Tunnel of Doom

Story adapted by Caryn Jenner
Illustrations: Arkadia
Publisher: Buzz Books
Published: 1993

James Bond Jr is back, and as I am sure you’re aware, he is the nephew of secret agent James Bond 007, and he featured in an animated television series in the early 1990s. Tunnel of Doom is based on Canine Caper, which was the forty-ninth episode (of sixty-five) from the series.

This lighting tale begins with aman is walking his dog, named Charlie, when two S.C.U.M. operatives leap out of a van and try to kidnap them. The man runs into an alley, and then cornered, straps a microfilm canister to his dog’s collar. Then he sends Charlie off, away from danger.

James Bond Jr is cycling back to the Warfield Academy when Charlie runs out onto the road, into Bond’s path. They collide. Bond continues on his way, only to find on the next morning that Charlie has followed him back. Now Bond also notices the film canister, which he gives to a teacher to have developed.

Meanwhile, expecting some kind of skullduggery, I.Q. places a homing transmitter on Charlie, so they can track him, which is fortuitous because he is captured by a S.C.U.M. operative named Skullcap, who takes the dog to his master, Dr. Derange. Derange has a mad scheme to destroy Scotland Yard.

Bond and some friends follow Charlie’s signal to Derange’s lair, which is an abandoned train tunnel – but Derange is ready and waiting.

These children’s books are suitably silly and entertaining for their target audience. But due to their wafer thin story (extremely truncated from their source material), very few adults would find any merit in the story telling on display here.

This is one for Bond completists only.

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Tunnel of Doom

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

Mettle Dives Deep

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

Mettle Dives Deep is the second of the Captain Mettle children’s adventure books by J.E. Macdonnell, writing as James Macnell. As it is the second book, no time is wasted introducing the characters, so the action begins from the get-go.

It opens with Admiral Sterne briefing Mettle on his next mission. Mettle and his crew – including the perpetually bored Crabby, and bosun’s mate Hooky Hogan – on board the Naval destroyer, Scorpion are now a ‘Special Services’ unit, which I guess is the navy’s equivalent of being some kind of naval spy squad. Their assignment is to track down a cadre of gunrunners who have being smuggling weapons to groups of terrorists in the Mediterranean. Nobody knows how the gunrunners are doing it, because the coast is being watched day and night. The Scorpion sails off at speed to unravel the mystery and capture those responsible.

This second outing plays a bit more like a naval adventure, than the first Mettle book, but that is not such a bad thing. By accident, Mettle and his crew stumble on the path of a midget submarine – the asdic equipment was conveniently being tested at the time. The story then reverts to a good old submarine hunting story, with the bad guys lying silently on the sea bed, hoping that the destroyer will move on believing they have lost the signal. Meanwhile, Mettle believes that the lost signal might be a trick, with the sub lying doggo at the bottom, so he has the engines cut, and everybody on board remain dead silent. I know it’s the type of thing that we have seen in just about every submarine movie ever made – particularly The Enemy Below with Robert Mitchum. But it still reads rather well, and creates a bit of tension.

The choice by Macdonnell, to have the villains of the piece use a Japanese midget submarine is an interesting one. Midget submarines were used on numerous occasions in World War II, but as an Australian, the submarine attack on Sydney Harbour was no doubt, indelibly burnt into Macdonnell’s mind. While the actual attack, on Sydney is generally regarded as a failure, the psychological aspect of the attack can not be underplayed. Even as a boy, I was told tales of the day that Japanese subs snuck into Sydney and bombed Australia. They didn’t actually ‘bomb’ Australia. They fired torpedoes at ships in the harbour, but the event almost became an an urban myth, with the story and facts being greatly distorted with each telling… but such was the psychological power of the attack. I am sure it is still an event that resonates extremely strongly with older Australians. By choosing midgets submarines, for Australian readers, Macdonnell’s story certainly evokes the memory of the Japaneses attack, and he uses it to his advantage.

After waiting on the bottom for half an hour, the villains decide to start their engines and high tail it out of there. But Mettle is waiting, and has the Scorpion crew deliver a string of depth charges. The villains, and their sub full of guns and dynamite, which just may blow, head to the surface and surrender. The gunrunners are taken into custody. Of course, the submariners are just evil minions, and Mettle is after the big Kahuna – a man known as the ‘Squeaker’ due to his high pitched voice.

