Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Space Merchants

The Space Merchants is a science fiction novel written by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth and published in 1953. It’s also one of the great dystopian novels of the modern era.

The future world of The Space Merchants is controlled entirely by huge corporations. Government functions merely as a rubber stamp for the decisions of the corporations. Congress is owned lock, stock and barrel by these corporations and the President is a figurehead with no power at all. By far the most powerful companies are the advertising agencies, and the most powerful agencies are Taunton Associates and Fowler Schocken.

This is a horrifically overpopulated world but population growth is still enthusiastically encouraged. More population means more cheap labour and more consumers and therefore more sales, and that means more profit. No-one questions the assumption that this is a good thing.

This is also a totalitarian society but it’s what we would today call a soft totalitarianism, enforced mostly by propaganda and social pressure. The iron fist beneath the velvet glove is only revealed when a consumer commits a really serious crime, such as questioning the value of advertising.

Competition between corporations is fierce but out-and-out murder is frowned upon unless proper notification has been given that a state of commercial feud exists. Corporations have gone beyond the stage of running the state - they now function as states themselves. There are no police forces - law enforcement has been entirely privatised.

Art and popular entertainment no longer exist apart from their role in providing opportunities for advertising.

The story is narrated by Mitch Courtenay, a star class copysmith with Fowler Schocken. Mitch has just been given a new assignment. He has been put in charge of the Venus account. An immense rocket has been constructed which will transport the first Earth colonists to Venus. The colony will of course be run by Fowler Schocken entirely for the benefit of Fowler Schocken and its associated companies. 

One minor problem is that nobody in their right mind would want to be a colonist on Venus. But this isn’t really a problem at all. By the time Fowler Schocken’s Venus advertising campaign is in full swing everyone will want to be a Venus colonist.

Mitch Courtenay’s life is going pretty well, apart from his marriage. He’d like to make the marriage permanent but Kathy won’t agree. In fact she wants to end the agreement before the end of the trial period. And there is one other minor irritant in Mitch’s life - someone is trying to kill him. This is puzzling since as far as he knows no other corporation has declared a commercial feud against Fowler Schocken.

Mitch soon finds himself on a roller coaster ride of terror and misery. Having people trying to kill you is bad enough but he finds that his identity has been stolen and he now faces the most appalling fate imaginable - having to live as a consumer.

He also gets mixed up with the consies. The consies are the Conservationists. These are dangerous fanatics who believe that overpopulation is out of control, that life has become sterile and meaningless and that deurbanisation and a return to a more traditional lifestyle are essential. They are so extreme that they even question whether increasing consumption is a good thing.

The plot has some rather wild twists and turnings as Mitch discovers that all his assumptions about the world and about the people he knows may be quite wrong.

While this novel doesn’t have the literary polish of the great dystopian novels of Huxley and Orwell it does feature a dystopian which is every bit as fully worked out and every bit as convincing. If 1984 was the great communist dystopian novel then The Space Merchants is the great capitalist dystopian novel. There is however one feature that both dystopias have in common - they are societies in which the elites have absolute power while the mass of the people have no power at all. And, interestingly enough, the capitalist elites of The Space Merchants maintain their control by much the same methods as the communist elites in 1984 - through the control of language, by rewriting the past, by encouraging people to denounce dissidents and through endless and all-pervasive propaganda. And the consies serve much the same purpose as Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984 - it seems that every totalitarianism has to have an enemy as a focus of fear and hatred.

Pohl and Kornbluth are careful not to introduce any radical new technologies into their tale.  Every technology is this novel is merely an extrapolation of technologies that existed in the early 1950s such as rocketry, radio and television. The intention was obviously to make this dystopia as plausible as possible. What makes the book truly terrifying today is not this plausibility but the fact that so much of what the authors predict has already come true.

The Space Merchants is also very amusing (in a sometimes very dark way) and highly entertaining. It’s very pulpy but in a way that’s a strength - the crassness of a wold run by advertising agencies lends itself to a pulpy treatment. 

Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Nigel Fitzgerald’s Midsummer Malice

Midsummer Malice was Nigel Fitzgerald’s first foray into the field of detective fiction. First published in 1953 it’s actually a bit of a hybrid albeit an interesting one.

Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-1981) was an Irishman who was destined for a career in the law until he caught the acting bug. His passion for the theatre comes through very strongly in his debut novel and is in fact one of the book’s greatest strengths.

Midsummer Malice opens with a brutal murder. Superintendent Duffy of the Garda Síochána (Ireland’s police force) hurries to the scene from Dublin. The murder took place in a wood near the town of Cahirmore. The victim was Mary Woodburn-Miller, daughter of an English baronet who had settled in the town fifteen years earlier. Mary was raped and then strangled.

It seems quite obvious that the Garda are dealing with a psychotic killer, and one who is likely to kill again. For reasons that are never fully explained Superintendent Duffy has his doubts about the motive for the murder.

There will indeed be more murders, and Duffy’s doubts keep growing stronger. 

The murder coincides with the arrival of Alan Russell’s theatrical company. The outrageous larger-than-life actor-manager and his troupe will play a very significant role in the mystery (in fact I believe that Alan Russell appears in several of Fitzgerald’s later books). Also drawn into these tragic events is painter Owen Sheehy. Sheehy is internationally famous as an artist but in Ireland he is even more famous as an IRA hero.

Just about every character in this book is an eccentric of some sort. There’s the Fox, another ex-IRA man turned arsonist. There’s O’Connor from Castle Talbot, descendant of a High King of Ireland, a pleasant fellow but quite mad. There’s the jovial and rotund and rather loquacious Billy Bailey. And there’s Lady Ballybroghill, whiskey-soaked and reputed to possess second sight.

The one real clue Duffy has to go on is that a black Ford was seen near the murder scene. The murderer must have had a car and every other car seen in the vicinity has been accounted for. There are three possible suspects who own black Fords but all have alibis.

By 1953 the classic puzzle-plot mystery was out of fashion with publishers. They believed the public wanted suspense stories or the new style psychological crime novels. Midsummer Malice combines elements of both the puzzle-plot mystery and the psychological crime novel. Alibis play a crucial role and Superintendent Duffy does not neglect the importance of physical clues. And there is certainly a puzzle plot at the heart of the book. There is also a good deal of pop psychoanalytical theorising and the killer’s motive turns out to stem from truly bizarre and outlandish psychological factors, which it has to be said are not very convincing at all.

As a mystery novel it has its weaknesses but these are balanced by some very real strengths. The Irish setting is fascinating, and made more so because it’s not Ireland as seen by an outsider but as seen by an Irish author who lived his whole life there. 

The oddball characters provide a great deal of fun. The theatrical background is wonderfully entertaining.

Midsummer Malice is an excellent example of the decline of the crime novel in the 1950s. What could have been a truly excellent puzzle-plot detective novel is weakened by half-baked psychological silliness. It’s still worth a read if you’re a fan of theatrical mysteries or you’re attracted by the Irish setting.

Nigel Fitzgerald’s books are out of print but used copies can be picked up quite cheaply online.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade

Poul Anderson’s delirious science fiction romp The High Crusade was published in 1960. The basic premise struck me as one that could have made an amusing short story but I was rather dubious as to whether it could be sustained over the course of a novel. In fact Anderson manages to do so without any difficulty whatsoever.

The basic idea is that a spacecraft lands in England, near the village of Ansby, in the year 1345. The spacecraft is a scout ship for the Wersgor Empire. The Wersgorix are an aggressive imperialist spacefaring race who have already enslaved the inhabitants of hundreds of planets. To oppose the alien invaders Sir Roger de Tourneville has a small force of mounted knights, some men-at-arms and some longbowmen.

