Duncan Kyle Black Camelot
Book Club Associates 1979
I tried not to let the tawdry 70s jacket illustration put me off: Duncan Kyle, on the dust cover of the hardback, hints that a lot more of this World War II fiction is true than might be expected of a thriller. But that’s just what he might say, you might assume, in order to help sell the book. It’s a cunning device, isn’t it, designed to elicit the response, “It makes you think…” And yet the writing draws you in, so that from all the verbatim conversations, seemingly genuine documents and the detailed clandestine action you could almost believe it’s all true.
Almost, but not quite. The last action sequence is just so much The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare that, for all its tight plotting, the spell of verisimilitude largely dissipates. The storyline involves disillusioned SS soldiers led by Hauptsturmführer Franz Rasch, miscellaneous British spies, a maverick Irish journalist and sundry supporting cast members; as a backdrop there is Wewelsburg Castle, a parody of King Arthur’s capital with its own Round Table (Himmler had planned the site in 1934 to be a school for SS leaders, using some Arthurian themes, but its function evolved in ever more sinister ways). Whom can you trust in wartime? Is there such a thing as chivalry? And can you learn to cheer for the two antiheroes who become unlikely buddies? I’m not a lover of wartime stories but despite myself I couldn’t, once I’d progressed a fair way, put it down.
Duncan Kyle was the pen name of John Franklin Broxholme, a journalist and editor turned writer. He didn’t experience the second world war as a soldier (he was born in 1930 and thus only in his mid-teens at the outbreak of peace) but he did do national service. Apparently these two years were spent with British Army Intelligence, something that must have helped him to turn out thrillers with resourceful heroes and which certainly will have helped him add that sense of authenticity to Black Camelot.
There’s a certain irony that the soldiers who attack this anti-Camelot, despite their enforced knightly fellowship, are essentially freelancers, a term apparently coined by Walter Scott to describe medieval mercenaries in Ivanhoe; and Broxholme himself effectively became a freelance author after years of collaborative work in national service and journalism. Perhaps that’s why he found it easy to portray self-sufficient loners in his thrillers: writing often is a very lonely task.