Review - The Death Ray Debacle, David McGill

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

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.

Year of Publication
Book Number (in series)

In June 1935 Takapuna inventor Victor Penny was attacked by foreign agents seeking what the newspapers dubbed a ‘death ray’. The government secretly shifted him to Somes Island in Wellington harbour to develop the weapon. The novel of this true story is told by Temporary Acting Detective Dan Delaney, seconded to Special Branch, forerunner of the Security Intelligence Service.

Special Branch 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 his wife by impresario Eric Mareo, his accuser the bisexual dancer Freda Stark, lover of his deceased partner. A mysterious German/Jewish refugee has been involved in both the German Club and this Bohemian scene, making her a person of interest to the young detective and a recently arrived German diplomat.

The detective and a helpful Scotland Yard adviser pursue and are pursued by spies determined to steal Penny’s blueprint. Round-the-clock protection is provided for Penny by armed soldiers on the supposedly secure Somes Island government facility, used to imprison enemy aliens in the Great War. Corruption on the island is uncovered by the detectives as they face lethal force to acquire an invention all major countries are actively chasing.

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