Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Edgar Wallace's The Black Abbot

The Black Abbot, which first saw the light of day in 1926, has absolutely everything an Edgar Wallace fan could wish for. There’s a malevolent ghost, buried treasure, the elixir of life, a crooked lawyer, a tangled romance, a scheming young woman, another young woman facing a fate much worse than death, an atmosphere of breathless excitement and non-stop Edgar Wallace thrills.

Harry Alford, 18th Earl of Chelford, is a pale bookish highly strung young man, the very model of the decadence of a decaying aristocracy. Dick Alford is the unlucky second son of the previous earl. Dick has all the virtues of the aristocracy in its heyday - he’s brave and noble with a selfless devotion to the land, the people and the rich Chelford estates. He has some modern virtues as well. He is intelligent and industrious and level-headed. Alas it seems like none of this is going to do him any good. Harry inherited the estates, the money and the title. Dick inherited nothing. It’s Dick who keeps the estates going but in his own right he has nothing.

Harry is engaged to be married to Leslie Gine, the sister of a prominent local solicitor and the heiress to a vast fortune. The match seems ideal but for one or two problems. Leslie doesn’t love the pale scholarly young earl while Harry is indifferent to her charms. He is indifferent to everything apart from his peculiar obsessions. Four four hundred years the legend has persisted that there is an immense trove of gold buried somewhere on the Chelford estates. Harry hopes to find the treasure but it’s not the gold he wants, it’s something else mentioned in the legend, the elixir of life, brought back to England from the New World in Elizabethan times.

There’s another legend as well, of a sinister black abbot who stalks the estate, the ghost of an abbot murdered many centuries before in scandalous circumstances involving the sort of sexual impropriety that no abbot should have been indulging in. 

There is another suitor for the hand of Leslie Gine and he is in a peculiarly favourable position to press his claim. It’s not that Leslie wants to marry Harry. She’d prefer to marry Dick Alford. Dick favours this idea as well but it all seems hopeless and meanwhile there are nefarious schemes afoot for other matrimonial alliances. Everybody has money troubles and they all like the idea of solving those problems by marrying money. The difficulty is in figuring out who actually has money and who just seems to have money.

Everybody wants the Chelford gold as well, and they’re prepared to resort to ruthless methods. Of course the ghostly Black Abbot may also have something to say on the subject. And of course it all leads to murder and mayhem.

The plot is delightfully convoluted and outlandish. There are villains aplenty. Everyone seems to have an ingenious scheme to get what they want but all those ingenious schemes are hopelessly in conflict with each other. Temporary alliances are formed but always with the intention of an eventual double-cross. 

The interesting thing about the characters is that they don’t always behave the way you expect them to. Upon reflection they actually behave realistically, but not necessarily in accordance with the conventions of the genre. The plot is melodramatic to a high degree  but the villains are not melodrama villains.

Of course given the setting - an ancient manor house and an adjoining ruined abbey - there are secret passageways and hidden chambers and all manner of unexpected perils. This being an Edgar Wallace thriller we’re naturally sceptical about the ghostly nature of the Black Abbot but while he may be no ghost he is certainly likely to be murderous.

It all adds up to great entertainment. Once Wallace reveals the solution to the big mystery the book really kicks into high gear with an exciting and very tense climactic episode which then leads us to the solution of the remaining mysteries.

In 1963 this novel was made into one of the best of the German Edgar Wallace krimi movies, and this movie version of The Black Abbot is one I heartily recommend.

The Black Abbot is non-stop fun, one of Wallace’s best. Very highly recommended.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Miles Burton's The Secret of High Eldersham

The Secret of High Eldersham was the second of the Desmond Merrion mysteries written by Cecil John Charles Street under the Miles Burton pseudonym. It was published in 1930. It’s recently been issued in paperback in the British Library’s excellent Crime Classics series. In some ways this title was an unfortunate choice for the series, as we shall see.

The setting is a quiet village in East Anglia called High Eldersham. A very quiet village. A village where strangers are regarded with a good deal of suspicion. Retired police sergeant Sam Whitehead has just taken over the lease of the village pub, the Rose and Crown. He seems to be doing quite well and then one day he is found brutally murdered. There is an obvious suspect but the Chief Constable feels that this is a case that should be passed on to Scotland Yard. The Yard sends Detective Inspector Young to take charge.

Young has an odd feeling about the case and asks his old friend Desmond Merrion to take a run down to High Eldersham. Young feels that he really needs someone he can trust with whom to discuss a case that he is convinced is not going to be at all simple. Young has a theory but it’s so outrageous that he’s hesitant even to mention it. He doesn’t need to - Merrion has spotted the same indications that worried Young and has come to the same conclusion. There is evil afoot in High Eldersham but it’s not ordinary everyday evil. It’s an ancient evil that most people thought had disappeared from England’s green and pleasant land centuries ago.

This is all disconcerting enough but there’s an element that is even more disturbing to Desmond Merrion. That factor is Mavis Owerton. Mavis is a very pretty young woman, a bit of a free spirit, and Merrion has fallen in love with her. The really awkward thing is the possibility that Mavis may be involved in the evil goings-on in High Eldersham. Merrion is convinced that she can’t be involved because she’s very pretty and he’s in love with her.

Mavis is the daughter of Sir William Owerton, the local squire who appears to be a dusty but harmless scholar. Mavis has another suitor (a most unwelcome suitor), a Mr Hollesley, who lives at Elder House. Hollesley and the Owertons are the only gentlefolk in the area. They seem innocent enough but there’s a strange atmosphere in the village.