Mettle undertakes his own little mission where he takes the place of the gunrunners in the sub – accompanied by Hooky, and an fiery red-headed engineer know quite simply as ‘Engines’. Ultimately, Mettle Dives Deep is an adventure story, so as you’d expect it should have some of the trappings of a ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’ book – and having laid the ground work, with having Mettle and his crew inside a midget sub, what do you think happens next? If you remember my review of the first Mettle book, you may recall that Hooky tangled with a shark – so sharks are out – so if you said a giant octopus, then give yourself top marks. You are absolutely correct.

Mettle and Hooky sail to Basra and meet the gunrunners, in the process getting into a gun fight and stealing a plane – just par for the course for the boys. As the links in the gunrunning chain are broken, Mettle and his team end up of the coast of Somaliland with the villains holed up on a boat in a coastal crater lake (had to get that volcano motif in there somehow!)

Mettle has twenty of his best men, all armed, don frogman outfits and storm the lake. While the climax to this book is pretty exciting, the actual final confrontation with the villainous ‘Squeaker’ is a bit of a let down. There’s not really a cathartic coup de gras, and as such the final pages flounder at little.

However, there is still a lot of fun to be found in this Captain Mettle adventure. As I mentioned above, it is more of a naval adventure than Captain Mettle V.C. with much of the action taking place either on the destroyer, Scorpion or on a captured miniature submarine. That’s not a bad thing, but I must admit, I would have liked to see Mettle carrying out more of his own brand of derring-do on land. But a small quibble. Next up, to close out the series is Captain Mettle at Woomera, which I predict, given the Australian based story, will be more land based.

Mettle Dives Deep

Steelfinger

Story: Norman Redfern
Illustrations: Arkadia
Publisher: Buzz Books
Published: 1985

I must admit I am not familiar with the Biker Mice from Mars television series, but I couldn’t walk past a book with a Bondian style mouse on the cover, while in the background, villainous thugs throw a saw bladed hat like a frisbee – obviously styled on Oddjob’s hat in Goldfinger.

This is a Buzz Book, aimed at very young children, I’d say around five to eight years old, and as such the story is incredibly, though appropriately, slight. It also assumes that the reader is familiar with the characters from the television series, as there is no effort made to explain who they are. I’m not familiar, so I found it frustratingly vague.

The hero of the piece, is Modo Mouse and he has a steel arm, which is getting rusty. Seeing a poster for the new gadget fest ‘James Bomb’ film, he starts fantasizing about getting a new arm. By co-incidence, the villain of the piece, a fellow named Limburger – known as The Big Cheese – offers Modo a job, in exchange for a shiny new mechanical arm.

Initially Modo rejects the offer – because Limburger is bad – but then decides to accept, going under cover – like ‘James Bomb’ to discover what Limburger is up too.

Limburger works for someone called Plutark (I don’t know if it is a person, an organisation, a fictional country, or another planet). Plutark wants steel to build a fleet of battle cruisers (once again, I don’t know what form these cruisers are: sea, land, space?) Limburger has a plan to get the steel, by using a solar ray to melt the steel in the buildings in Chicago. Of course, Modo, and the other Biker Mice foil his plot.

Steelfinger is one of eight books in the Buzz Books Biker Mice series, but I would suggest this is the only one that moves into Bond territory.

Critisising a book like this, is pretty silly. It is only twenty-eight pages long and with it primarily being a picture book, there is not too much room for plot and characterisation. It is minimalist story telling – but I am sure that did not present a problem to the intended target audience.

Steelfinger

Freeze Frame

Story adapted by Caryn Jenner 
Illustrations: Arkadia
Publisher: Buzz Books
Published: 1993

James Bond Jr is the nephew of secret agent James Bond 007, and he featured in an animated television series in the early 1990s. Freeze Frame is based on Weather or Not, which is the fiftieth episode (of sixty-five) from the series.

As the story begins, it now seems that the villainous Goldfinger and Odd Job are now operatives of an evil organisation called S.C.U.M. (Saboteurs and Criminals United in Mayhem). By controlling a weather satellite, Goldfinger causes a freakish snow storm over the bank of London. This enables Odd Job, and a S.C.U.M. minion to rob an armoured car outside, and escape with large sacks with loot.

