Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Cigarette or Pipe
Macdonell was a new author to me and he was born India at the turn of the 19th century, but grew up in England. He is probably better known for his satirical work, in particular his book England Their England (1933), but he did also write a number of crime and thriller novels under the pseudonyms Neil Gordon (which is the case for this story) and John Cameron. He suffered from shell shock during WW1 and many of the characters in this story refer back to their times in the war. Macdonell also worked on the staff of the League of Nations Union in the 1920s, which also gets a mention in the tale. The Factory on the Cliff (1928) is a thriller and has been likened to the style of John Buchan and a bit like The 39 Steps (1915), this story does take place in London and Scotland, featuring all manner of modes of transport. In some ways this novel is your typical thriller, very plot focused with a protagonist rushing from one dilemma to another. Yet conversely Macdonell also does something quite different with it (different for me anyways), as he plays around with the conventions of heroes and heroines and ultimately undermines both of these character types – though this becomes much more apparent at the denouement of the story.
The Factory on the Hill begins with George Templeton on leave in Scotland, with his golfing plans scuppered when he injures his thumb. Without nothing else to do and not in the best of moods Templeton goes for long walks and on one such walk he encounters an old university acquaintance, Griffin. Yet Griffin shuns him, pretending he is someone else and things become more puzzling when it turns out Griffin and his confederates are looking for a lost Mills bomb in the grass. Templeton is baffled by this experience, though not enough to ask Griffin why he should be looking for such an item, and follows the lorry Griffin was using to a remote house on the cliff surrounded with barbed wire. On returning to his hotel, Templeton questions the landlord about the place and finds out the cliff top house, Gull’s Cove, is run by a group of secretive scientists, who are apparently doing research on fish migration. Templeton and the reader of course are not convinced by this, especially since Templeton’s golfing friend Snell informs him that Griffin was involved in technical work during the war involving gas. Their curiosity piqued they reconnaissance the area bumping into one of the cove’s inhabitants’, a pretty woman. They also realise that this place has drawn a number of foreigners who stay for a few days and then disappear again. Spurred on by the thought of a pretty face, Snell, Templeton and another friend, Armstrong spy on the cove several times, though not with much success as their presence is always spotted with the beautiful mystery woman calling Templeton the ‘most incompetent spy’ and the ‘biggest fool in Scotland’.
Yet it is during one of their nocturnal spying sessions that things begin to go badly wrong for them as they are caught earwigging and a pursuit ensues, with their retreat to the hotel cut off. One by one the trio get separated from each other, as the cove confederacy chases them. Thankfully for Templeton though he makes some new allies, an adventurous laird, Sir Alastair Chisholm and his friends Charles Pollack and “Oyster” Gardiner, who has a knack for picking locks, which he puts to good use in the story. Going to the police seems a good option to all of them with Chisholm saying:
‘In a real melodrama we would, of course, keep the police out of it, solve the mystery ourselves, bring to book a gang of desperate criminals and marry the most incredibly beautiful crookesses, but somehow it seems difficult in real life.’
Yet when Templeton is finally able to communicate with the police they are rather dismissive of his story, believing his missing friends will turn up in a day or two. Undeterred Templeton and his new friends head to London to pick up the trail there, after the group at the cove depart. More is learnt about this mysterious group and it appears they are mass producing some form of deadly new weapon. It also transpires that Scotland Yard is in fact taking an interest, the case headed by Inspector Roberts, though the narrative predominately focuses on the amateur’s blundering efforts. The heat on Templeton cools somewhat which may be due to the criminals dealing with more pressing problems, namely that a number of groups and individuals are after their blood, being the intended targets of the criminal’s clients.
Of course the mystery woman flits in and out of the story, calling herself Susan Blake and she is the primary reason Templeton returns into the fray, determined to save her. Though this could be tricky considering that even for the police the trail is going cold, with the gang adept at covering their tracks and even more adept at times at derailing their pursers. Yet Templeton and his chums finally locate them, an event which leads to a difficult moral dilemma (well for them anyways – calling the police would have seemed a sensible enough option to me) and Templeton says ‘either we’ve got to abandon these people to their fate… or else we’ve got to aid and abet what seems to be about the most dastardly thing I’ve ever heard of.’ With their status and role in the story becoming ever more blurred the novel races towards a final siege, which will have unforeseen consequences for all concerned.
