The Most Dangerous Game by Gavin Lyall
....Daphne Wright (who writes crime novels as Natasha Cooper) worked for Lyall and described that early phase of his writing: 'His first few novels feature cynical but warm-hearted men who use their training and experience in the army or RAF in more or less legal ways. They know their way around Europe and are at ease with guns and planes. Many of them – or their colleagues or quarry – battle with alcoholism.'2
Lyall's first seven novels were finely crafted adventure thrillers and he rapidly established himself as a leading player on the thriller scene, being elected Chairman of the Crime Writers' Association in 1967 after completing only four novels. In the 1970s his productivity fell drastically – 'writer's block' was later blamed....
--Mike Ripley, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed (2017).
A Beaver floatplane
One of the chief (to me) joys of thriller novels is what might be called the Night Action. In The Most Dangerous Game Lyall gives us a breathless covert night time flight from Finland into Russia, hugging the terrain.
….We came over the connecting channel between the lakes -just a gap in the trees thirty yards wide and a bit longer, floored with mist. The second lake opened ahead. There was no horizon. The mist reached as far as I could see. Gaunt thin pines on small islands poked through in clumps, fading away across the lake like the rotting masts and sails of dead, half-sunken ships. It was as quiet and still out there as a cave of ice. The Beaver must have sounded very loud and looked very obvious.
I swung left to keep near the north shore, then pulled the nose up and cut back the engine to get the noise down. I felt Judd stretch across behind me to peer out.
The time was a few seconds after one. I stopped the timer and reset it to zero. The north bank was just a forest of rootless pines standing out of the mist. I pulled the nose up and into a wingover to reverse course along the north shore. The speed was down to seventy-five knots, but I was putting out a lot less noise.
'All right,' I said. 'Where's your friend? You're sure you didn't write down the date or time wrong in your diary?'
A green light blinked blearily from the mist among the trees. Judd jerked in his seat.
I said: 'All right, I have it.' I dipped the nose and snapped the navigation lights quickly on and off, then swung out in a big S-turn over the lake and back again along what would have to be the landing run.
There were no islands closer than a quarter mile from the shore, which at that point was a very slight headland, a gentle bulge into the lake. If somebody was going to heave floating lights into the water from there, they were probably aiming to mark a landing path just skimming the bulge. As good as anywhere.
A spark twinkled through the air and then turned into a steady misty glow on the west side of the bulge.
'What are those things?' I asked.
Judd paused to think if he was revealing any important State Secrets. 'New type of flotation torch. It always stays the right way up.'
Another one twinkled sharply and brightly and then became a dull glow on the water below the mist. I turned back, put down half flap, and went down on a reverse landing course, just to try the lights. I aimed for the nearest light, keeping half an eye on the further one. The nearer light got gently bigger, but not sharper. The further one started to fade appreciably while I was still at fifty feet above the mist. At thirty feet it died away entirely. I rounded out, skimmed the top of the mist, and pulled away. The lost light glowed suddenly below me.
'Did you see all that?' I asked.
'I saw it.'
'You know enough about flying to know why there were supposed to be two lights? So that you can have something to give you a perspective on the ground - which one light won't do?'
'I know about that,' he said, and his voice was heavy and old. 'I see what you mean.' He didn't sound like a man with a gun.
I turned at sixty feet, turned down the cockpit lighting to just a glint, and dipped towards the nearest light, aiming just short of it. The floats squashed into the mist, sank, then I pulled back sharply. The light flared under the nose and for the first time I saw water: a glimmering flat sheen for a few feet around the torch. I climbed out and away.
Judd asked: 'What would happen if- if you got it wrong?'
'We might turn on our backs. We might just dig one float in and tear it loose. One of them's a bit out of line anyway. Either way you'd have three people stuck here instead of just one.'
Then I said: 'I have an idea. I've a nasty feeling it may be the first time anybody's had it, so it could be a very bad one. But I think I can land on one light if we can get it to show up a bit more water.'
'Is there any way to do that?'
'My idea covers it. I want to drop something in the water between the lights; that should start a few ripples that'll catch the light a bit further than it goes now. It's too damn calm.'
