Behemoth by J. E. Macdonnell: A review
Behemoth by J.E.Macdonnell
Horwitz, 1967, 130 pages
Sea Adventure Library #83
Technically, this review contains spoilers, but really I’m not going to tell you anything you could not have guessed.
This is the story of Der Tiger, a fictional German pocket battleship in World War II, dispatched to the Indian Ocean to first sink as many Allied ships as possible without giving away her existence, and then to occupy as many Allied units as possible in the search for her. She sails under the command of Captain Wolfgang Rofmann, who is under strict instructions to keep her presence a secret for as long as possible — no matter what measures must be taken.
This requires him to be ruthless, determined and, basically, nasty.
This book is one of hundreds written by Macdonnell over about 40 years; at the peak of his productivity he churned out about one a month, cheap paperbacks almost all put out by Horwitz, a publisher better known for magazines. These were very much news-stand books, bought alongside those Commando magazines and other war comics. Their popularity remains undimmed; I can’t help but wonder if the copyright holder might not make a few bucks selling them off as e-books — though who would digitise them all?
Anyway, this story is the battle of Macdonnell’s serial hero, the ‘mulish old barnacle’, destroyer driver John Benedict ‘Dutchy’ Holland, to shadow, tackle and help defeat Der Tiger, a ship six times the size of his own Jackal. Along the way we see Macdonnell’s greatest strength — the (apparent but probably real) authenticity of his descriptions of life at sea, battle action and ship handling. We also see his weaknesses — a hero who is just a bit too lucky and clever, an enemy who is a little too unrealistically foolish when the plot demands it and who is painted in rather flat, dark colours to ensure we know who the villain is. Having said that, the German crew are not all shown to be immoral fanatics, which causes some on-board conflict and adds well-judged complexity to the story.
The book is a very representative example of Macdonnell’s art. It is readable, evocative, shows the RN and RAN as bastions of integrity, and gives the reader the feeling that they are getting some insight into life at sea during the war. Macdonnell wrote a lot of books rather than a handful of ‘better’ ones. He aimed for the news-stand rather than C.S.Forester, though his Brady series is clearly his Hornblower, and not too far overwhelmed by the comparison. I for one am not disappointed by this. While his novels can be silly, samey, repetitive, casually racist (unpleasant but perhaps not surprising from a man who spent five years fighting the Japanese), plotless (one is basically entirely about the complex procedure of towing a stricken ship through rough seas) and sometimes clunky, they all show his lived expertise, and since there are so many there’s always another one to read.
Now, where’s my copy of The Unforgiving Sea?