Ernest K(ellogg) Gann Burke Wilkinson - Essay

Burke Wilkinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Ernest Gann is at the top of his game, as he was last year in "The High and the Mighty," he is very, very good indeed. When he is in something less than top form, as in this new adventure story, the seams in his cleverly stitched plots begin to show. For he is one of the leading current creators of the formula school of novel—of the Novel of Precarious Situation. Despite the vigor of his observation and the unfailing accuracy of his technical detail, a Gann novel must rise or fall on the amount of tension which the central situation generates.

"Soldier of Fortune" has an entirely adequate if scarcely original central situation. Jane Hoyt, an attractive American girl, comes to present-day Hong Kong in search of a missing husband….

So far so good. We sympathize with Jane and share her anguish. We feel the compulsion which drives her. Now all roads lead her to the mysterious Hank Lee, expatriate American black marketeer. Hank is the one man who can help her find Louis. The fact that the dynamic Hank, despite his renegade state, is all things that Louis is not, puts Jane in a real dilemma. Jane dedicated to the mission of finding her husband and Jane torn between her loyalty to him and her attraction for big, bad Hank are different Janes. She is unfocusing a little. The precariousness of her situation has lessened….

Fortunately at this midpoint the action begins to speed up….

In due course Hank Lee goes to Canton to free Louis…. There is a deft jail break and a stern chase told with a nice tingle of understated excitement. And lastly there is Jane's great decision.

What all this boils down to is summer reading that is good entertainment any month in the year. Middling Gann is far better than most. But the narrative drive and perfectly formulated suspense of which he is capable are just not present for the distance.

Burke Wilkinson, "Perilous Search," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1954 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 10, 1954, p. 4.