Dear Reader, the facts I am about to relay to you are true. Are you seated comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin. Only one or two names have been added to embellish the story.
First of all, inventor Victor Penny is actually real. Or at least he was. By day he ran a bus company. By night he was an amateur scientist working on a top secret, government-sanctioned ‘death ray project’ during the years leading up to the Second World War. And it worked -sort of. He managed to create an electricity bolt powerful enough to set fire to a match box. Who knows, given time it may have become something more but his funding ran out, just before he got there. Major funder Auckland University were not convinced of the project and pulled their support. The dismissed his ideas as “heretical”.
The British Government actually went on to use his research material to fully develop radar and put it to use during the Battle of Britain and save England – just in the nick of time! Penny also went on to develop a electric gyro compass, which allows submerged submarines to navigate, and a prototype laser-type device. He also invented an early parabolic microphone, which went into service at Radio New Zealand. Most New Zealanders still haven’t a clue who he was.
Now before you claim I’m just quoting the plot from Herge’s Tintin adventure The Calculus Affair or an episode of the long running Dan Dare Adventure comics there is bona fide evidence that Penny did all this. The work undertaken at his Takapuna home was so successful that it copped the attention of intelligence agencies from the competing powers around the world, leading to a real-life spy drama. Novelist-historian David McGill has taken all this for the bones of his novel The Death Ray Debacle.
In this book he traces the story through the eyes of a young detective who’s following up on the assault of Penny by members of the German Club, located in a 1935 variant of Auckland’s CBD. At the time, the Auckland German Club was aggressively spying on locals, compiling lists of Jews and those of German origin to be rounded up for military service. When word got out, a police officer from the UK arrived. Penny was moved to Wellington and set up shop under 24 hour guard on Matiu/Somes Island. Every night a soldier slept in the same room.
McGill paints the scene skilfully, right down to the manky beer-stained carpets of the hotel lounge bars and the screech of tram car wheels on wet tracks. You can smell the damp tweed of the working men and the heady perfume of the society ladies. He provides many 360 degree views of the city as it was at the time, as a back drop to the story. If this is ever made into a film the director will need not look any further for an accurate chronicle.
There are moments in the book, however, when detail starts to bog down the action. But overall, it’s a fast-paced action spy story. The ending builds to a great climactic finish, making the journey all the better for the effort. This is McGill’s 53rd book, so he knows about meticulous research and has a pretty good nose for a story. The debate as to whether the tale should have just simply been reported, as opposed to made into a work of fiction, is really a matter of preference.The way it is told gives McGill licence to give Penny a voice, and the New Zealand Police too, through various characters. These are people you usually don’t hear from in historical works, so that gives another dimension to the story. Long overdue, but welcome.
Reviewed by Tim Gruar
The Death Ray Debacle
by David McGill
Published by Silver Owl Press