What hasn’t been apparent, so far, is that not only is Bartel a cruel man, but he is also a violent psychopath. Bartel looses his temper with the landing master and kills him.

Over the cruise, McGee forms and attachment to Vangie, but the good life can’t last for ever, and they dock in Fort Lauderdale. Vangie wants to go to her apartment and retrieve some money she has hidden there. McGee suggests that it isn’t a smart move and that he should go. But she doesn’t listen and sneaks out on her own anyway. It isn’t a wise move, and Bartel is watching her apartment. And as she is walking on the street, Bartel grabs her from behind. Bartel signals to Griff, who is behind the wheel of a car, and who races along the street. At the last second, Bartel uses his brutish strength to throw Vangie out into the middle of the road into the path of Griff’s speeding car. She is killed instantly and thrown back through a glass shop window.

Vangie’s death makes Travis McGee pretty mad, and from then on this film moves into pretty familiar territory – it becomes a pretty slick revenge flick. The film climaxes with a vicious, kick-ass ship board fight between McGee and Bartel. For those of you who have seen the television print of this, the fight has had approximately two minutes cut out because of the violence (but quite a few grey marketeers have uncut copies).

I enjoyed most of Darker Than Amber. It does get a little slow in the middle, and there is something not quite right with this movie. At times it seems like a lot of middle aged men, pretending that they are youthful and still ‘with it’. Rod Taylor is lumbered with some terrible fashion, like a white cotton mesh top, sleeveless denim shirts that are way too long, and a whole collection of dandy neck kerchief’s. I think some of it is designed to show off Rod Taylor’s physique, and the guy is in shape. I guess if you’re gonna go up against William Smith, who is built like a brick shit-house, you’ve got to be in shape, right? But on Rugged Rod, it almost comes off as camp. Rod Taylor is not beef cake – in some ways he is a throw back to the old school actors like Bogart and Gable. They were tough but never had to parade around without a shirt.

After all these years, I am glad I tracked down Darker Than Amber but it isn’t anything special. I think the thrill of the chase was more exciting than the bulk of the film. But it isn’t a turkey either. I am surprised that it hasn’t received a proper DVD release.

Incidentally, director Robert Clouse’s next film would be Enter The Dragon, which also starred Ahna Capri.

Darker Than Amber (1970)

Dead Men's Dust

Author: Matt Hilton
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Release Year: 2009

The running man conspiracy continues! No, not really. I am not going to discuss the cover artwork for Matt Hilton’s Dead Men’s Dust. The running man has already had a good run (sorry about that) in the blogosphere. I thought it was time to actually delve inside, and I am pleased to report that Dead Men’s Dust is a cracking good thriller.

The opening is a ball-tearer, with the character Joe Hunter, from the outset proving that he has the skill set to help the small people of the world. Because that is what Joe Hunter does – he helps people. To put an espionage twist to it, Hunter is a bit like Robert McCall in the Equalizer, or even Michael Westen in Burn Notice. He’s a man who has been around the block – so to speak – and learnt a trick or two along the way. Now he has left that world behind and helps out people who aren’t able to protect themselves from the bullies of the world. But Hunter’s past is a bit vague. As he explains on page 59:

‘I hadn’t been a secret agent; it wasn’t for me to use guile and trickery to root out the bad guys. I was the weapon sent in when all the planning was done with and all that was left was the arse-kicking. Arse-kicking I was good at. It got results.’

Joe Hunter’s mission on this occasion, is a personal one. His estranged half-brother, John Tefler has gone missing in the U.S. of A. John has always been a bit of a try-hard schemer – only his schemes and his luck never seem to work out. Joe has to track down his brother, who has not only managed to attract the unwanted attention of the Syndicate, after he disappears with some counterfeit money printing plates, but also the attention of one of America’s most brutal serial killers, Tubal Cain.

Dead Men’s Dust is written in two styles, alternating chapter by chapter. The first style is first person and the story is viewed from Joe Hunter’s point of view. This is effective to a point, but towards the middle of the book it is a bit frustrating because of the other events happening in the book – but let me explain. The other style, every second chapter is written in third person and recounts the gruesome exploits of Tubal Cain. As we move through the story, Tubal Cain moves ahead of Joe Hunter in the story arc, and as such in the middle there is a small portion where Hunter is really playing catch up and planning his next move – while we readers are far ahead of him. Thankfully Hilton keeps these chapters relatively brief. The frustrating thing here is that Hunter is such an enjoyable character, especially when he is ‘let loose’ that we are left wanting and waiting. But we don’t have to wait for too long and the tense, atmospheric ending is well worth it.

Overall, I’d say that Dead Men’s Dust is a bloody good read. It does what it aims to do – and that is provide a rollercoaster ride riddled with bullets and broken bones, and it is packaged with a slick sense of style and pace. The publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, certainly did the right thing by Hilton down in Australia. Especially on a ‘street level’ where bright yellow and magenta Joe Hunter posters covered every wall and building site hording. In store it was backed up with a ‘publishers promise’ – enjoy the book or your money back. Well, they’re are pretty safe. I enjoyed Dead Men’s Dust from the knee splintering opening to the gruesome knife wielding last pages, and I am eagerly looking forward to the follow up Judgment and Wrath which is due out later this year.

Just a brief warning – this story does feature a serial killer – a serial killer whose prefered weapon is a scaling knife – so if you’re a little bit queasy then this may not be the book for you.

From the back:

‘Some may call me a vigilante. I think I’ve just got problems to fix.’

Right now, Joe Hunter’s big problem is a missing little brother, last seen fleeing the site of a gruesome killing. Hunter needs the help of an old army buddy, a whole lot of hardware and a trip to Little Rock, Arkansas, to fix this particular problem.

A brutal encounter with some very nasty criminals leaves Hunter fighting for his life. And that’s before he comes up against America’s most feared serial killer, ‘The Harvestman’, and his grisly souvenirs of death.

But blood is thicker than water. And a lot of blood will be spilt . . .

DEAD MEN’S DUST introduces Joe Hunter, an all action hero with a strong moral code. Like the gunslingers of the Wild West, Hunter is not afraid to use his weapons and his fists – but only to save the victims from the bad guys.

To visit Matt Hilton’s website, click here.
Or to visit his blog, click here.

Dead Men's Dust

Dead Men’s Dust

Written by Matt Hilton
Published by Hodder & Stoughton 2009

The running man conspiracy continues! No, not really. I am not going to discuss the cover artwork for Matt Hilton’s Dead Men’s Dust. The running man has already had a good run (sorry about that) in the blogosphere. I thought it was time to actually delve inside, and I am pleased to report that Dead Men’s Dust is a cracking good thriller.

The opening is a ball-tearer, with the character Joe Hunter, from the outset proving that he has the skill set to help the small people of the world. Because that is what Joe Hunter does – he helps people. To put an espionage twist to it, Hunter is a bit like Robert McCall in the Equalizer, or even Michael Westen in Burn Notice. He’s a man who has been around the block – so to speak – and learnt a trick or two along the way. Now he has left that world behind and helps out people who aren’t able to protect themselves from the bullies of the world. But Hunter’s past is a bit vague. As he explains on page 59:

‘I hadn’t been a secret agent; it wasn’t for me to use guile and trickery to root out the bad guys. I was the weapon sent in when all the planning was done with and all that was left was the arse-kicking. Arse-kicking I was good at. It got results.’

Joe Hunter’s mission on this occasion, is a personal one. His estranged half-brother, John Tefler has gone missing in the U.S. of A. John has always been a bit of a try-hard schemer – only his schemes and his luck never seem to work out. Joe has to track down his brother, who has not only managed to attract the unwanted attention of the Syndicate, after he disappears with some counterfeit money printing plates, but also the attention of one of America’s most brutal serial killers, Tubal Cain.