The Wersgorix, who have mastered the technology of faster-than-light travel, are so far in advance of fourteenth century Earth that the outcome of the encounter is beyond any doubt. It’s going to be not so much a battle as a massacre. And that’s exactly how it turns out. The Wersgorix are slaughtered. They discover that their incredibly advanced military technology is no match for our puny Earth weapons.

This is just the start of the tale. Sir Roger and his followers now find themselves in possessions of a spaceship, and they have a captured prisoner who can be persuaded to tell them how to work it. They intend to fly the spaceship to France to join the King in his campaign there although Sir Roger has the notion it might be possible to use the ship to recapture the Holy Land. They do not however end up in France or in the Holy Land but on the planet Tharixan, hundreds of light years from Earth. Tharixan is a Wersgorix slave planet. It is well defended, by all manner of high technology hardware like fighter aircraft, spaceships, force fields, armoured vehicles and even nuclear weapons. None of which is going to deter a couple of hundred stout Englishmen led by a brave knight like Sir Roger.

What follows is an exuberant space opera plot with pitched battles and daring stratagems, all combined with a romantic intrigue and some amusing observations on competing political systems.

There’s nothing terribly outlandish about a low-tech army winning a single battle against a much more technologically sophisticated enemy (Isandlwana and the Little Big Horn are obvious examples) but there are very few examples of a low-tech army winning a protracted war on a vast scale against a technologically vastly superior enemy. The great thing about this novel is that Anderson consistently comes up with scenarios in which the technological sophistication of the Wersgorix is either no help to them, or becomes a positive hindrance.

One particularly nice thing is that Anderson stresses that although the medieval English are scientifically backward compared to their foes they are every bit as intelligent and every bit as resourceful. In fact, as Roger remarks at one point, the conditions of Europe in the fourteenth century provide him with a much better grounding in the art of political intrigue.

This story involves more than a clash between different military systems - it is also a contest between two sharply differing political systems. The Wersgor Empire is a centralised bureaucracy. The feudal system as practised in medieval England proves to be vastly superior. Again Anderson doesn’t just indulge in wish fulfillment - he demonstrates that feudalism is more flexible and much more suited to conditions of crisis. Sir Roger and his followers are bound together by a complex web of loyalties, rights and duties and this web of mutual obligation can withstand a great deal of stress. A centralised bureaucracy on the other hand can collapse very quickly indeed, given that no-one really has any personal stake in the system.

So we have clever ideas, lots of action, battles on land and in space, some cool aliens and a bit of speculation about competing social methods of social organisation. What about characterisation, usually regarded as the main failing of golden age science fiction? There’s fairly good news here as well. Both Sir Roger and his wife Lady Catherine are fairly complex well-rounded personalities. They have their strengths and weaknesses, sometimes they behave nobly and sometimes not so nobly. Even when they do things we do not approve of we can understand the reasons for their actions. Sir Owain Montbelle is the third party in a fatal romantic triangle but even he’s a little bit more than just a cardboard cutout villain. Branithar, the Wersgorix  captive, is also a bit more than a stock alien character.

The High Crusade is also an amazing amount of fun. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees

Arthur J. Rees (1872-1942) was an Australian crime author who enjoyed considerable success in the years between the wars, winning the approval of such luminaries as Dorothy L. Sayers. The Shrieking Pit is one of his early mystery novels, appearing in 1919.

The story takes place in Norfolk in 1916. The famous private detective David Colwyn is enjoying a holiday. Colwyn is American-born but explains that he is half-English and has lived in England long enough to have become somewhat acclimatised. The actual story begins with an odd occurrence in the dining room of the Grand Hotel in Durrington. A young man is behaving in a slightly disturbing manner. Colwyn is mildly concerned but one of the other guests, obviously a medical man, is seriously alarmed and persuades Colwyn that immediate action needs to be taken if disaster is to be averted. They escort the young man, who has now fainted, to his room.

