Duncan Kyle was the pseudonym used by British author John Franklin Broxholme (1930 - 2000). A journalist and editor, Broxholme took up thriller writing as he approached middle age. Between 1970 and 1993, Kyle published fifteen standalone novels, mostly in the high adventure genre and with a mix of contemporary and historical settings. These books are often compared with the works of the hugely successful Alastair MacLean; it has even been suggested that Broxholme chose a Scottish-sounding pen name to play up that similarity. While Kyle was successful in his time, over the years the books have fallen into obscurity.
Fortunately, the enterprising London-based publisher Canelo has recently republished three of Kyle’s thrillers, specifically Flight into Fear (1972), Whiteout (1976), and Stalking Point (1981), as part of their Canelo Action list. This short review covers the first of these, Flight into Fear, which was Kyle’s second novel. Focusing on a pilot whose seemingly benign trip to San Francisco sees him caught in a web of international subterfuge, it’s exactly the kind of fast-moving thriller that I’m happy to see made available to a new, wider audience.
Our protagonist is John Shaw, a former RAF pilot who spent years flying the Gloster Meteor, the UK’s first jet fighter. After leaving the service, Shaw set up his own small civilian flying business. He takes on odd jobs, such as delivering planes straight from the factory to their new owners, typically wealthy poseurs living in Switzerland. From time to time, Shaw also handles transportation for a shadowy figure who is essentially a front for British intelligence. It’s one of these jobs which triggers the events of Flight into Fear. Shaw is hired to go to San Francisco, California to pick up a newly built plane, and then to fly it in a series of “hops” back to the UK. Along the way, he is to pick up a covert agent and secretly return them home.
Inevitably, this proves to be much more complicated and dangerous than Shaw expects. The pilot finds himself drawn into a complex scheme, but that scheme is the weakest part of Flight into Fear. Kyle disburses the details of the plot much too slowly, and Shaw’s reluctance to ask any pointed questions of the various figures he meets consistently strains credibility. When all is revealed, it simply doesn’t make a lick of sense and the plotting reflects Kyle’s very dubious understanding of the mechanics of international crime. More broadly, the book doesn’t work very well when Shaw is on the ground, as these sequences lack the required tension.
Despite all this, Flight into Fear is worth reading and that’s because of the middle section of the book. This is the phase of the story when Shaw is actually airborne, and was clearly the focus of the author’s research and attention. As Kyle makes clear, just flying a light aircraft across the Atlantic is a challenge in itself, but Shaw ends up having to do it in thrillingly dangerous circumstances. The book really comes alive when the pilot discovers that his plane, a Stripe Tiger, has been sabotaged and that unless it is resolved in mid-air, he will suffer a fatal plunge into the ocean. This gripping sequence is followed by another, meticulously worked out by Kyle. Shaw has to navigate the plane into the notoriously hazardous approach to “Bluie West One”, a former World War II American airbase turned civilian airport in southern Greenland. Doing this means flying up a fjord at low altitude between deadly walls of rock, taking a 90-degree turn in virtually zero visibility. It’s a sequence of real brilliance in a book which would be merely average without it. It’s also the literary equivalent of the climax of Top Gun: Maverick - the resemblance is quite striking, although the two were released 50 years apart.
Flight into Fear displays some weaknesses, particularly in its poor and unconvincing plot. But it is clear that Kyle was onto something with some brilliantly tense flying sequences. With these skills, it’s no wonder that the former journalist was able to carve out a successful thriller career even at such a competitive time for the genre. If you’re interested in ‘70s high adventure, it’s worth checking out Flight into Fear.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.