Dead Men’s Dust is written in two styles, alternating chapter by chapter. The first style is first person and the story is viewed from Joe Hunter’s point of view. This is effective to a point, but towards the middle of the book it is a bit frustrating because of the other events happening in the book – but let me explain. The other style, every second chapter is written in third person and recounts the gruesome exploits of Tubal Cain. As we move through the story, Tubal Cain moves ahead of Joe Hunter in the story arc, and as such in the middle there is a small portion where Hunter is really playing catch up and planning his next move – while we readers are far ahead of him. Thankfully Hilton keeps these chapters relatively brief. The frustrating thing here is that Hunter is such an enjoyable character, especially when he is ‘let loose’ that we are left wanting and waiting. But we don’t have to wait for too long and the tense, atmospheric ending is well worth it.

Overall, I’d say that Dead Men’s Dust is a bloody good read. It does what it aims to do – and that is provide a rollercoaster ride riddled with bullets and broken bones, and it is packaged with a slick sense of style and pace. The publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, certainly did the right thing by Hilton down in Australia. Especially on a ‘street level’ where bright yellow and magenta Joe Hunter posters covered every wall and building site hording. In store it was backed up with a ‘publishers promise’ – enjoy the book or your money back. Well, they’re are pretty safe. I enjoyed Dead Men’s Dust from the knee splintering opening to the gruesome knife wielding last pages, and I am eagerly looking forward to the follow up Judgment and Wrath which is due out later this year.

Just a brief warning – this story does feature a serial killer – a serial killer whose prefered weapon is a scaling knife – so if you’re a little bit queasy then this may not be the book for you.

From the back:
‘Some may call me a vigilante. I think I’ve just got problems to fix.’

Right now, Joe Hunter’s big problem is a missing little brother, last seen fleeing the site of a gruesome killing. Hunter needs the help of an old army buddy, a whole lot of hardware and a trip to Little Rock, Arkansas, to fix this particular problem.

A brutal encounter with some very nasty criminals leaves Hunter fighting for his life. And that’s before he comes up against America’s most feared serial killer, ‘The Harvestman’, and his grisly souvenirs of death.

But blood is thicker than water. And a lot of blood will be spilt . . .

DEAD MEN’S DUST introduces Joe Hunter, an all action hero with a strong moral code. Like the gunslingers of the Wild West, Hunter is not afraid to use his weapons and his fists – but only to save the victims from the bad guys.

To visit Matt Hilton’s website, click here.
Or to visit his blog, click here.

Dead Men’s Dust

Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle

Film GenericSheena: Queen Of The Jungle features former Bond Girl, Tanya Roberts naked. Sometimes she is covered in a few discreetly placed animal skins, but it doesn’t really matter – this film is all about Tanya Roberts’ body. Which if you’re going to concentrate on Tanya Roberts, it’s definitely her best asset, because the poor girl can’t act to save herself.

The adventure begins in the Kingdom of Tigora, in the land of the Zambouli people. A husband and wife scientific team are traveling with their daughter. They have come to this part of the world because they have heard the legend of a ‘healing earth’. That is, that when some tribesmen have become very sick, by being buried up to their neck’s in this ‘healing earth’ has cured them of their ailments.

The scientists trace the magical earth to some caves within a mountain. They get up early leaving their daughter in the care of some natives. The young daughter is a restless spirit though and sneaks out from one of the tents and follows her parents. As they are inside the caves, the young girl calls out to her Mommy. Mum answers back, but the echo inside the cave causes a rockfall. Both parents end up dead.

Sheena, as the young girl is now called, is brought up by the Shaman of the Zambouli people (Elizabeth of Toro). The Shaman teaches her all about the land and it’s creatures great and small – even teaching her telepathic skills which allow her to communicate with the animals. After a quick montage of Sheena growing up (into Tanya Roberts) with Elephants, Hippos, Chimpanze’s and Snakes, we move forward to the present day.

In the City of Azan, the benevolent ruler, King Jabalani (Clifton Jones) is about to marry Countess Zanda (France Zobda). Arriving for the wedding is the King’s younger brother, Prince Otwani (Trevor Thomas). Otwani has been educated in the United States and has become a Pro American footballer. As a sideline he has also had the Kingdom of Tigora geologically surveyed (via satellite – if that’s possible?) and has discovered that the Zabouli tribe sit on a site of valuable potanium. Now the Prince has big plans. Firstly, he is in cahoots, with the King’s soon to be wife. They both plan to kill him and then take over the Kingdom. With absolute power, they intend to run the Zambouli people off their land and then mine the potanium for all it’s worth.

