Recently there was some discussion about the Joe Gall series on one of the Facebook groups I belong to, and since I hadn't read one of the books in a long time I figured that would be a good excuse to do so. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, which has been out of print for quite a while now, Joe Gall is a former pilot who knocked around the Far East after World War II, had some adventures there (one of which is the basis for PAGODA, the actual first book in the series), and eventually became an agent for the CIA. Between missions he spends time at his isolated home in the Ozark Mountains.
THE ILL WIND CONTRACT, published in 1969, finds Joe being sent to Indonesia, with a stopover in Japan first, to find out why an Indonesian army officer is trying to recruit an American mercenary. That's how it starts out. After that . . . well . . .
I've read about half of the Joe Gall novels, and one thing is consistent in all of those: the plots never make sense to me. Maybe I'm just dense. At first this one seems to be about some sort of new wonder drug that makes people either super-smart or super-dumb (I was never sure which), which would make it fit right in with the Sixties secret agent boom which produced James Bond, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Our Man Flint, etc. But then that part of the plot goes away and the book reads like it's going to turn into an Indiana Jones-style adventure as Joe tries to retrieve a fortune in gold and silver bullion that's hidden in an ancient temple. Suddenly, though, civil war breaks out in Indonesia (a development based on actual events), and Joe is caught in the middle of it. Characters and storylines are introduced and then promptly discarded (or forgotten). And this is one of the more coherent novels in the series, as author Philip Atlee (really James Atlee Phillips) at least makes an attempt to tie everything together in the end.
So given all that, is this book actually worth reading? Well, yeah. Definitely. Joe Gall can be unlikable at times, but he's an interesting protagonist/narrator. The action scenes are pretty good, the local color is excellent, and Phillips wrote terse, hardboiled, at times lyrical prose that's very effective. I don't know if the messiness of his plots was a deliberate attempt to capture the murky world of international espionage or if he just couldn't keep up with what he was writing. Somehow, though, it all works fairly well. I suspect that somebody will reprint these as e-books one of these days. In the meantime, copies of the original paperbacks are readily available on-line and not expensive, and they still show up in used bookstores. (I bought this one from Half Price Books' nostalgia section for a dollar.) The series can be read in any order, although the books sometimes refer back to previous entries, so if you run across any of them and have never made Joe Gall's acquaintance, give 'em a try.