Since the medical man turns out to be distiguished Harley Street nerve specialist Sir Henry Durwood his opinion carries considerable weight and in his view the young man is not merely an epileptic but subject to a particular form of epilepsy that can lead to sudden episodes of extreme violence.

The young man is James Ronald who has been invalided out of the army with shell-shock (we later find out that his name is actually James Ronald Penreath). He seems to have made a complete recovery after the incident in the dining room and assures Colwyn and Durwood that he requires no further assistance. The matter seems to be closed.

The following day there is much excitement in the Grand Hotel - a murder has been committed in the nearby village of Flegne-next-sea and the police are hunting a suspect who bears a remarkable resemblance to young James Ronald. Colwyn and Sir Henry immediately set off to see the Chief Constable. Colwyn happens to be personally acquainted with the Chief Constable and finds himself unofficially invited to assist Superintendent Galloway in his investigation.

The murdered man was a well-known archaeologist, Roger Glenthorpe, who had based himself at the Golden Anchor Inn at Flegne while engaged in important fieldwork nearby.

The evidence is entirely circumstantial, but very convincing. The body was found at the bottom of a thirty foot deep pit known locally as the Shrieking Pit. It was a kind of Stone Age mining shaft but now it’s associated with the local legend of the ghostly White Lady - if you see the White Lady you will be dead within the month. The very clear boot prints leading to the pit are the icing on the cake - surely James Ronald must have been the killer. There are lots of other pieces of evidence that all point in the same direction.

What’s most interesting about this book is the ambiguity of the evidence. In fact it forms what might be considered to be the theme of the book. There are many items of evidence that point to Penreath’s guilt, but every single one of them is ambiguous. Superintendent Galloway is satisfied and the evidence might well satisfy a jury as well but Colwyn isn’t happy. He sets out to look out for new evidence. He finds plenty of it - but it’s all ambiguous as well! His new evidence could totally demolish the Crown’s case but if viewed from a different angle it could just as easily place Penreath’s guilt beyond any shadow of a doubt. This is the reason for the constant tension between Colwyn and Superintendent Galloway - they’re both interpreting the evidence in the light of their own theories about the crime.

The book also has quite a bit to say about madness, responsibility and the law. Penreath’s legal advisers in despair over the apparently overwhelming evidence against him, put their hopes in a plea of temporary insanity, with Sir Henry Durwood’s evidence being crucial. The medical evidence is however just as ambiguous as all the other evidence.

There are countless clues. Many of them are quite clever and all are important. The plot is more complex than initial appearances suggest and the themes of ambiguity and the danger of judging evidence based on preconceived notions recur again and again.

The setting is also a major plus. Flegne-near-sea is a decaying and dying village, doomed to be swallowed up by the ever-encroaching marshlands. There is nothing picturesque about this village - it is more like a rotting corpse. The Golden Anchor is a dying inn in a dying village. When you add the ominous legend of the White Lady and the presence of somewhat creepy Stone Age ruins you get a certain stifling and slightly gothic atmosphere that works extremely well. This is not like the theatrical gothic atmosphere you strike in some of John Dickson Carr’s books - this is more sombre and low-key but just as effective.

The war plays an indirect but interesting role. The village of Flegne is dying anyway but the war has hastened its demise. The author seems to have a somewhat sceptical view of a great many sacred cows (such as the jury system), which he expresses in an amusingly sardonic way. He is particularly savage on the subject of the Home Front, taking great pleasure in mocking those who, knowing they will not have to do any actual fighting or take any actual risks, nevertheless welcome the war as a means of advancing their social standing, their petty exercise of power or their political views.

Rees can be just a tad long-winded in places. I’m not sure that the trial really needed to be recounted in quite so much detail. 

All in all though there’s a fine plot, a nicely atmospheric setting, a few hints of the gothic and some food for thought on the subject of circumstantial evidence! I found this one to be thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended. 

