A formulaic yarn from Bear, but it does rollick along
Ghost Flight, Bear Grylls, Orion €20.99
In a publishing industry still reeling from the recession, thrillers are as close as it gets to a safe bet. The crime/thriller market was worth almost €100m in 2014, according to book sales monitor Nielsen Bookscan. Bear Grylls, too, is reliable box office. His TV show, Man Vs Wild/Born Survivor, has became one of the most watched programmes on the planet with an estimated audience of 1.2bn. He also hosts the hit adventure show Running Wild on NBC in America, as well as The Island with Bear Grylls for Channel 4 and Bear Grylls: Mission Survive for ITV in the UK.
He has used the fame television brought him to reinvent himself as the author of a bestselling memoir, Mud, Sweat and Tears, and 14 - count em! - other books, including a plethora of titles for children. His autobiography alone sold more than 300,000 copies and he has made himself into a lifestyle brand, patron saint of survivalists and desk-bound former boy scouts.
All of which brings us to the Bear's maiden effort as a thriller writer, in a book that has been billed by the publisher as combining the "best of Bond, Bourne and Indiana Jones", and which surely has commerce rather than art as its guiding spirit - Bear stands to make over £1m from the series, according to reports. Grylls reportedly had some help on the detail here. Former war correspondent Damien Lewis gets a mention on the inside jacket for helping bring "documents to life". (Bear attended the Hay literary festival this year, and he has said that this was "my first attempt at grown-up fiction".)
Which is not to say Bear didn't actually have a big hand in this thing, beyond his name being emblazoned on the cover. He's said he spent "10 hours a day typing furiously on the laptop" and the book, as has been detailed in countless interviews, was inspired by his discovery that his grandfather was a World War Two Nazi-hunter who was given secret missions by Winston Churchill during the conflict.
There can also be no doubt Bear's stamp is here in much of the writing, right down to the jungle fixits and survival tips: "Lastly, Jaeger checked the sticky plasters that he had taped over his nipples. The constant friction of wet gear tended to rub your chest raw."
The story centres on Will Jaeger, an ex-SAS soldier (like Bear), who escapes from an African prison to help his former colleagues begin a voyage to a deserted spot in the Mountains of the Gods in the Amazonian jungle where an unidentified Nazi aircraft from World War Two has been seen. Much like so many of Bear's own expeditions, this one is being sponsored by a television station, for a programme that is part reality show, part documentary, and features a number of soldiers and mercenaries as its protagonists. However, things go wrong quite early on as Jaeger and his team are fighting for their lives in a dramatic race to beat their enemy to the aircraft.
The writing is occasionally flat and formulaic, but to be fair as a yarn this does fairly rollick along, and I can't imagine that anyone who bought it on the strength of what they read in advance would feel misled. It has elements of the work of authors such as Lee Child, Robert Ludlum and Clive Cussler. Some of the characters, particularly the female ones, feel underwritten, and the book seems slightly over-researched, as though the details of jungle machinations and wilderness survival have taken precedence over things like plot and narrative.
There are some memorable passages - one involving spiders lingers in the memory - but overall this feels like a nascent film script. Grylls has said in interviews he'd be open to playing one of these characters if Hollywood came calling , and there's definitely more than a nod to big screen thrillers like Indiana Jones and even James Bond (Jaeger jumping from 30,000 feet strapped to a sexy Russian). The ending is left open, which gives the book an unsatisfyingly unresolved feeling. But that may be so that this overgrown boy scout can fulfil his artistic-ambitions-slash-commercial duties in various sequels to come.