But the Prince isn’t the only guy who has flown in for the wedding. Two ‘Sports World’ reporters, Vic Casey (Ted Wass) and ‘Fletch’ Fletcher (Donovan Scott) have arrived to cover the event – focussing on the footballing Prince – naturally!

The first part of Otwani and Zanda’s plan works to perfection, as the King is assassinated at his wedding reception. Adding to the plot, the Zambouli people are blamed for the killing. But not everyone buys the setup, especially Casey and Fletcher, who have filmed some evidence that would suggest otherwise. But this is of little consequence to Otwani who has assemble an army to crush anyone who stands in his way.

One of those people is Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle and she has a few tricks up her sleeve. Well she doesn’t really have any sleeves and her outfit is pretty skimpy – let’s just say she has a few tricks but I am not quite sure where she keeps them.

If I was a film producer and had millions of dollars to invest, and you came up to me and pitched the script to Sheena to me, I tell you, I’d give you at least 50 to 75 mill off the bat. What’s not to like? The story has everything – a gorgeous heroine, a courageous hero, honour, loss, betrayal, fantastic locations, action, drama and romance. Unfortunately the story sort of gets ruined by the presentation. Roberts is gorgeous but can’t act – that kills your drama and your romance. Wass is ineffectual as the hero (obviously Doug McClure was too old for the role) – and that kills your action, drama and romance. The music by Richard Hartley is absolute crap. It is Vangelis inspired, which is fine if you’re making a sequel to Chariots Of Fire, but for an African adventure movie, it’s pretty abysmal. It may suit the one or two slow-mo shots as Sheena rides her Zebra, but for any action sequences, it simply renders the scene impotent.

But the film isn’t all crap. The cinematography is excellent, and it all looks like it was filmed on location. There is only one scene that has some jarring rear projection photography. The rest is pure National Geographic. It’s good stuff. And secondly, the person who painted the horse to look like a zebra has a true flare for retro design.

Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle

Skeleton Key

Author: Anthony Horowitz
Publisher: Walker Books
Published: 2002

I know I am doing this out of order, and one day I will go back and do reviews of Stormbreaker and Point Blanc. Skeleton Key is the third in the series of teenage spy, Alex Rider books written by Anthony Horowitz. The first thing you should know about Horowitz’s books is that they are first rate. I don’t know why, but currently I believe ‘Young Adult’ fiction is more imaginative and better written than a lot of the so-called adult fiction that is out there. If you are concerned that reading a ‘Young Adult’ book would be a diluted reading experience, let me assure you that Horowitz books have a healthy dose of bone crunching violence, death, mayhem and destruction. The only aspect that is toned down is the heroes sexual relationships. Obviously they are in tune with what you’d expect from a fourteen year old boy.

The hero of this book is Alex Rider and he has quite a back story. Before I go any further, as I mentioned at the outset, this is the third book in the Alex Rider series and although you could read this book as a stand alone piece, it is a series that is best read in order. There are numerous illusions to Alex’s past missions and characters he has dealt with.
But to bring you up to speed, Alex is a fourteen year old boy who lives in London. His parents died when he was young and he was brought up by his uncle, Ian Rider. Alex believed the his uncle worked for a bank, when in fact he was a M.I.6 operative. Little did Alex realise that all the leisure, sporting and holiday activities that his uncle exposed him to, where giving him a set of skills that could and would prepare him for a life as a secret agent. When Ian Rider is killed (in Stormbreaker), Alex is reluctantly recruited by M.I.6 to finish his uncle’s mission.

This novel starts on a small Cuban island called Cayo Esqueleto, or Skeleton Key if you prefer, and two couriers are delivering a shipment of weapons grade uranium to a rogue Russian General named Sarov. The couriers foolishly try to alter the bargain, requesting more money. Sarov deals with them with a rather harsh way – the couriers end up being a meal for some hungry crocodiles.