After the successful heist, Goldfinger sets his sights on the Crown Jewells. Of course, James Bond Jr. realises that something fishy is going on and choses to investigate. Assisted by some gadgets from I.Q. (Grandson of ‘Q’), Bond goes to the Weather Centre and confronts Goldfinger and Odd Job.

I must admit, I cannot get over the way the James Bond Jr series depicts Odd Job. They dress him in loud tracksuits, and have him wear a heavy thick gold chain and medallion, with the initials O.J. inscribed on it, around his neck. He looks more like a gangster rapper, like Run DMC, than a Korean manservant. Other characters from the official EON series are also modified in their animated form.

Buzz Books are aimed at very young children, and the stories are short – the book itself is only 28 pages – and I run the risk here of using more words for this review, than are contained in the actual book.

The illustrations are crisp and colourful and in keeping with the style established in the televison series. But compared to comic book art, the illustrations are stiff and tight with very little energy of movement to them.

Maybe more were released at a later date, but initially there were four James Bond Jr books in this series, being: – Tunnel of Doom, Barbella’s Revenge, Freeze Frame and Dangerous Games.

James Bond Jr is an interesting aside to the Bond universe, but I don’t think the television series is essential viewing for Bond fans. And the Buzz Books, well they are so thin, they are even further down the chain.

Freeze Frame

The Money Explosion

Author: Talmage Powell
Publisher: Whitman
Release Year: 1970

The Money Explosion is a children’s tie-in novel for the Mission: Impossible television series. Those familiar with the series will be familiar with the miraculous deeds that the IMF have performed in the past. Here they are explained as such:

From page 16.

But often the sudden surprises that boded well for the forces of freedom and democracy were neither unexplicable nor happy strokes of luck. Often these were indications that Jim’s Impossible Missions Force had been on the job. IMF went in where the knots were too tangled for any other agency or group to untie. IMF went in unseen, without official existence, and came out without plaudits – but with the knowledge of a worthwhile job well done.

The story opens in Tampa, Florida, in the Latin Quarter. Jim Phelps, in a rented car, pulls up and makes his way to a record store, and requests a tape from the store attendant. The attendant hands Phelps the recording, and Phelps takes in back to his car to listen to the tape/cartridge in private. The mission concerns the tiny Carribean island of Esperanza, which has suffered at the hands of tyrannical rulers for centuries. But their new President, Petro Martinez is a beacon of light and hope for the future. But the leader of the opposition, Diego Ochoa has a dastardly plan to upset the economy of the struggling nation. And through his manufactured economic crisis, he plans to seize power.

Ochoa’s plan concern’s a young intelligence officer named Alexie Darstov, who works for an un-named military power that is in direct opposition to America (Russia). Darstov has overseen the printing of millions of counterfeit pestas (Esperanza’s currency) which he plans to flood the country – literally a ‘money explosion’.

Jim’s mission, should he chose to accept it, is to stop the Ochoa – Darstov plan. To do this he needs a highly skilled team of operatives. These include Willy Armitage, Barney Collier, The Great Paris and Tracey Hale.

The Mission: Impossible television series was always beautifully written and edited. Each episode presented the viewer with a snippet of the briefing – not all of it. Just enough to make the viewer believe they knew what was going to happen. Then as the plot unfolded, the story would twist into another direction. Unfortunately, chopping up a story into deceptively small pieces is a lot harder to do in a novel. It would read rather clumsy to have the start of the briefing, and then the end, leaving out the middle. Editing in a television series makes the show seem pacey, however in a book, large missing segments can seem lazy or confusing, even if the scenes are mundane. A certain amount of exposition is required, and that what The Money Explosion does – serve up that extra descriptive content. Which in some ways, ruins the magic of Mission Impossible…so much more of the mission is laid out at the beginning. The downside of this is at the beginning the story is overloaded with setup and very little action. To illustrate the point, the IMF team only move off from their briefing on page 44 – which is almost a quarter of the way through the book.

To the novel’s credit (and author Talmage Powell), the story still manages to serve up one or two twists. While I can say I enjoyed The Money Explosion, rather than being a great book, it instead highlights the strengths of the television show and how the formula is very hard to transfer to a linear novel format – keeping the same style and pace intact.

The Money Explosion

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