Cover image of "The Eagle Has Landed" by Jack Higgins, a classic espionage thriller

Any list of the best spy stories of all times must include Jack Higgins’ classic World War II espionage thriller, The Eagle Has Landed. Published in 1975, this classic of the genre has sold more than 50 million copies. I read the book shortly after it was first published and turned back to it again to compare my memory of the book with the reality—and with contemporary entries in the field.

Classic espionage thriller

The Eagle Has Landed introduces Liam Devlin, a fast-talking agent for the Irish Republican Army, who is featured in three of Higgins’ subsequent thrillers. Though nominally about espionage, as the story revolves around an imaginary plot by the Nazi military intelligence agency, the Abwehr, in 1943, the novel is more properly a thriller, action-filled virtually from the beginning to the end.

Enter Heinrich Himmler

The principal characters in The Eagle Has Landed include two real-life leaders of the Third Reich, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, and Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS and widely regarded as heir apparent to Adolf Hitler, who also figures in the plot as a minor character. It is Hitler who conceives the idea to land paratroopers in England to kidnap or kill Winston Churchill, inspired by the real-life rescue of Benito Mussolini by a German agent.

To carry out this outlandish scheme, Himmler turns to a senior member of Canaris’ staff, Colonel Max Radl, and forces him to carry out the scheme against his will. Radl recruits a highly decorated paratrooper, Lt. Colonel Kurt Steiner, and Liam Devlin to play the leading roles in the plan. They proceed on the basis of intelligence reported to them from England by Joanna Grey, a pro-Nazi Afrikaner woman who has inherited a large home on the Norfolk coast.

The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins (1975) 372 pages ★★★★★

Himmler is portrayed as one-dimensional, a sociopathic killer fanatically dedicated to the Nazi cause. Everything I’ve read about Nazi Germany supports this characterization. By contrast, every one of the other major characters, and many of the minor ones, are complex and credible. Devlin, Steiner, and Radl, in particular, are all eminently likable despite the roles they play in the plot.

Action-filled from beginning to end

Higgins is especially skillful in building suspense and moving the action forward by dipping into the thoughts of dozens of individual characters. In the hands of a less accomplished writer, this story would be extremely hard to follow, because it shifts from one scene and one character to the next with great regularity; a reader would be likely to forget who is who and what’s really happening. Higgins makes it easy to follow along.

About the author

Jack Higgins, 86 years old at this writing, has sold more than 150 million copies of his 84 novels. He is British. Higgins is a pseudonym for Henry (“Harry”) Patterson. He began writing novels at the age of 30, so he has somehow turned out those 84 novels at a rate approaching two per year.

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