11 May 2014

Flying in His Underpants

Biggles Fails to Return
By Capt. W.E. Johns

It is 1942, and Biggles has vanished on a secret mission in Monaco. Algy, Ginger and Bertie set off to look for him, but without the boss to keep them in line they soon go off the rails, strumming guitars, swilling wine and dallying, believe it or not, with women. Ginger falls in love with a girl who gives him shelter, while Algy stalks a woman in a blue shawl for miles and miles. Bertie reveals unsuspected musical abilities as well as an entirely believable familiarity with pre-war Monegasque society. All seems lost, but then Biggles appears, reminds them of what they’ve been missing by doing some ace flying in his underpants, all wet and hunky, and they return to England firm friends again. Really, really firm friends.

Oh, all right. The four stars are contextual, of course, but this really is one of the best Biggles books. There are the usual implausible coincidences, impossibly lucky escapes and a positive Olympus of deorum ex machina, but it also contains affectionate and knowledgeable descriptions of Monaco and the surrounding Alpes Maritimes (Johns was always at his best as a writer when describing scenery, particularly desolate places) and yes, there are actually women participating in the story as characters. The French setting seems to have obliged Biggles and crew to deviate from their usual Muscular Christian l code of conduct. I loved the Biggles books as a small boy and wanted to see how they held up when read as an adult. Mostly they don’t, but I actually enjoyed this one more than I did as a child.

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