Wednesday, January 30, 2019

10. Maneater by Ted Willis

What a find!  Man, 2019 has started out with a bang for my bookhunting.  I found the pulp haul at The Bookmark in Oakland right after New Year's.  I stumbled on this book at the free shelf on St-Viateur.  Man-Eater checks off so many of my reading preferences: 70s British manly adventure, beautiful Pan paperback, animals fighting for freedom against civilization and I've never heard of it or the author before!

The story starts off immediately, with an unnamed man driving a truck off the road into the moors, where he releases two lifelong circus tigers from their cages.  You don't know why except hints that he was as caged by their existence as they were by man's.  Then the fun starts.  An older man and a younger woman are parked near the forest for some illicit nooky.  When he goes out to take a piss, he doesn't come back and she freaks out and drives away.

The story then opens up into a wider investigation and exploration into the small villages in the county and how they are impacted by the escaped tigers.  We also go back to the tigers every few chapters, to see their perspective and how they are getting on in their new found freedom.  There sort of two main protagonists. The first is the competent young Chief-Inspector Charles Gosford, who leads the investigation.  The second is David Birk, hunter and assassin on mental leave from his day job at the agency.  He's just chilling in his little hamlet off the beaten path next to the moors, tending his garden, taking tea when he hears the unmistakable call of the tigers.  He was raised in India with a famous hunting father and, though it is almost unbelievable, he knows exactly what he hears.

This is what I particularly love about these books.  The British are so good at understated competence.  There is always a great game recognizes game moments in the best British adventure books.  Here is one of the lieutenants describing Birk to his chief after Birk comes to the station to warn them that somehow there are tigers on the moors:
"Doesn't look like a crank either, sir.  On the short side, actually, but rugged, nose a bit squashed as if it had been broken some time.  Very sharp, bright blue eyes—first thing you notice about him almost.  Knocked around a bit, I'd say.  Odd manner, too.  Sort of detached, as though he was telling all this as a favour, wanted nothing to do with it himself."
And then later when Gosford first meets him:
He could see what Miller meant about this man's detachment; there was a curious air of completeness about him, as of a man able to stand alone, without the need of social crutches on which other men prop up their lives.  There was a calmness there too—no, thought Gosford, correcting himself—it was a sort of stillness, a poised, brooding stillness, like the moor, as if he were wating, listening...
I love the use of "knocked about a bit" to mean super bad ass man-eating tiger hunter and world-weary elite sniper for dying empire still trying to punch above its weight in the world.  And of course, the stillness.  This is the impression I try (with minimal success, I suspect) to impart when going on job interviews or meetings with vendors.

The first half of the book is fantastic, capturing the district and a diverse range of characters and moments as the fear (and attacks) of two tigers on the region creates chaos.  Unfortunately, it doesn't quite live up to its potential as many of the storylines are abandoned or resolved too presumptorily and everything wraps up way too quickly given the scope of the chaos.  One is left slightly unsatisfied. It kind of feels like it should have been another hundred pages longer.  I can only speculate.  Still, a really enjoyable read and definitely a prized keeper for the shelf.  I will be looking for Ted Willis' other books.

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