Since this is a novel with an international plot race does come up, which did make for an unpleasant page or two in the second or so chapter of the novel. The landlord of the hotel Templeton originally stays at would definitely be classed as a racist today, who tries to justify his opinions with economic reasons:
‘There are too many queer foreigners in these parts… I don’t like having yellow people about, nor black ones either. It puts people against a house… I like English visitors up here, and not any of these fancy foreigners.’
Templeton is not much better asking, ‘Do you get many black ones?’ Fortunately though this is pretty much an isolated incidence and race and nationality do not become a big feature or issue of the story, which is probably for the best considering this example.
Knight Errantry and Damsels in Distress
As I mentioned in my introduction, Macdonell plays around with the character types of hero and heroine. Things begin quite conventionally with Templeton and his friends being attracted to Susan who they called a ‘girl,’ a ‘damsel,’ a ‘fairy’ and a ‘Gaiety-chorus peach’. They even create an air of mock rivalry between them, seeing themselves as ‘rival cavalier[s],’ competing for her affection. Yet from the start Susan disdains being scripted into the role of ‘heroine’ and foregoes the heroine trope of urging the hero (e.g. Templeton) to run away for his own good. Instead she doubts his abilities to save his own life. The juxtaposition of what Templeton thinks Susan ought to be and who she actually is, is encapsulated in one of his own musings on her:
‘Although he instinctively disliked the girl he could not help admitting to himself that she was a very lovely person and, in addition, the possessor of an apparently cast-iron nerve. She looked so feminine, so small, so appealing for protection; and yet Templeton had only to glance at her clear and resolute eyes and her complete self-confidence to realise that if either of them needed protection it was himself.’
Throughout the novel, Susan and other members of her criminal group disparage public school notions of playing the game, following cricket rules and the ethos of heading into danger just for the fun of it. One character laughs at such ideas saying: ‘So you are setting out as three knight errants, to rescue age and beauty in distress.’ Moreover, Susan goes onto point out the hypocrisy of this public school spirit and in fact states she does not want rescuing or saving.
A common trope of thrillers is often having a woman and man initially at logger heads and/ or distrustful of one another, with one of them maybe on the wrong side of the law to an extent, yet this is all put aside by the close of the story which ends with them as lovers – cue wedding bells. The Z Murders (1932) by J. Jefferson Farjeon would be one such example. Yet Macdonell avoids such a predictable ending, upsetting conventional heroism in the process. This is evinced when a character mocks Templeton at the end of the story saying ‘The Saviour of Humanity claiming his just reward…’ and goes onto twist this literary trope into something unpleasant pointing out that ‘The knight errantry business rather palls if you don’t get anything out of it.’ As of course it is usual once the man has faced numerous dangers that he gets the girl, but that is not going to be the case here and Susan remains a complex enigma, who defies narrative stereotypes in a way which is simultaneously unsettling and admirable. This messing around with conventions surprised me as in many other respects this is a very typical thriller.
On the whole the writing style is strong and very fitted to its purpose of being a thriller. The pace is fast and the story plot focused. At times Templeton’s actions and ideas seem very daft or absurd to the point where I wondered whether the text was veering towards farce. However, I think once you get to the end of the book, with its eerie denouement, you realise that this is part of a wider scheme, a scheme which means Templeton has to become ridiculous in order for the hero figure to be undercut. Susan is an enjoyable character as she is very different from what I was expecting and I liked the surprise that she was.
Rating: 3.75/5 (Definitely a rating I pondered over a lot (oscillating between 3.75 and 4), as it has a lot of clever aspects to it but on the other hand these aspects can only be realised at the finish meaning that during the reading process I felt incredulity towards some of the plot devices and Templeton’s desire to save Susan at all costs regardless of what that entails.)