Friday, 7 May 2021

The Ransom Commando

AuthorJames Grant
Publisher: Hamlyn Paperbacks
Date: 1978
Pages: 184
Not currently available in eBook format

It's always a thrill to find an undiscovered gem of a book and unearth a wealth of material by an author that has gone unnoticed since their heyday in the 20th century. It gives me great pleasure to tell you I've just finished the best book that I have read so far in 2021. The book is titled The Ransom Commando and the author is listed as James Grant.

Now, before you get too excited, this is not the James Grant that became the publishing titan that is known as Lee Childs. Grant's work appeared in the late 1970's to early 1980's - long before Childs turned to writing. However, Grant is an exceptional writer if this book is anything to go by. Bloody fantastic in fact. A faultless thriller in the vein of the best work by British authors such as Bagley, Kyle, Lyall and Higgins. 

The story of The Ransom Commando takes place in and around a quiet village in the English countryside. Dave Lorrimar is enjoying a dirty weekend away from London with his young female partner. They are staying in the Fenton Oak public house owned by ex-soldier Simon Arne. There is something threatening about Lorrimar, the way he treats his women and the way he speaks to the locals, its clear he isn't the usual sort of visitor they get. Also, he has been paying special attention to the manor house that overlooks the small village, Fenton Hall. The house is owned by the multi-millionaire businessman Sir James Garroway.

Before long Lorrimar is back in London, and it becomes clear that he is a career criminal of some renown. He tends to keep his nose clean when it comes to outright violence or murder - but when the circumstances call for it, he is willing to shoot his way out of trouble without batting an eyelid. He gathers his team together to discuss plans to invade Fenton Hall and take the Garroway family, father, mother and two daughters, hostage in order to extract money out of the businessman in exchange for their safe release.

Lorrimar is accompanied by McKendrick, a steady and reliable crook with a terminally ill mother; Hart, an openly gay member of the team who has many talents up his sleeve, the most important being the ability to pilot small aircraft; and lastly Ken Mannion, someone who normally stays in the background by bankrolling their jobs, but who has unexpectedly insisted upon joining the trio on this job. All of them are planning on making this one big - enough to leave England and live abroad for the rest of their lives.

Despite their good planning and organisation Hart and Lorrimar are suspicious of Mannion's motives for joining them on the caper. It's out of character, and they suspect a double-cross lurking in the background. Hart and Lorrimar secretly agree to bring along extra firepower to the party.

Meanwhile we get some insight into the lives of the Garroways and the residents who live nearby. Sir James  normally spends the whole weekend in Fenton Hall and their eldest daughter comes home for weekends from her job in London. Simon Arne runs the Fenton Oak pub on his own after the death of his wife, and local Police Constable Raymond Blake often pops in to the pub for a chat and sneaky drink while he is doing his rounds.

Everything is set up nicely for the gang to stroll calmly into Fenton Hall, quietly follow the meticulous plans made by Lorrimar to gather the Garroways together in their home, and extract a ransom payment from Sir James. However, the Garroways are mysteriously concerned that they are going to be kept hostage in their own home over the weekend? Ken Mannion is acting strangely, and the eldest daughter has planned for a night out and her escort is expected to arrive at some point... an escort who is a VIP of the highest order... whose appearance changes everything...

James Grant has written an excellently plotted and tense action thriller. Lorrimar is a great central character. You are never quite sure if he is going to end up the good guy or not. The story builds from a steady pace and eventually unravels into a brilliantly pacey action-filled tale that keeps your attention throughout. The mistrust between the crooks is perfect - Grant doesn't allow it to dominate and moves on before it gets repetitive. 

He introduces the cast of characters effortlessly as he gathers them together, fleshing them out with enough back-story to make an emotional connection, but not too much to interrupt the action or ease the tension. Its a great ensemble piece, with the added bonus that you have no idea who is going to last till the end of the novel. And that is one of The Ransom Commando's strong points - I was genuinely surprised at the fate of some characters, it was so refreshing to experience. The icing on the cake is the appearance of the VIP which adds a wow-factor to the plot. I'm not sure I've ever read or heard of a fiction book that uses someone from this realm of life before? This really was an immensely enjoyable thriller that read like it was a cult 1970's British crime film.

Information on James Grant is very light on the ground. Searches on the internet don't reveal much about him. The best I could find were lists of books on sites like Goodreads and FictionDB which, when combined, at least give a hint of works to hunt down. 

  • Island of Gold (1977) (extremely rare)
  • The Left-Handed Shell (1978)
  • The Ransom Commando (1978)
  • The Rose Medallion (1979) (adapted by the BBC)
  • Tightrope (1979)
  • Don't Shoot the Pianist (1980)
  • Victims (1980) (alternative title for The Ransom Commando?)
  • Mace! (1984)
  • Mace's Luck (1985)
I've had previous success by looking at photographs of books for sale on auction sites, as this strategy sometimes uncovers the inside-cover blurb from publishers about their writers. One such example in a hardback edition revealed the following.

As you can see above, there is an intriguing reference to a pseudonym, which could account for the missing books in my list (at least four if the "over a dozen crime novels" is accurate).

If you know of anything about James Grant, I'd love to hear from you. Please feel free to add a comment, or contact me via the Men's Adventure Paperbacks of the 20th Century Facebook group.

Although my review is based solely upon reading The Ransom Commando, I was suitably impressed to seek out more of Grant's work and feel that it is going to be worth the effort in most cases. I cannot recommend this one highly enough. It's a crying shame there doesn't seem to be any of his titles in electronic format for today's audience to enjoy.

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