His 1920 mystery The Hand in the Dark is worth seeking out as well.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama, which appeared in 1973, is one of Arthur C. Clarke’s more celebrated novels. I read it many years ago and although I liked it I felt that it didn’t quite compare to masterpieces like The City and the Stars and Childhood’s End. Reading it again my opinion is pretty much unchanged. It’s second-tier Arthur C. Clarke, but second-tier Arthur C. Clarke is still better than 99 percent of published science fiction.

In the 22nd century a large asteroid is spotted. There’s nothing unusual about that but this seems to be a slightly odd asteroid. For one thing it’s remarkably symmetrical, and for another it’s spinning a lot faster than any known asteroid. It’s odd enough for astronomers to take some interest in it and when they do so they’re in for a shock. The asteroid, which has been given the name Rama, is a perfect cylinder and it’s hollow. This is no asteroid, this is a spaceship. And it's a very big spaceship - it's about fifty kilometres in length.

This is much excitement among scientists, and much consternation among bureaucrats and politicians. This is the moment that both have been awaiting, with both hope and dread - First Contact.

Given the fact that this spaceship’s course has taken it nowhere near any stars for half a million years or so it seems very unlikely that there could be anything alive on board Rama. Even the most advanced technologies for recycling air, water and wastes could not have maintained life for so long. Rama must be a dead empty shell, of immense interest to archaeologists of course, but still completely dead.

The United Planets, who rarely agree on anything, manage to agree to send the spacecraft Endeavour to rendezvous with this strange intruder in our solar system. Time is short - within a few months Rama will have left our solar system forever.

Rama proves to be a gigantic hollow habitat, with artificial gravity provided by its spin. The interior is a very strange landscape indeed. Not surprisingly, Rama is indeed dead. Or so it appears at first.

Clarke was always at his best when working on a truly colossal cosmic scale, with time spans of millions of years. In Rendezvous with Rama he is very much playing to his strengths. Clarke was an atheist who was fascinated by religion and his books often pose questions that are not merely philosophical but quasi-religious. Questions about the purpose of existence, the destiny of the human race, the nature of life itself. Earth’s encounter with Rama poses several such questions. Most pertinent in this case is the question of the nature of life. Does Rama contain life or not? Clarke wasn’t interested in easy glib answers to these sorts of questions. His objective was to get the reader thinking about the concepts rather than claiming to have absolute answers. Rendezvous with Rama tantalises us with possibilities but offers no certainties.

The biggest criticism leveled at Clarke throughout his career was the almost non-existent degree of characterisation. It should be noted that this criticism was most often voiced by people who failed to understand that science fiction does not play by the rules that apply to literary fiction. For Clarke cardboard characterisations were a feature, not a bug. He had no desire to distract the reader with the tedious emotional lives of his characters. His books were about big ideas. If you want characterisation then Arthur C. Clarke is not the author for you.

Clarke liked to keep the science in his books reasonably plausible. Rendezvous with Rama deals with interstellar travel on the grand scale but without invoking faster-than-light travel. Rama itself is impressive but despite its vast scale it’s also a theoretically possible technology. At the same time he manages to make his alien world genuinely alien, and he does so without making it sinister in any obvious way. The world of Rama is neither comforting nor threatening - it’s disturbing merely because it’s so wildly unfamiliar and inexplicable. It’s a puzzle without a solution.

Clarke may have written better books than this but Rendezvous with Rama is still absolutely essential reading for any science fiction fan. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Christopher Bush’s Dead Man Twice

Dead Man Twice, published in 1930, was one of the very earliest of Christopher Bush’s Ludovic Travers mysteries. Intriguingly in these early books Travers plays second fiddle to a detective named John Franklin.

This book appears to be a sporting mystery but don’t panic. You don’t have to like (or understand) boxing to enjoy this one.

Michael France is a young man generating a lot of excitement. He’s an Englishman who appears to have a real chance of winning the world heavyweight crown. France is a gentleman boxer - a real gentleman, Eton followed by Cambridge, an actual blue-blood. His two inseparable companions are his manager, Kenneth Hayles, and racing driver Peter Claire. The three were childhood friends. Actually the position of Hayles is a little ambiguous - France seems to pretty much manage his own career. Peter Claire has provided the money to finance France’s boxing career. Hayles and France were also co-authors of a book describing France’s career to date whole Hayles is also the writer of a couple of detective stories. These literary endeavours will play a major role in the ensuing mystery (the fact that Claire drives racing cars will also be important). There is also a fourth member of the circle, Claire’s beautiful but flirtatious wife Dorothy.

Everyone is thrilled not only by France’s exploits in the boxing ring but also by his charm and good looks and easy-going confidence. He is something of a national hero. 

John Franklin is employed as a detective by Durangos Limited. We never do find out exactly what the principal business of Durangos is, it just seems to be a large and terribly important company. Durangos also employs a certain Ludovic Travers as a financial advisor.

Franklin is exceptionally pleased when he is given the opportunity to meet Michael France, in fact is invited to dinner where he is mightily impressed by the atmosphere of wealth and good fellowship that seems to surround France. Franklin is therefore shocked when he calls at France’s house a few days later and discovers not one but two corpses!

The formidable Detective Superintendent Wharton of Scotland Yard is assigned to the case. As Franklin is an acquaintance, a detective, a former policeman and a vital witness Wharton is happy to have his help on this case. Wharton is not quite so sure about accepting assistance from Ludovic Travers. He knows and likes Travers but Travers has no experience as a detective.

The case itself is a double murder in two senses although to explain why might risk a spoiler. It is not an impossible crime. Anyone could have committed the murders. Anyone, this is, apart from the only people with any reason for wanting to commit them. Leaving aside the remote possibility of murder by a complete stranger there are a handful of suspects but they have alibis that are absolutely unbreakable.

There’s also a question about the murder method. So what we have are unbreakable alibis, ingenious murder methods, literary clues and also a neat trick with a suicide note - all the things that fans of golden age mysteries love. The plot is quite ambitious but it comes together neatly. I like the fact that there’s an ingenious murder method that actually sounds like it might have worked.

It’s John Franklin and Superintendent Wharton who take centre stage. Travers lurks in the background. At this stage he’s not even an amateur detective. He’s simply an intelligent man who has developed an interest in the subject of crime through is friendships with Franklin and Wharton. He is however a fast learner. A nice touch is that although Wharton doesn’t know it he and Travers are engaged in a race to find the solution - Travers is keen to demonstrate that he really does have the instincts of a detective and if he beats Wharton to the answer then Wharton will have to start thinking of him as a real detective.

Bush would eventually realise that three detectives was one too many and that Wharton and Travers were the characters with the most appeal. Franklin would drop out of the picture. Wharton and Travers were also the ideal team - totally mismatched but for that very reason they’re a formidable combination and their friendship is convincing.

All true golden age detection fans are delighted by mysteries with maps and floor plans. This one has two floor plans and two diagrams!

Even though one would have liked to see more of Ludovic Travers Dead Man Twice is a fine example of the art of the detective story. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Alexander Wilson’s The Mystery of Tunnel 51

The Mystery of Tunnel 51 was published in 1928. It was the first of Alexander Wilson’s spy thrillers featuring his hero Sir Leonard Wallace.

Wilson was a fascinating and enigmatic character in his own right. He was certainly a Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) officer during the early part of the Second World War. He may have had connections to the British intelligence community before that. Sir Leonard Wallace bears a certain resemblance to Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first head (or ‘C’) of MI6. Wilson was dismissed from MI6 in 1942 but claimed that he was actually still working for them under deep cover. He may have been a genuine super-agent or most of his intelligence career may have been a fictionalised attempt to explain away his increasingly chaotic personal life.

Whether the truth about his later career there is no question that Wilson enjoyed a great deal of success as a writer of thrillers during the period from 1928 to 1940. His books then languished in obscurity until quite recently until several were reprinted, including The Mystery of Tunnel 51.

