I have been hitting a bit of a brick wall in terms of finding a copy of She Wouldn’t Say Who and The Man with the Three Passports; the last two series books of Ames I need to get, so I decided to take the plunge with one of Ames’ non-series novels. I was a little anxious before reading this, worrying whether it would be as good as his later books, as in fact Ames seems to have written a number of non-series novels before embarking on his first series featuring the Browns. I didn’t know what to expect with this story as there is no blurb or synopsis to be found online, couldn’t even find a dust jacket.
This story, which is set in the early years of WW2, before America joined, begins with an interesting premise. Steve Brabazon has skipped it to Ostend to avoid an overly clingy blonde and it is whilst he is enjoying a beverage at a local café that he sees what he can only be described as his doppelganger. He rushes to the hotel room in which his double is staying only to find them murdered. On returning with the hotel management the body is gone and the manager thinks Steve must be mad, saying that he is the one who has rented the room. Why did the victim assume his identity and appearance? Steve does not have time to figure this out as his “wife”, Judy enters. Only when these two are alone do we realise the sort of pickle Steve has fallen in to, as Judy turns on him and asks where her “husband,” really her brother, is. Further encounters show Steve has walked into a German espionage plot. But who can he trust? Yet Steve and Judy’s adventures are only just beginning, taking on more than one plot to swing the war in Germany’s favour, taking in Monte Carlo and Santa Rica. Of which this gives the story an episodic feel.
It is no coincidence, I feel, that this thriller was followed shortly afterwards with the first of the Jane and Dagobert novels, She Shall Have Murder in 1948, as these two certainly have their prototypes in Judy and Steve. Steve and Dagobert in particular have the most in common. I wouldn’t say the partnership between Steve and Judy is as equal as Dagobert and Jane, as Judy does increasingly become marginalised, though Judy does get a high point in the middle of the story. We also see the seeds of Jane’s sharp wit in Judy as well. Whilst Steve and Dagobert both share a nebulous aristocratic background, an inability to settle down in one place, an allergy to consistent employment, a tendency to attract other women and a habit of taking on bad guys alone. But it is this line: ‘Steve’s war effort was private and, from the domestic angle, disruptive,’ which encapsulates the similarities between the two men.
We don’t get the metafictional humour of the Jane and Dagobert series, but we do get to see the beginnings of Ames’ knack for lively description, such as:
‘Steve had only time to observe that Alf’s curious behaviour – something between an epileptic fit and a lively imitation of a person caught out during a gas attack without his mark – was caused by seeing him, to jump to a second conclusion.’
‘He was called Senor Fink, a very slight improvement on his real name which was Herr Funk.’
‘She edged a little forward in her chair to avoid the tea planter from Ceylon who seemed to be breathing with a mixture of passion and asthma down her back.’ [Something Victoria Wood-esque in this I think]
Yet this is no light hearted mystery, with violence being very much in evidence, with the fallibility of the sleuths costing lives, though in fairness to them they do get better as they go along. But if I had a £1 for every time Steve hits somebody on the chin, I could buy myself an awful of gluten free doughnuts or possibly even a hard to get Berkeley novel.
Regular readers of the Puzzle Doctor’s blog will know he has begun a series of posts under the heading of: Do Mention the War, so my attention to the war time details in this book were a little more guided. This book of course was written once the war had been won and I think that certainty ultimately directs the nature of the story. There is no anxiety over whether Steve and Judy will win the day. I’d even go as far as suggesting that the first plot to be defeated is a form of wish fulfilment, as Steve and Judy race against time to save a ship full of American evacuees, an event which reminded me of the sinking of the Lusitania, where unfortunately there was no such rescue. As a thriller progresses I’d say the plotting becomes more and more wildly extravagant, with enemy plans becoming increasing bizarre.
So all in all quite a puzzling book by Ames which I haven’t fully made my mind up about yet, especially in regards to its episodic nature – should the story have just stuck to the original espionage plot? At least Ames’ skills with characters is not in question with this book and Steve and Judy do make this an entertaining read. It’s almost a pity that this book is not very easy to come by as I would love to see what others readers, who’ve read other Ames novels, would make of his early work. In some ways I think this book was instrumental in Ames developing his formula for the Brown novels, though equally I can see touches of his later Spanish series as well.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): During a Trip