Meanwhile, back in London, schoolboy Alex Rider, after a chance meeting with an M.I.6 controller named Crawley, is at Wimbledon. Not watching the tennis as he would have liked, but as a ball boy. Apparently there have been mysterious goings on at the All England Tennis Club, and Crawley wanted Alex to have a snoop around. And snoop he does. Soon he has uncovered a plot by a Triad syndicate to alter the results of the matches (by secretly drugging some of the players). Alex foils the Triads plans – forcing them to lose a vast amount of money in bets.

After Wimbledon, Alex then spends some time in Cornwall surfing. One morning a Triad member attempts to kill Alex by running over him with a jet ski. Alex survives the attempt and is soon called into M.I.6 headquarters. It seems that Alex is now on a Triad hitlist. More attempts on his life will be made. The Triad will keep coming until they have killed him. But there is something that can be done about it. M.I.6 are not entirely without influence and through discreet channels, they can eventually call off the hit on Alex. But all this takes time. Over the following days Alex will still be in great danger. It is decided that he should go into hiding. And conveniently enough, M.I.6 have just brokered a deal with the C.I.A. They require a young boy for one of their operations and M.I.6 have kindly donated Alex’s services.

Alex is not happy. He does not consider himself a spy – and certainly does see himself as an asset that M.I.6 can just ‘loan’ out whenever they want. Despite this, Alex finds himself on his way to Miami to participate in a C.I.A operation.

In Miami, Alex is given his mission briefing. He is to play the part of the son to two American agents, Belinda Troy and Tom Turner. The two Americans aren’t thrilled at the prospect at having to chaperone a child as a part of their cover – but it is the only way they can get into Cuba and onto the island of Cayo Esqueleto without raising suspicion. Once the three operatives have arrived safely on Skeleton Key, it is deemed that Alex should just stay out of the way and leave the spying to the two professional adults – but of course, things don’t quite work out that way!

I love the Alex Rider books. It has to be admitted that they wouldn’t exist if there was a Bondian universe to parody. Alex goes through all the usual Bondian setpieces before heading off on his mission, including a session with the gadget master, Smithers, who equips Alex with all manner of small gadgets that come in handy over the course of the mission. But Horowitz uses the Bond framework to write great adventures for his hero Alex Rider, twisting it to suit the demographic he is writing for. For example, Bond could never really do Wimbledon – and certainly couldn’t be a ball boy! So Horowitz utilises the universe he has created for Alex to the full.

If you’ve never read an Alex Rider book because you believe they are kids stuff, then let me reassure you that Horowitz does not write down to his audience. A few months back I read the Man From UNCLE book ‘The Affair of the Gunrunners Gold’. It too is a children’s book, and when I read it, I certainly got the feeling that I was reading a kids book. The wording and phrasing was simple, and the plot was as thin as tissue paper. Horowitz doesn’t take this approach. He treats his readers as ‘adults’ and as such the stories read incredibly well whatever age you are. I am really looking forward to revisiting some more of Alex’s adventures.

Skeleton Key

Skeleton Key

By Anthony Horowitz
Published by Walker Books 2002

I know I am doing this out of order, and one day I will go back and do reviews of Stormbreaker and Point Blanc. Skeleton Key is the third in the series of teenage spy, Alex Rider books written by Anthony Horowitz. The first thing you should know about Horowitz’s books is that they are first rate. I don’t know why, but currently I believe ‘Young Adult’ fiction is more imaginative and better written than a lot of the so-called adult fiction that is out there. If you are concerned that reading a ‘Young Adult’ book would be a diluted reading experience, let me assure you that Horowitz books have a healthy dose of bone crunching violence, death, mayhem and destruction. The only aspect that is toned down is the heroes sexual relationships. Obviously they are in tune with what you’d expect from a fourteen year old boy.

