Old deaths and dispatchings

by Malcolm Redfellow

The Spectator kept it safely out of the back-half books ghetto, but Peter Hitchens did a stimulating essay on the thrillers of yesteryear.

His point-of-departure was to suggest:

Ignore the log-rolling, the favours to friends and publishers, the favouritism of the bookshop display tables. As an occasional author, I long ago realised that at least half the book reviews in Britain are written by people who haven’t read the book they are writing about, and don’t much care. If you want something to read in the summer months, plunge instead into a secondhand bookshop (there are still some there) and seek out the intelligent thrillers and detective stories of the recent past.

He then suggests

  • Eric Ambler for Uncommon Danger and Cause for Alarm;
  • Nevil Shute for No Highway, In the Wet, The Chequer Board, What Happened to the Corbetts;
  • Josephine Tey for The Daughter of Time; The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar;


  • Constantine FitzGibbon for When the Kissing Had to Stop.

Malcolm reckons, without heavy reconsideration, he has six of those under his belt. Others may have been lost to memory in the mists of time.

St Columba’s College school library had a decent run of Shute. Perhaps that was when the addiction was acquired.
He knows precisely when and why he went through The Daughter of Time in a single day. Aged sixteen, it involved a rugby injury and a screw inserted in an elbow. Dublin hospitals in those days, thanks to the benefice of Arthur Guinness, prescribed a half-pint bottle of stout per diem. Malcolm’s hospital bed was between two total abstainers, with whom he traded ice-cream and fruit-juice. The novel, which involves Tey’s tec, Alan Grant, also confined to a hospital bed, seemed appropriate, too. Perhaps that was the origin of contrariness.

Eric Ambler came on the walk back to the cold-water Ballsbridge flat, out of Back Gate of Trinity College, Dublin, past the sixpenny troughs of Greene’s bookshop (Malcolm recalls the troughs were appropriately painted green).

FitzGibbon was a feature around Dublin, and his lighter stuff considered to be … a bit on the saucy side. Which, in those days of censorship made him essential reading.


Malcolm has and will read anything by Eric Ambler. He would suggest, ahead of those suggestions, and in some kind of precedence:

  • Epitaph for a Spy;
  • The Mask of Demetrios; and
  • Journey into Fear.

All of those were published in the febrile period of 1938-40. As is usual for Ambler, the central character is an ordinary bloke who finds himself in extra-ordinary circumstances — in Journey into Fear he is only identified by his surname, “Graham”. He is too “normal” to be a spy, and the tension is mainly one of survival against the odds. The significance of Journey into Fear is underlined by its continuance in print  most recently in Penguin Classics, with an introduction by Professor Norman Stone, no less.


What Malcolm could never accept is such a list which excluded the Daddy of them All, all the way from 1903: Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, his only attempt at a novel. Few books have been so potent in their consequences: the Royal Navy redeployed its Home Fleet on its presumptions. It even turns up as one of the finest novels of all time.

This represents the moment when the sensational novel (as developed by — for an obvious example — Rider Haggard) gained a political edge. It inhabits a curious half-world between fiction and reality. Childers was the civil servant who had sailed the Frisian coast in 1897. there was something of a hysteria about German invasion plans, to the extent that two navy men, Captain Trench of the Marines and Lieutenant Vivian Brandon, retraced Childers’s route in 1910 — just in case.

Every subsequent writer in the genre owes a debt to Childers.


Childers died for Ireland. The epitome of Englishness was defined by the Scotsman, John Buchan. Irony alert.

Any, or all of the Richard Hannay novels should be in such a list. The main problem with The Thirty-Nine Steps is that nobody of a certain age can dissociate the text from (depending on one’s vintage) Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll ( Hitchcock, 1935),  Kenneth More and Taina Elg (Ralph Thomas, 1959) or Robert Powell and Karen Dotrice (Don Sharp, 1978).

So, were Malcolm combing the shelves after Peter Hitchens’s example he would certainly be looking for Buchan: perhaps the all-in-one Complete Richard Hannay, or the others off the same production line: The Power House or Huntingtower or John McNab or Prester John. Even so, Malcolm’s guess is that, all all of that, the one that most would stick in the mind is Buchan’s effort of 1916 (and in that Hannay anthology): Greenmantle.

Greenmantle is the cancer-ridden, dying prophet of Islam, being manipulated by:

that damned German propaganda. His unworldliness has been used for a cunning political move, and his creed of space and simplicity for the furtherance of the last word in human degeneracy.

The manipulator is “a Superwoman, and her name’s Hilda von Einem.” No subsequent shocker is complete without its seductive, but evil Hilda.
[as hyperlinked above, some Buchan — and lots of other great stuff —  is available for downloading, in various e-formats, through gutenberg.org]

Graham Greene

Years gone, when teachers had some say in what they presented to their students, Malcolm had one of those “difficult” classes (i.e. male, lower-stream, seen it, done it, got the ripped tee-shirt to prove it) to get though 16+ exams.

In an inspired moment he plucked The Third Man out of a catalogue. Everyone thinks they know the Carol Reed movie (arguably the best Britpic ever made), so the “entertainment”/novella that Greene fashioned as a way into his script goes less well noticed. Mistake.

If one were to identify characteristics that made the English novel of the last half-century or so, most are here. There is the cynical and elusive Harry Lime, the simplistic anti-hero Rollo Martins (who never wholly gets a grip on what’s going on), the underlying political satire (Cold War politics implicit in Martins’ Wild West novels), and — the strongest character of the lot — Anna.

Look long around Peter Hitchens’ second-hand bookshop: there are still first editions cropping up.

Et cetera

Malcolm had intended to conclude with a quick run-through of recent unmissables: Cold War stuff such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold would be leading that little bunch. Le Carré matched that later, with the Smiley novels — he had set his bar too high to beat it. Len Deighton’s first, The Ipcress File (another one better known through the decent film adaptation)  and — a quarter of a century later — Winter deserve to be in there as well.

Once we get into that stuff, then ….

More later, perhaps.