Apart from ancient evils there’s also a good deal of messing about in boats in this story. Merrion hires a yawl to use as his base of operations. Hollesley has a yacht. There’s a Dutch tramp steamer that plays a key role, and there’s also Mavis’s speedboat. In fact this almost qualifies as a nautical adventure.

While there’s certainly a mystery here and Young and Merrion do a certain amount of detecting this is really more of a thriller than a detective story. It has more in common with Edgar Wallace’s potboilers than with the detective novels Street published under the name John Rhode. I happen to like Edgar Wallace potboilers so that’s not a problem for me but if you’re not a fan of that sort of tale then this might not be quite your cup of tea. Street was a master of the classic golden age detective story so this novel is not at all typical of his work, which is why I’m not sure it was a good choice for the Crime Classics series. 

The Secret of High Eldersham is also untypical of Street’s work in that it features a major romantic sub-plot.

Death at Low Tide, which I reviewed here not long ago, is a Miles Burton book that is much more a detective novel, and a very very good one.

If you’re new to the work of this author then this book is probably not the place to start. Personally I thought The Secret of High Eldersham was great fun. If you don’t mind your detective fiction mixed with thriller elements, romance and a touch of the gothic then you might enjoy this one as much as I did. Highly recommended, with those caveats.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman

The Talisman is the second of Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of the Crusaders. It was published in 1825. It deals with the adventures of a brave but penniless Scottish knight, Kenneth of the Leopard, during the Third Crusade (1189-92). It also deals with the intrigues among the Crusaders which played a major part in the crusade’s failure.

Sir Kenneth of the Couchant Leopard had set out on crusade with a small retinue and high hopes. Now most of his retinue are dead or dispersed. Kenneth’s hopes remain as high as ever. For some obscure reason Kenneth had been sent on a secret mission, connected with peace negotiations with Saladin. Kenneth encounters a young Saracen emir on the road, they fight, and the fight having ended in an honourable draw they become firm friends. 

King Richard I of England, Richard Coeur de Lion, is the military leader of the crusading forces but the other crusading kings and princes all have their own agendas and their own ambitions as combined with various petty jealousies and secret betrayals the crusade has the potential to become a chaotic farce. To make thing worse Richard is seriously ill with fever. Kenneth returns to Richard’s camp with a Muslim physician, sent by Saladin to minister to the ailing Coeur de Lion. Can a doctor sent by the crusaders’ most dangerous enemy be trusted? King Richard has reason to think that he can.

The idea of Saladin and Richard as worthy adversaries, each in his own way representative of the very highest ideals of his respective culture, is one of the book’s major themes. 

For Sir Kenneth there are many misfortunes in store. He has, in accordance with the  ideals of chivalry (another major theme of the novel), pledged himself to the service of a noble lady. He has perhaps set his sights too high, the lady in question being of royal birth, a close kinswoman of King Richard, a certain Edith Plantagenet. This is only the beginning of Kenneth’s woes. Dishonour and slavery await him.

King Richard has his problems as well. The alliance of princes who launched the Crusade is falling apart, torn by jealousies, conflicting ambitions and outright treachery. A wise physician can heal the King’s bodily infirmities, and some physicians seem to have other talents as well.

There’s also a bold, perhaps overbold, plan to bring the wars between Christians and Saracens to an end in a most surprising way, by means of an extraordinary marriage alliance.

The plot is certainly extravagant, with all manner of surprising revelations and unexpected twists. Modern readers may be disappointed that there’s very little in the way of actual action. There is however plenty of tension and intrigue. There’s also a focus on questions of honour, matters of critical importance to the medieval mind (and not entirely forgotten even in the Britain of 1825). There’s also romance of course, in the form of the hopeless love between Kenneth and Edith.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) more or less invented modern historical fiction. He remained immensely popular until well into the 20th century although his critical reputation plummeted as the idea of reading books for enjoyment became anathema to critics. Scott was everything modernist critics hated - his political views were unacceptable, he was patriotic, his novels had coherent plots and worst of all his books were exciting and entertaining. His Tales of the Crusaders committed the further sin of being extremely sympathetic to the ideals of chivalry.

The Talisman is very much a product of the Romantic Movement although Scott is brutally realistic in his treatment of the cynical, scheming and treacherous leadership of the crusade. Both Sir Kenneth and King Richard personify the ideals of chivalry, as does Richard’s enemy Saladin. The novel is remarkably even-handed on the subject of religion. Amusingly both Christian and Muslim characters betray the same profound misunderstandings of each other’s faiths.

One thing Scott did understand about historical fiction - there’s no point in writing such fiction if you populate your stories with anachronistically modern characters. You have to make an effort to capture the spirit, and the prejudices, and the obsessions, of another historical epoch. This lesson has now been all but forgotten, with catastrophic consequences for historical fiction. Scott does make the effort to make his characters convincingly medieval. Perhaps he doesn’t always succeed, but he does try. And there are times when you almost want to strangle Sir Kenneth because of what seems to a modern reader to be a monumentally stubborn refusal to compromise on matters that he believes to be essential to honour or religion. The fact that we grow exasperated with him demonstrates that Scott has managed to make him reasonably believable as a man of his times.

King Richard is the most interesting character. Scott portrays him as a great and charismatic hero but one with very definite flaws, although he remains a sympathetic character. He’s a man destined not to achieve his great objectives, partly through his own failings.

If you have any interest at all in historical fiction you have to at least sample Sir Walter Scott’s work. Even if it’s somewhat lacking in the degree of action you might expect The Talisman is an absorbing and entertaining tale, somewhat far-fetched but all the more enjoyable as a result. Recommended.