'Darkest Hour' by James Holland (2009)

Darkest Hour - James Holland

James Holland, Darkest Hour (London: Corgi Books, 2010), 525pp


Darkest Hour is more of the same from James Holland's Jack Tanner series, being very similar to the first book, The Odin Mission. It retains many of Odin's strengths; it is entertaining and easy to read, and heavy on the action, which is described clearly and with good pacing. Whereas Odin focused on the Norway campaign, Darkest Hour covers the German invasion of France in May 1940 and the evacuation from Dunkirk. The bare elements of the story are essentially the same: the plucky sergeant and his crew battle against a superior enemy force, whilst he struggles against pig-headed obstruction from his superior officers. But whereas The Odin Mission followed the behind-enemy-lines, survivor/scavenger trope, Darkest Hour follows a more conventional military campaign. James Holland demonstrates his background as a military historian, giving a convincing depiction of how the Battle of France played out. He is particularly good at evoking the British despair/bafflement at the defeatist French mood. "In the last war, the French Army was proud and fearless," General Lord Gort rages at one point. "Any one of the commanders would have taken it upon themselves to throw out a weak advance guard like the one that took Cambrai yesterday. When is the French Army of old going to stand up and fight?" (pp272-3). Holland also finds a different angle for Tanner's conflicts with his superiors on his own side; his nemesis Sergeant-Major Blackstone is not a pig-headed officer like Lieutenant Chevannes in The Odin Mission; rather, he is a really nasty piece of work who, rather than frustrating Tanner, is actually deliberately out to get him.

The criticisms one could level at Darkest Hour are more or less the same as one could level at The Odin Mission. It's a rather straightforward, by-the-numbers tale; you know which characters to like and which to hate, and the dialogue is ordinary but not necessarily dull. But Darkest Hour is still an improvement; Holland has toned down the more Rambo-like feats, even if Tanner still appears to be the unflappable, hyper-competent all-action soldier who always has a plan (which always works). Tanner's feats are less incredulous and take a more believable 'refuge in audacity'/'fortune favours the brave' angle. If there is one misstep, it is that the romance arc isn't very well done; the nurse love interest is introduced, slept with and bid farewell over just a few pages - rather underwhelming considering the investment given to Anna in The Odin Mission. And there are a large number of coincidental meetings - without giving too much away, I find it hard to believe that the same RAF pilot, and the same German SS officer, would re-appear over and over again in different encounters with Tanner, especially as the story takes place over much of northern France. The German nemesis made sense in Odin as Tanner's band was being tracked by a German war party, but in Darkest Hour it occasionally feels contrived. (Though I was surprised to learn, in Holland's 'Historical Note' at the end, that Tanner's encounter with the Desert Fox himself, Erwin Rommel, was based on a real incident. Well, sort of. It was embellished.)

Overall, I would have to say that my criticisms aren't really important. Without wishing to appear condescending, you can't expect too much from a book like this; it isn't intended as a piece of high literature. It is a piece of Boy's Own-style escapist fiction; it is intended to be fun. It is an immensely enjoyable read, its flaws covered up by the engaging action and easy readability. The flaws will be obvious to any who read it, but sometimes you just want entertainment, not literature. Some people might be sniffy about it, but in the first two books, I have read about 1,000 pages of Jack Tanner and have every intention of adding to that number with the third in the series - Blood of Honour.