'Unstrap yourself. The baggage compartment in the rear bulkhead: there's a few tins of food - emergency supplies -in there. Then open the drop hatch and wait for my shout. Chuck out three or four in a string.' I felt him move back.
I turned in a slow circle to bring us back to a reverse run up the landing line. The mist and the black, tattered trees fading across the lake still looked as dead as the far side of the moon. The time was four minutes after one.
I heard the rush of air as the hatch came open. Judd called: 'I'm ready.'
'Okay. In about fifteen seconds.' I pulled back the pitch and then the throttle, and dipped down on a line with the lights, staying on the une after the far light had vanished. I flattened out gently on top of the mist.
'Ready,' I called. The first light flared and disappeared under the nose.
I counted and one and shouted: 'Now.'
The second light suddenly glowed ahead, swelled, and passed beneath. I rammed up the throttle, not caring about the noise. Now we were committed. If we were going to make it, it had to be before the ripples died. I climbed into a turn.
Could I still use the second light? Round out at - say -three or four feet on the glow from the first light, then coast through the mist at that height and drop her on by the ripples from the second light? Could I still work it?
No. I couldn't try it with a split mind. It had to be just one idea and one only. Forget that second light.
Judd scrambled heavily back into his seat.
'I didn't close the hatch--'
I came out of the turn at fifty feet above the mist, about two hundred yards back from the first light. I eased back the throttle and pitch and put down full flap. The Beaver slowed, swayed, and then shook herself into a new slightly nose-down attitude.
I shuffled her in gentle small turns, lining up with the lights while I could still see two of them. The speed drifted down off the dial. At fifty knots I let the nose droop. The far light faded and vanished.
I kept my eye on the one light. I was aiming short, shorter than on the previous runs.
We were about thirty feet above the mist and a hundred yards from the light. It was beginning to fade - just slightly. Speed down to forty-seven knots. She was heavy at this speed, and sluggish on the ailerons.
Twenty feet up and the light was fading. I had to hold her down; some part of me wanted to haul up so that I could see the light better. But I had to aim short; I had to round out and then touch on the light itself. Beyond it was nothing. Nothing.
Ten feet above the mist the light was just a faint glow. I was about sixty yards short of it. I was in the right place. I made a hand go out and pull back the throttle. I raised the nose slightly.
Suddenly the inside of the cabin seemed as quiet and still as the mist and the black trees above the mist. The light was the only live thing in the world, and it was just a dying ember. The speed slid down off the dial. The floats broke the surface of the mist. It foamed and rose and streamed away, suddenly moving, but sluggish, a dead thing in a tide. The mist climbed and shredded through the propeller. The light disappeared.
I was alone. I was falling. There was nothing. And I was inside it, part of it. I wanted to haul back, rear away, slam on engine to hear something else besides me trying to escape from being nothing. I didn't want to die in the quiet.
Then there was light. A glow that was nowhere, too diffuse to be high or low, but growing fast, spreading outwards and at the same time hardening in the centre, high, too high. I jerked back on the yoke and it shuddered under my hands, on the brink of the stall. The light flared, close and dazzling in the mist, and beyond it little twinkling ripples. Suddenly the flat world snapped into place underneath me. I knew where I was.
Four feet up - too high. I jerked the yoke forward and back and the Beaver dropped a two-foot step in the air and the yoke shuddered again and I pulled back and she suddenly stopped flying and sagged with a splash into the water.
Mist swept over me. Nothingness, but a different nothingness, because I was on the earth again. The second light glowed, brightened, and drifted astern, a couple of yards to port. I let the Beaver wander to a stop.
We rocked gently in our own disturbance of the water. The engine made early morning coughing noises; it couldn't take much slow running. But for the moment, I liked the quiet.
Judd made a long breathing sound behind me. 'Yes,' he said. 'Yes.'
I said: 'Welcome to Russia.'
'Yes/ he said again. Then, more cheerfully: 'I had a nasty moment back there.'
'You got it secondhand, friend. I'd already squeezed it dry.'
The Most Dangerous Game is a modest and well-organized thriller. Regional setting in Lapland and the Russo-Finnish border during the Cold War are well-handled, as is the final showdown between the pro and the amateur obsessed with hunting man.