Whirlwind by James Clavell

James Clavell’s Whirlwind is a good novel, but there’s just too much of it.

map of area where Whirlwind takes place
You can’t read Whirlwind without a map to help you follow the action. 

Whirlwind is about employees of a British helicopter company operating in Iran in 1979. The Shah has left, and the country has descended into chaos. Pro-Khomeini Iranians are scrambling to grab all they can from the detested atheistic capitalists.

Pilot Scot Gavallan describes the company’s predicament this way:

Our Iran’s gone. Most of the fellows we’ve worked with over the years have fled, are in hiding, dead—or against us if they like it or not.

The S-G employees come up with a plan to get themselves and as many of their aircraft as possible out of Iran before the fleet is nationalized.

Their plan, code-named Whirlwind, will be very dangerous, but staying is also dangerous.

Though Clavell is a fine writer, Whirlwind is simply too much story for one novel. Readers have to keep track of a dozen pilots, their wives or girlfriends, spies for several governments, and a host of minor characters.

Besides that, there are not many novel readers around today who watched the Iranian revolution unfold on NBC Nightly News and acquired the background to appreciate Clavell’s story.

scarf caught on a raised machine gun

Whirlwind by James Clavell
W. Morrow, 1986. 1147 p.
1986 bestseller #3; my grade: B+

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Noble House: Snapshot of an era

Cover shows disk that plays a key role in Noble House
Noble House is a BIG novel.

In Noble House, James Clavell updates the story of Straun’s Hong Kong trading company—the Noble House— whose 19th century founding was the topic of his earlier bestseller Tai-Pan.

Ian Dunross becomes tai-pan—head—of the company in 1960 determined to turn it into an international rather than an Asian company.

From the start, he’s hampered by bad decisions of former tai-pans and a century-old rivalry with another trading company run by Quillan Gornt.

Dunross hopes to repair his fortunes by a joint venture with an American company.

Par-Con Industries’ CEO, Lincoln Bartlett, arrives accompanied by his negotiator “Mr. K. C. Tcholok” who turns out to be a very attractive young woman whose expectation of being treated as a professional offends both men and women in Hong Kong.

Clavell keeps at least a half dozen different stories running at the same time, enabling him to show how people in various strata of Hong Kong society live.

Much of Noble House is very much a product of its time. There are many references to spies and scandals of the ’60s, French and American involvement in Vietnam, drug trafficking, and Russian-Chinese rivalries.

At 1,206 pages Noble House is not a novel for weaklings, but it’s well worth reading.

Noble House by James Clavell
A novel of contemporary Hong Kong
Delacorte Press. ©1981. 1206 p.
1981 bestseller #1. My grade: A-

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Shogun: Exotic, enlightening, entertaining

James Clavell’s 1966 bestseller, Tai-Pan, was a whopping novel.

a drawing of a samurai sword on the cover of Shogun
This often-read library copy of Shogun  is coming apart.

Shogun is monumental.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a ship has washes up in Japan. Her pilot, James Blackthorne, had hoped to be the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, wrest control of Oriental trade from the Spanish and Portuguese, and make himself very rich.

The Japanese think Blackthorne a barbarian; Catholic priests see him as a heretic.

Until the heir to the throne is old enough to assume his lawful position, Japan is being ruled by five feudal lords, none of whom trusts the others.

Only of the five,  only Toranaga sees any value in keeping Blackthorne alive.

Like the skilled falconer he is, Toranaga bends Blackthorne to his will: Blackthorne must learn to speak Japanese and become Japanese.

None of the Japanese characters is what he or he appears to be.

The plot twists and turns and stands on its head as the five lords, their wives, consorts, and relatives vie for control, always polite, always with a sharp knife within reach.

Readers who can bear up under the physical strain of reading Shogun—it’s 803 pages of small print and weighs 3.2 pounds—will find themselves fascinated, informed, and shocked by a surprise ending that, in retrospect, is perfect.

Shogun: A Novel of Japan by James Clavell
Atheneum [1975] 803 p.
1975 bestseller #9. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Missing Tai-Pan would be bad joss

Tai-Pan is the story of six months in the life of Dirk Straun, the Tai-Pan (Chinese for supreme leader) of the European trading community in China in 1841.

The novel is as complicated as Straun himself.


Tai-Pan: A Novel of Hong Kong  by James Clavell

Atheneum, 1966. 590 pp. 1966 bestseller #8. My grade: A.


1966-08_Tai-PanStraun is scrubbed, clean-shaven, and suave in a day when men are dirty, lousy, and smelly.

He’s a devoted family man, with families by a wife in England and two mistresses in China.

A master manipulator, ruthless in pursuit of a dynasty, Straum’s respected even by those who hate him.

Once he’s secured Hong Kong for the English, Straum plans to go home leaving  his son to take over the trading firm.

Hong Kong is the key to the vast Chinese market: The mountainous, malaria-ridden island has the best harbor in the world.

Straun has many enemies, but the Brocks, father and son, are the deadliest.

Tensions between the two families mount as Straun’s son elopes with Brock’s daughter.

Straun usually keeps things under control, but sometimes joss—luck—is against him.

Tai-Pan has dozens of characters to keep straight. Chinese characters speaking pigeon English make it hard to understand the power struggles below the surface.

James Clavell’s writing and the once-again timely topic, however, will repay readers’ efforts.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni