Adelaide Frances Oke Manning and Cyril Coles, were the two writers behind the Tommy Hambledon spy series which began in (1940) with Drink to Yesterday. It is a series which begins in WW1 and continues post WW2, with global menaces shifting from Germany to the Nazis and then Communism. Spy stories are not usually my cup of tea, but Manning Coles manages to produce a lot more than just a fast paced plot and instead provides a series of interesting tales which can be quite moving (particularly in Drink to Yesterday) and humour. Due to the time they were written, they also provide a thoughtful look at how other countries and war were being perceived during the 1940s and 50s and in a way do make you consider the wide spreading damage war and conflict can do. Moreover, Cyril Coles according to my book’s introduction was the youngest British Intelligence Officer in history and the books were sometimes written whilst Cole was on a mission abroad. In addition, the events in Drink to Yesterday were loosely based on Cole’s own experiences. But now let’s look at Green Hazard (1945), the 5th book in the series.
The book opens in 1941 with Tommy Hambledon undercover in Switzerland trying to investigate an experimental chemist called Ulseth, who is apparently making an explosive far more powerful than TNT and Swedish and German representatives keen to gain the technology are circling nearby. However, things go incredibly wrong for Hambledon when he enters Ulseth’s house where he is captured. It turns out Ulseth’s a confidence trickster and he plans to escape with the investment money he got from the Swedish. Ulseth decides to blow up his house and make the authorities believe Hambledon’s body is his. However, since this is only chapter 2, it isn’t all over for Hambledon just yet. He manages to escape the house, yet in the ensuing explosion he is injured and even worse he’s mistaken as Ulseth, who the Gestapo promptly take back to Berlin where they expect him to create the fabled new explosive. The rest of the novel documents Hambledon’s various escapades in Berlin, where he tries to maintain his newly imposed identity whilst still working for British Intelligence.
Yet what makes this a good story is that the narrative moves around in time, to look at the events happening to a range of characters and not just Hambledon. This not only makes it more interesting but it also helps to show how everyone is connected and how unfortunately people can get caught up in events beyond their control. Manning Coles manages to keep civilian casualties to a minimum, which helps to keep Hambledon a likeable character, yet when such casualties do occur, they are very poignant.
On trying to find out more about Manning Coles, I came across a book called The Special Branch: The British Spy Novel (1890-1980) (1981, Bowling Green University Popular Press) by Leroy Panek. Some of his ideas are interesting such as out pointing the episodic and picaresque quality to the novels. In addition, he notes how Coles’ parallels confidence tricksters with spies, emphasising their similarities and minimal differences and this is epitomised in Green Hazard. However I do disagree with some of his points. For example he writes:
‘Coles’ novels promise to provide a popular yet realistic brand of the spy book which would knife through some of the sillier conventions which had attached to it, and they promise to carry on the buoyant fictional tones of the twenties and thirties into the post war world. Yet in both areas Coles fails to deliver the goods. As one novel follows another, rousing action grinds into repetition and clichés, and real wit disappears leaving only a light tone in its stead.’ (Panek, 1981: 185).
Having read the first five novels in the series now, I can’t agree that the action is repetitious, as in each novel I’ve read there has been something new and different, especially in A Toast to Tomorrow (1940) and Without Lawful Authority (1943), nor is there a lack of humour, albeit dark at times. Panek also goes on to criticise Coles’ lack of a real master criminal in his novels. Again, I would disagree with this judgement. Firstly, because the villains may be nameless powers at times, but surely that’s more realistic than having a Napoleon of Crime? It seems a little contradictory to criticise an author for being unrealistic and then for not using an unrealistic character type. Secondly when the villains are smaller, less important people, I think it gives a much more human and personal quality to the text.
Coles’ sets Green Hazard four years previously then when they wrote it in 1945. This sets up an interesting dialogue with the narrator and the reader. For example, Hambledon is reading a German newspaper:
There were scenes of appalling terror in Odessa; deserters from the Soviet forces were being shot in the back by their infuriated comrades. The Bolshevist hordes were either surrounded in masses and being rapidly pulverised or reeling back in disorder from an unending series of merciless hammer blows which they could not hope to survive. Russia was already defeated. The war was practically won. The liquidation process so far advanced, had only to be completed, and all the immense resources of Russia would be available for the prosecution of Germany’s other wars. Sieg Heil. The date was October the twelfth 1941.
Aside from the evident satirising of German war propaganda, the last sentence also opens up a private joke between the narrator and the reader, who unlike Hambledon, knows the war won’t be over for many more years yet.
I think the Tommy Hambledon novels have a lot to offer, namely, an interesting look at shifts and changes in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, an array of plots and twists and also some moving and poignant moments which make you think about the costs involved in spying or being caught up in conflicts. I also like that Hambledon avoids the shenanigan behaviour of James Bond and instead provides a great deal of humour and wit, in true 1920s and 30s style, despite what Panek suggests.