It’s still a nice surprise to come across a completely new author when browsing idly in a bookshop, especially one from my favourite genre: Golden Age Crime. This book was a case in point. Like Cyril Coles (one of the writers for the Manning Coles spy series), Alexander Wilson was also part of British Intelligence, working for MI6. Equally, like Coles, Wilson used his own experiences within his work with Terry Kirkby (2010) saying in The Independent that the series was ‘so realistic that those in the secret service recognised pen portraits of themselves – and their superiors’. In fact, Mansfield Smith Cunning, the first head of MI6 is fictionalised through one of the series’ main male leads, Sir Leonard Wallace, who is also conveniently Chief of the Intelligence Department. However, Wilson led a complicated personal life (perhaps aided by his intelligence work, which involved long absences) committing bigamy three times. He was jailed for small crimes once losing his job in MI6 in the 1940s. Wilson’s personal history was left in obscurity until the investigative work of Tim Crooks who published a book called The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson (2010), which actually made surviving relatives from the different strands of his life aware of each other’s existence. To read more about the adventures and secrets of Alexander Wilson see the link below:
The majority of the action takes in India, starting in Simla where Major Elliot has returned with important documents to Lord Oundle, a Viceroy. But things begin to go wrong as on the way to Delhi to deliver the documents to Lord Oundle, Major Elliott is stabbed in a train carriage travelling through a train tunnel, when the light has conveniently gone out. This is perhaps a little ironic after Major Elliot’s earlier hearty confidence and casual attitude towards danger:
‘No, though I’ve thought myself shadowed several times. Of course I was watched on the frontier, and three attempts made to assassinate me… I remained too wide awake for them, however. But that’s nothing – I expected it!’
Worse is to follow as Sir Henry Muir, who is tasked to finish the journey and hand over the documents, and Lord Oundle open the document package in Delhi only to find the pages are blank. Where have the missing documents gone? These are documents which contain vital information about British defences and fortifications in India. Russian spies are believed to be the culprits responsible. I found the communist spy plot an unexpected one for the times, as I more readily associate such plots with the thrillers and spy novels of the 1950s and beyond, during the time of the Cold War. Retrieving the documents is of the upmost importance and therefore all the way from England the Chief of the Intelligence Department, Sir Leonard Wallace is called to find them.
In many ways Sir Leonard Wallace, shares a lot with the fictional detectives of the time and earlier. He gains the distrust and resentment of the India Police initially, like Holmes and Poirot:
‘So the viceroy doesn’t think the police of this country are capable enough for this affair, and sends for a picturesque, out-of-a-novel sort of detective to supersede me.’
Similarly, like Lord Peter Wimsey, he is regarded as a gentleman and fought during WW1. After a final show down with some Germans, at their secret submarine base in Devon, which he just so happened to discover whilst convalescing, he has his arm amputated and an artificial arm attached. Sir Wallace even gains the acclaim and almost hero worship of others who defend their idol against all criticism:
‘Remember you are dealing with the most brilliant brain in England in his particular line…’
Moreover, Sir Wallace has his own sidekick, Major Brien and they are also best friends and in a way they can be seen as a Holmes and Watson pairing, with Wallace being made to be the more heroic and great person:
‘Billy had not the quick perception, the imagination and inventiveness that gave Leonard the wonderful faculty of following a thing though, as though he had been actually present, and he did not possess that unerring instinct where secret enquiries were necessary; but he had the same dogged determination…’
Though without giving any spoilers away, this pattern is perhaps upset by the ending of the novel, thus undercutting the theme of the “Great” detective. But it is not just these two solving the mystery alone and through the novel, many different people from different departments in India work together to recapture the stolen plans, which I enjoyed. However, many car, plane and train chases have to take place first and I think that although once the story gets going (which does take a while) the pace is fast and there’s lots of action, the action is a bit repetitive, with the cat and mouse routine overplayed.
A reason for the story taking a while to get going is partially because of the 70 odd pages where we see Sir Wallace in England, being told about the mission and learn about his home life, which is sickeningly blissful (sick bags are needed). Wilson does fall into crude melodramatic character portrayals at his point with the wives of both Wallace and Brien (who of course are best friends also) being so womanly and for the want of a better phrase “oh my hero” that I did want to slap them, even if they are fictional. At this point I was thinking Manning Coles’ series spy chief, Tommy Hambledon had the right idea in staying a bachelor. Thankfully in my opinion, Lady Wallace does redeem herself at the denouement of the novel.
The melodrama dialogue does seep into other parts of the novel, but for the most part is retained within this part of the novel.
Another slight difficulty with the novel is the character of Batty, an ex-sailor and Sir Wallace’s servant, whose lack of political correctness can be a bit uncomfortable at times, even if it is in keeping with the context the novel is written in. Equally, his frequent use of ship metaphors is a bit wearing, along with his dog-like devotion to Sir Wallace, resulting in making him a hard character to like or connect with.
The novel is of its times in many respects in regards to social attitudes and use of language with characters making time for tiffin and calling middle age officials ‘cute’ (using the now archaic meaning of shrewd and clever, one hopes). However, within the text there is a sense of modernity as Sir Wallace ruminates on how fighting has changed, compared to the past. Sir Wallace, within the 70 pages digression is fascinated by a picture in his home of St George, fighting a dragon and he comments that it was easier for St. George, as he knew who, what and where his enemy was, in contrast to Sir Wallace. The suggestion here is that fighting and protecting your country has changed, with spy work being the key instrument, rather than official, open battles.
For me it was just a bit too long, making the plot less effective and the melodramatic dialogue and domestic bliss (which felt like a tangent) did become rather aggravating at times. I think I much prefer Manning Coles as a writer who injects humour into his work and allows you to engage more with the characters, who are more three-dimensional.
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