Wilson spent a good deal of time in India and it is India that provides the setting for The Mystery of Tunnel 51.

A British officer, a Major Elliott, has been carrying out a survey of the defences of British India. The plans he has made must be delivered, in absolute secrecy, to the Viceroy. Several attempts have already been made on Major Elliott’s life. Now he is on the final leg of his journey to Simla to see the Viceroy. He has a police escort and surely there is no way that anything can go wrong now. But Britain’s enemies are cunning and determine and will stop at nothing to get those plans!

Britain’s enemies are of course the Russians. Russophobia had been one of the defining characteristics of British foreign policy for well over a century (in fact it still is). The coming to power of the Bolsheviks adds an extra touch of paranoia to the plot but in fact the story is very much in the tradition of Great Game stories such as Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. The Great Game was a sort of Cold War between Britain and Russia, driven on both sides by paranoia about threats to their respective colonial empires, which lasted from the 1790s to the early 20th century. Even in the 1920s the British were haunted by the fear that someone would try to steal India from them.

When it becomes clear that the secret plans might yet fall into the hands of Bolshevik agents the local authorities in India decide to call in Sir Leonard Wallace, the legendary head of the Secret Intelligence Service. Wallace’s investigations uncover a vast conspiracy with hundreds of Bolshevik spies throughout the length and breath of India.

While this is very much a spy adventure tale the book also includes an impossible murder which requires Sir Leonard Wallace to do some real detective work.

Eventually the plot becomes a series of chases and a race against time to stop the Russian super-spy before he can get the secret plans over the frontier.

One of the things that delights me about the thrillers of the interwar years is the sublime self-confidence and optimism of the heroes. No matter how vast or diabolical the conspiracies that they encounter might be men like Bulldog Drummond, Richard Hannay and Simon Templar are never disheartened. They simply do not admit the possibility of defeat. The post-WW2 spy thriller would be increasingly populated by anti-heroes and flawed heroes, and by cynics like Len Deighton’s unnamed spy and pessimists like George Smiley. Even James Bond is, to a degree, a flawed hero - he makes mistakes, sometimes very bad ones, and he finds that being a secret agent has a price. There’s nothing wrong with the cynical pessimist school of spy fiction but it can be a bit much after a while and sometimes it’s refreshing to turn to the interwar thrillers with their cheerful, extroverted, dauntless and large-than-life heroes. 

Sir Leonard Wallace is such a hero. Of course he has a sidekick, Major Brien, an old pal who lacks Wallace’s brilliance but makes up for it in grit and pluck.

Wilson’s spy fiction is very much in the old-fashioned heroic mould, though with a definite tinge of paranoia. There’s plenty of action with quite a bit of gunplay. There are car chases and aeroplane chases. Both the heroes and the villains are masters of disguise. There are secret passages and the spies know every cunning trick in the book. There are hair’s-breadth escapes from danger and there’s an abundance of breathless excitement.

The chief bad guys are evil super-villains and their henchmen are either mindless killing machines or cringing cowards. There’s no need to worry about shades of grey - the British are the good guys and the Russkies are the bad guys. That’s all you need to know. If an Englishman turns out to be a bad guy it will also turn out that he’s not a real Englishman.

While it has some of the atmosphere of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim it naturally does not have the psychological subtlety and the philosophical depth of Kipling’s masterwork. Kipling’s view of imperialism was complex and nuanced. Wilson takes it for granted that the Raj is a good thing for Britain and a good thing for India and that any Indians who oppose British rule can only be doing so because they are in the pay of the Bolsheviks. It’s only fair to point out that Kipling was one of the greats of English literature. Wilson’s aims are of course much less ambitious. He is merely trying to write a fine old-fashioned potboiler. In this lesser aim he succeeds extremely well.

The Mystery of Tunnel 51 is an action-packed yarn that delivers the goods. Highly recommended.

The second of the Sir Leonard Wallace spy novels, The Devil’s Cocktail, is just as much fun.