Wednesday, June 15, 2016


THE DEATH RAY DEBACLE by David McGill (Silver Owl Press, 2015)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

June 1935: inventor Victor Penny was attacked by foreign agents seeking what the newspapers dubbed a ‘death ray’. The government secretly shifted him to Somes Island to develop the weapon. The novel of this true story is told by Temporary Acting Detective Dan Delaney, seconded to Special Branch, which is monitoring the German Club in Auckland, an increasingly shrill supporter of the Nazi regime. 

The unconventional Auckland theatrical scene has made sensational headlines with the alleged murder of an impresario's wife. A mysterious German/Jewish refugee has been involved in both the German Club and this Bohemian scene, and the detective and a helpful Scotland Yard adviser pursue and are pursued by spies determined to steal Penny’s blueprint. 

THE DEATH RAY DEBACLE is fiction built around unexpected facts from the period leading up to World War II. New Zealand inventor Victor Penny ran a bus company by day and at night he worked on producing a death ray. His government sanctioned, amateur scientific pursuits did indeed lead to an electric bolt system powerful enough to implode a matchbox, and they certainly created enough interest to make him a target of German spies.

Even though it appears that Penny remains pretty well unknown in New Zealand, let alone the rest of the world, his enthusiasm for invention led him to produce a prototype laser, an electric gyro compass for use in submarines, and an early version of a parabolic microphone, used by Radio New Zealand in the end. In a further interesting twist, the British Government used Penny's research materials when developing the radar systems used with great success once the war was underway.

New Zealand Historian, David McGill uses a young detective to tell the story of Penny, his inventions, the Auckland German Club, and an unexpected theatrical connection. Starting out with the attempted theft of the research and the assault of Penny right through to Penny's government induced moves to Wellington firstly and then onto Somes Island for his own safety, as well as the protection of the death-ray project.

The German Auckland Club were already well known for the spying activities, tracking down Germans for conscription into the military and compiling lists of Jews so when the story of their interest in Penny emerges, the British Government weigh in also, sending their own investigating officer, ensuring Penny's movement and a small military guard on the supposedly secure island government facility.

McGill's writing shines where he is building a sense of place, and time in which THE DEATH RAY DEBACLE is set. Not just in the physicality of the locations, but in the workings of a society on the brink of war, with the complications of expectations, suspicions, and loyalty versus long-term residency. It's particularly strong on the minutia of life in that period as well - the food, the clothes, the behaviour of people and the feel of places that they occupy really come to life.

Bogged down occasionally by the sheer amount of detail, the balance between thriller and historical retelling does get a little wobbly at points, although overall pace and action hang in there. To be fair not a surprising outcome given how absolutely fascinating the story of Penny and the Death-Ray are.

It's hard to come away from THE DEATH RAY DEBACLE without thinking you've learned an awful lot about something previously completely unknown, oh and there was something in there about spies as well. Which should not be taken as a suggestion that the book isn't a fabulous read. Overall THE DEATH RAY DEBACLE was quite a journey.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and the Ned Kelly Awards. She kindly shares her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

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