THRILLING HEIGHTS

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By SUBHROJIT DUTTA
  • Published 17.11.06
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After Midnight By Robert Ryan, Review, £ 4.25

ALiberator bomber pilot from Australia, Flight Officer Bob Millar, was in one of the 20 Liberators that took off from Foggia on October 12, 1944 and flew a near-suicidal mission to Domodossola in northern Italy to drop supplies to the Italian partisans manoeuvring in the Apennine and Maritime mountains. However, while hostile weather conditions forced many of them give up their task, six planes had the worst of it. Four went down on the peaks, one crashed near Cantalupa and the sixth, the Liberator KH-158 went missing. Millar was aboard the KH-158.

Inspired by this true tale, Robert Ryan dovetails the big themes of heroism and treason, strife and struggle, war and love into a novel packed with the real thriller material. In his prologue, Ryan cites a maiden letter from a homesick soldier to his daughter, containing birthday wishes, regrets and a very strong message: “I am here...because there is a war on caused by certain people who wished to rule the world harshly and despotically, imperilling an intangible thing called democracy which...all decent people should fight for. You will understand as you grow up what democracy means for us and how it is an ideal way of life which we aspire to put into practice.” All his wishes have come true save one: he hoped “to be home again one fine day”.

Millar and his daughter, Anne Storm, become Bill Carr and Lindy Carr in the novel — though Ryan insists they are “total fictions”, and that “the character of Lindy is not based on Anne at all, although they do share a certain tenacity”. He explores the intrigues and conflicting sensibilities of the Italian war of 1944. northern Italy provides both comfort and consolation, and the setting for the final retaliation.

In a bid to discover what happened to her father on a fateful night in 1944, a resolute Lindy Carr accepts a proposal from Major Archibald Lang, Special Forces Adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth office, for commissioning Jack Kirby, a Mosquito fighter pilot during World War II and now a well-known motorcycle racer. Jack knows northern Italy very well, as much of it was his backyard during the war, though his stint there as a British liaison officer is a painful episode for him. Still, he joins Lindy as he is keen on finding the plane (here EH-148) he thought he had betrayed twenty years ago, trapped by a woman he fell in love with.

The Liberator, describes Ryan, “was a big, heavy bruiser of a plane, a Sonny Liston rather than Cassius Clay: wingspan 110 feet, close to 70 feet long, weighing in at around 50,000 pounds, including the 1,000 gallons of aviation gasoline EH-148 probably still had on board when it went in. Because of its high wing, it could carry more load and more fuel than any comparable plane.” Besides the Liberator, Jack is also eager to find Francesca, a girl he fell in love with while staying with the Gruppo Fausto partisans after crashing at Lake Maggiore. However, Francesca herself comes down to meet him as she still holds certain secrets in her heart.

Jack ultimately discovers all, as a crescendo of chaos sets off around him. Furio, his second, is killed, while Jack and Lindy are attacked several times. But they survive only to find out certain truths, bitter as well as brutal. All Jack and Lindy can do now is flee, through the meadow, down the valley, right into havoc and holocaust. Finally comes Bill Carr — his supply, still unused, saves the life of his daughter and a person who would have a lesser burden to bear henceforth.

Ryan superbly handles the details of a war-torn Italy. His meticulous research, together with his gripping narrative style, makes After Midnight compelling. One hopes the mystery of KH-158 will be solved one day.