The hero of this book is Alex Rider and he has quite a back story. Before I go any further, as I mentioned at the outset, this is the third book in the Alex Rider series and although you could read this book as a stand alone piece, it is a series that is best read in order. There are numerous illusions to Alex’s past missions and characters he has dealt with.
But to bring you up to speed, Alex is a fourteen year old boy who lives in London. His parents died when he was young and he was brought up by his uncle, Ian Rider. Alex believed the his uncle worked for a bank, when in fact he was a M.I.6 operative. Little did Alex realise that all the leisure, sporting and holiday activities that his uncle exposed him to, where giving him a set of skills that could and would prepare him for a life as a secret agent. When Ian Rider is killed (in Stormbreaker), Alex is reluctantly recruited by M.I.6 to finish his uncle’s mission.

This novel starts on a small Cuban island called Cayo Esqueleto, or Skeleton Key if you prefer, and two couriers are delivering a shipment of weapons grade uranium to a rogue Russian General named Sarov. The couriers foolishly try to alter the bargain, requesting more money. Sarov deals with them with a rather harsh way – the couriers end up being a meal for some hungry crocodiles.

Meanwhile, back in London, schoolboy Alex Rider, after a chance meeting with an M.I.6 controller named Crawley, is at Wimbledon. Not watching the tennis as he would have liked, but as a ball boy. Apparently there have been mysterious goings on at the All England Tennis Club, and Crawley wanted Alex to have a snoop around. And snoop he does. Soon he has uncovered a plot by a Triad syndicate to alter the results of the matches (by secretly drugging some of the players). Alex foils the Triads plans – forcing them to lose a vast amount of money in bets.

After Wimbledon, Alex then spends some time in Cornwall surfing. One morning a Triad member attempts to kill Alex by running over him with a jet ski. Alex survives the attempt and is soon called into M.I.6 headquarters. It seems that Alex is now on a Triad hitlist. More attempts on his life will be made. The Triad will keep coming until they have killed him. But there is something that can be done about it. M.I.6 are not entirely without influence and through discreet channels, they can eventually call off the hit on Alex. But all this takes time. Over the following days Alex will still be in great danger. It is decided that he should go into hiding. And conveniently enough, M.I.6 have just brokered a deal with the C.I.A. They require a young boy for one of their operations and M.I.6 have kindly donated Alex’s services.

Alex is not happy. He does not consider himself a spy – and certainly does see himself as an asset that M.I.6 can just ‘loan’ out whenever they want. Despite this, Alex finds himself on his way to Miami to participate in a C.I.A operation.

In Miami, Alex is given his mission briefing. He is to play the part of the son to two American agents, Belinda Troy and Tom Turner. The two Americans aren’t thrilled at the prospect at having to chaperone a child as a part of their cover – but it is the only way they can get into Cuba and onto the island of Cayo Esqueleto without raising suspicion. Once the three operatives have arrived safely on Skeleton Key, it is deemed that Alex should just stay out of the way and leave the spying to the two professional adults – but of course, things don’t quite work out that way!

I love the Alex Rider books. It has to be admitted that they wouldn’t exist if there was a Bondian universe to parody. Alex goes through all the usual Bondian setpieces before heading off on his mission, including a session with the gadget master, Smithers, who equips Alex with all manner of small gadgets that come in handy over the course of the mission. But Horowitz uses the Bond framework to write great adventures for his hero Alex Rider, twisting it to suit the demographic he is writing for. For example, Bond could never really do Wimbledon – and certainly couldn’t be a ball boy! So Horowitz utilises the universe he has created for Alex to the full.

If you’ve never read an Alex Rider book because you believe they are kids stuff, then let me reassure you that Horowitz does not write down to his audience. A few months back I read the Man From UNCLE book ‘The Affair of the Gunrunners Gold’. It too is a children’s book, and when I read it, I certainly got the feeling that I was reading a kids book. The wording and phrasing was simple, and the plot was as thin as tissue paper. Horowitz doesn’t take this approach. He treats his readers as ‘adults’ and as such the stories read incredibly well whatever age you are. I am really looking forward to revisiting some more of Alex’s adventures.

Skeleton Key