Today on Project Gutenberg #45

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

The Secret Battleplane by Percy F. Westerman

Today we’ve got ourselves another story written and set during World War One. But this time we’re up in the sky rather than down in the trenches, on an adventure that’s significantly more pulpy than our previous wartime outing.

The available background info on this one is woefully scarce. I can’t find any facts about Percy Westerman, if he even was a real person and not another pseudonym for a group of ghost writers. All I can tell is that the name was attached to several other adventure books besides this one. I also know that this book was originally published in 1916 and “frequently reprinted,” as the cover page itself boasts.

So what’s the story? We’ve got two English 17-year-olds, Athol Hawke and Dick Tracey (no, not that one). They ran away from school to join the war effort and spent some time in France, only to get kicked out of the army when they were discovered to be underage. So now they’re driving around England trying to figure out what to do with themselves. One day, the boys’ motorbike breaks down in a snowdrift, forcing them to seek refuge in an old, isolated mansion owned by a mysterious man. This may sound like the setup for some Human Centipede or Rocky Horror shenanigans, and it’s true that there are secrets in this house. The mysterious man in question is an inventor named Desmond Blake, and he introduces the boys to the titular battleplane, a powerful birdlike flying machine. Athol and Dick decide to help Blake present the battleplane to the War Office, and the trio ends up flying across the Channel for a variety of missions, running afoul of spies, u-boats and even zeppelins.

The setup is an interesting one, without question. But the final product isn’t as compelling or entertaining as it might be. I found it a little too long and meandering, for one: the first few chapters are focused enough, but once the story moves into the warzone, it becomes more fragmented. The ongoing plot is pretty vague, and the story is best described as a series of loosely connected misadventures. This may not be inherently bad, but it does make keeping your attention on the book more of a struggle.

The characters are not terrible, at least by old adventure novel standards. Athol and Dick are a tad more lively than the clean-cut heroes you usually find in this time period and genre, and some of the searing remarks they throw at each other and other characters can be pretty entertaining. Desmond Blake fits neatly into the “inventor/mentor” archetype you get in a lot of stories like this. Again, it’s a setup that holds promise but doesn’t feel as fun as it could be. And that’s mostly due to the writing itself.

The writing here is pretty meh on all accounts. When you don’t have a paragraph using way too many words to describe a simple idea, you have dialogue that usually amounts to little more than awkward exposition. Reading a book like this ought to be a fun, breezy experience. This, however, feels like a chore to get through most of the time.

I will pay The Secret Battleplane one unambiguous compliment, which is that the battleplane itself is actually pretty cool. The way it’s described, with flapping wings and the ability to leap almost vertically into the air, creates a delightfully weird mental image.

Swiftly, yet with an even movement, wings, hitherto lying snugly against the chassis, were outspread. Taking into consideration the length of the battleplane from nose to tail—barely fifty feet—the space from tip to tip of the wings looked disproportionately small. Each wing projected fifteen feet from the side, and curved backwards like that of a bird. The fabric from which the wings were made was composed of thin, specially-treated aluminium, in plates overlapping each other like tiles on the roof of a house…

…At the first attempt the engines fired easily. In spite of being in a confined space there was very little noise, thanks to the efficient silencer. It was doubtful whether the purr of the motors could be heard beyond the limits of the grounds.

Yet, although the fabric of the battleplane trembled under the pulsations of the motors, the wings remained motionless save for the vibration imparted to the whole contrivance. Seeing Dick’s look of enquiry the inventor pointed to a lever close to the lad’s right hand.

“Gently with it,” he cautioned. Depressing the lever Dick was aware of a terrific air-current rushing overhead. Dead leaves and pieces of aluminium sheeting that were lying on the floor of the shed were whisked up and flung about with great velocity. Peering over the edge of the coaming Dick could see that both wings were now beating the air with terrific violence, being actuated by a number of rods working on concealed cams. Supplementary rods imparted a second motion to the wings, the innermost and rearmost edges of which moved up and down independently of the primary movement of the fore part.

Chapter 3

This is a difficult book to recommend. If you’re not familiar with novels of this genre and time period or you simply don’t like them, this isn’t going to be the one that sways you. But if you do enjoy stuff like this, then you may want to take a look at the first few chapters. It’s not great literature by any means, but you might get something out of it.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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