Mettle at Woomera

Author: James MacNell (J.E. Macdonnell)
Publisher: The Childrens Press
Published: Unknown (around 1958?)

Captain Mettle is back in his third and final installment, in Mettle at Woomera. For those unfamiliar with Woomera, it was the British Government’s missile testing site in South Australia (it is still in use today – controlled by the RAAF). Woomera also encompasses Maralinga, which is the site of various atomic tests. I talked briefly about Maralinga in my review for the Australian spy thriller Havoc!, so I won’t bore you with a rehash. Those who wish to know more about Woomera can check out the official web page.

In this story, missiles that are being test fired at Woomera are disappearing mid flight, and Mettle is sent in to investigate. Sailing from their Hong Kong base, Mettle and his Special Services unit brave a typhoon on their journey to Adelaide. From there, Mettle and his second in command, Cuthbert Crabbe de Courcy – known to all and sundry as Crabby – race out to Woomera in a supercharged Jag.

Unlike other Mettle adventures, this story is more like a ‘whodunnit’ with Mettle having to discover which of the various characters at Woomera is a traitor. Amongst the characters under suspicion, there is Professor Templeton, who runs the base – Dr. Sneed, a brilliant scientist – and Manivento, an Italian immigrant, working as a man servant. Each of these men may have a motive to divert the missiles for their own gain. Along the way various attempts are made to stop Mettle from discovering the truth – my favourite being an encounter with an angry Death Adder.

Those of you who have been following the series of posts about vintage Australian spy thrillers (such as Simon Black or Captain Mettle) – or have read practically any vintage fiction – will be aware that many of these stories are horribly racist. Mettle at Woomera is refreshingly different, in that Mettle’s attitude towards the aboriginals is actually one of admiration and respect, especially for a black tracker named Jacky, who assists Mettle in his investigations.

One of the successful Inspector Napoleon 'Bony' Bonaparte novels

This change in attitude towards aborigines (in fiction anyway) can be attributed to Arthur Upfield’s successful series of crime novels featuring Napoleon Bonaparte – known as ‘Bony’. ‘Bony’ first appeared on the scene in 1929 in The Barrakee Mystery. After many other mysteries, the series ended in 1966 with The Lake Frome Monster (the book was finished posthumously). Collecting Books and Magazines has an informative page on Arthur Upfield and ‘Bony’. Upfield’s books were extremely popular in England and America – particularly after the war, when many American soldiers stationed in Australia read the stories and took them back home. It is most likely that J.E. Macdonell was familiar with the ‘Bony’ character, and while he doesn’t present Jacky as a detective or a police officer, he places great store in the man’s abilities as a tracker.

Horwitz reprint 1979

Once again harnessing the knowledge of the Collecting Books and Magazine’s website – they suggest that Mettle at Woomera was reprinted by Horwitz Publications in 1979 as Weapon Raid (which I think is a stupid title for the book). The site also suggests that the order of publication and dates were as follows: Captain Mettle VC in 1955, Mettle at Woomera in 1957 and Mettle Dives Deep in 1958 – and were published by Constable. The versions I have reviewed are the Children’s Press editions and a date of publication isn’t provided for them. However, reading the stories, it is clear that Mettle Dives Deep is the second book in the series, as their are quite a few references to Li Fang Fu (villain of the first book) and other incidents, in the story. It is almost as if it follows directly on. But in this day and age, that is neither here nor there.

From the way the stories were presented, I got the impression that there were meant to be more than three Captain Mettle books. All these years later, I can only presume that they didn’t do very well. As they were an English series – aimed at young English lads – maybe they were too adult; had too much naval jargon, and possibly too many Australianisms, to truly connect with their intended audience. But that is just guess work. Maybe Macdonnell got bored with the series and decided to concentrate on his naval adventure series instead. Whatever the reason, it is a bit of a shame, because the Mettle series is damn good fun.

Mettle at Woomera

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