Friday, 4 December 2015

Book Review: The Angry Hills by Leon Uris is a dangerous trade, especially in times of – hot or cold – war, but not everybody deliberately chooses to enter it. Sometimes, above all in novels, outsiders get mixed up in intelligence work more or less by accident like Graham Greene’s Jim Wormold, the Englishman living in Cuba before Fidel Castro, who is recruited as a spy against his will (»»» read my review of Our Man in Havana) or the middle-aged American protagonist of The Angry Hills by Leon Uris who at first doesn’t even know that Greek resistance against Nazi Germany and British Secret Service have chosen him as unsuspicious and ignorant courier. What starts for the “bread-and-butter” writer Mike Morrison as an innocent business trip to Greece to transfer family money to the USA just in time before war will prevent it turns into a flight from invading German troops and Nazi spies hunting after a sealed envelope containing secret information.

Leon Uris was born in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, in August 1924. In 1942, at the age of seventeen, he gave up high school to join the U.S. Marine Corps and to fight in World War II until its end in 1945. Back to civilian life, he turned his attention to writing and worked for a newspaper for a while. In 1953 his debut novel titled Battle Cry appeared and at once became a best-seller. Encouraged by this success, he wrote The Angry Hills (1955) and his most famous historical novel Exodus (1958). In the 1960s through to 2003 fourteen other historical novels followed, the most notable among them Mila 18 (1961), QB VII (1970), Trinity (1976), The Haj (1984), and A God in Ruins (1995). Leon Uris died in Shelter Island, New York, USA, in June 2003.

The scene of The Angry Hills is Greece in April 1941. German troops are advancing south, but haven’t yet reached Athens where the American writer Mike Morrison travelled to transfer money, which his late wife inherited from her father, from Greece to the USA. The looming German invasion doesn’t bother him because British troops are stationed in the country and, not having yet entered the war, the USA are neutral. He doesn’t know that his renowned attorney taking care of the red tape implied in the money transfer works for the Greek resistance and is already under surveillance of German spies. So when the man asks him to take a letter with him on his way back to the USA and to hand it to his friend in London, Mike Morrison doesn’t give it much thought. Arriving for an appointment with his attorney the same night, he only finds his broken glasses on the floor, a pool of blood and a fatally injured man pointing at him with a gun.
 “Mike’s eyes bulged in terror. His face was wet with sweat. He looked at the man. The man sat in a chair....There were streaks of blood running from the corners of the man’s mouth and the man’s big walrus mustache was red with blood.” 
The stranger tells him to leave Greece at once and to deliver the envelope that the attorney gave him. Only now Mike Morrison learns that the letter contains a list of contacts in the Third Reich that must not get into the hands of the Nazis. Confused and terrified Mike Morrison heads for Tatoi airdrome where a plane is due to depart at midnight, but the airport is bombarded and the plane destroyed. Mike Morrison finds himself retreating south with the British army and he is aware that his pursuers are close at his heels. Thus he sets out on a flight across Greece that apart from mortal danger has also new love in store for him.

According to the author, background and historical events of The Angry Hills are based on a diary that he got from an uncle who served as a volunteer in the Palestinian Brigade of the British Expeditionary Force in Greece during World War II. For the rest the comparatively slim book is an average spy novel with a slightly unusual historical setting that includes the inevitable – clichéd – love story. The plot is in no way extraordinary offering first of all the usual cat-and-mouse game of spies working for opposing powers and the expected triumph of “Good over Evil”, i.e. British Secret Service over Nazi Intelligence. Moreover, it feels unnecessarily rushed not giving the different episodes of the flight a chance to settle in the mind of the reader before moving on. Without doubt the author created a very vivid atmosphere throughout the novel although I would have appreciated more local colour and a deeper look into the Greek way of thinking. All characters are traced convincingly, but still they feel a bit superficial or one-dimensional on the whole. The language employed is appropriate for a book of the kind, thus not exactly the quality of high-brow literature. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining, even gripping read.

It’s certainly true that The Angry Hills by Leon Uris isn’t the best book, not even the best spy novel that I ever read, but it was still worth my time – not least for its historical background that is so little known outside Greece today. I also enjoyed the story enough to stay with it until the end without regretting it afterwards. I hesitate to call this book a light read because it deals with war and Nazi terror on occupied territory; it’s definitely an easy read, though, and one that Hollywood liked so much that in 1959 the novel was adapted for the screen starring Robert Mitchum. The film script, however, seems to differ considerably from the book. However, I prefer reading and I recommend this second novel from the pen of Leon Uris.

* * * * * review is a contribution to the
Back to the Classics Challenge 2015
namely to the category 20th Century Classic.

»»» see my post for this challenge with the complete reading list.

1 comment:

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