The Devil's Cocktail by Alexander Wilson
|The Devil's Cocktail by Alexander Wilson|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: Pure escapism and a pleasure to see it reissued.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 350||Date: April 2015|
|Publisher: Allison & Busby|
Alexander Wilson, author of the Wallace series, was a writer, spy and secret service officer. Interesting that the biog-writer makes a distinction between the last two of those professions.
Be that as it may, Wilson was one of the early writers in the genre that would lead to Bond and Smiley. Whilst perhaps not quite reaching the literary style and fame of those who would follow in his footsteps, he created characters and plots that were very popular at the time, are very much of their time and are now getting a well-deserved re-issue.
Following on the revival of the 1930s and '40s English mystery and crime library, it's natural and welcome to see the classic British spy stories also getting another run in the sun.
Buchan's more famous Hannay stories are available in new editions and the Wallace stories are very much in that vein. The politics is very much 1920s – this particular edition was first published in 1928.
So who is this Wallace chap?
Sir Leonard of that ilk is the current head of the British Secret Service. An adventure during the Great War led to an arm being amputated and a job behind a desk. He is however temperamentally unsuited to sitting behind a desk… so even though most of the Devil's Cocktail focuses on another agent entirely, you just know he's going to show up sooner or later.
Later, as it happens.
He is not the star of this show.
Enter Captain Shannon. A double-blue who didn't do badly at Oxford, Shannon is the ideal man to send in response to an advertisement placed by the Sheranwala College, Lahore who need a professor of English Literature with an aptitude for sport.
The post is genuine. The College principal is well aware of the lamentable and corrupt state of education in the colony (as it then was) and is doing his best to improve things. Of course, having a genuine English professor on the books is good for funding, but that's not really the point. It is a three year appointment.
Hopefully though, our aspirant Professor won't have to see out the full term, because as genuine as the recruitment is, the reason for the Secret Service wanting their man on the ground obviously has different motives entirely. The success of Wallace and his colleagues in undermining one Bolshevik plot to destabilise the British Empire notwithstanding, the Russians are still at large and at work in India.
There isn't a specific threat, just a general need to know what is going on. Shannon is going into deep(ish) cover to look and learn and watch and wait.
That was the plan anyway. But naturally that wouldn't make for a very entertaining read so the narrative imperative means that things have to happen much quicker than that.
On the boat out suspicious characters start to make themselves known, and a known spy already once deported from Britain turns up to join the fray within a few pages.
From then on it's the usual round of bluff and counter-bluff, of skulking about in the shadows, disguises and kidnaps, chance meetings with old colleagues and lucky escapes from old enemies.
A fiendish plot to destabilise the whole world is discovered and must, naturally, be prevented.
One of the things I liked about the first book in the series was Wallace's wife Molly – just the plucky kind of a gal to be married to a chap of his standing. Unfortunately, in this one we have Shannon's insipid sister, Joan.
For plot purposes she has to be just too feeble for words… Quite often Joan felt that she was being silly. You know what? She absolutely was. She has a tendency to swoon or falter just at the point where one feels Molly would have aimed a barbed comment or a sharp elbow.
I can see why the characterisation is necessary, but can't help thinking Joan wouldn't have gone down well with female readers at the time, and it does make the already-stretched plot creak a bit further.
But let's put that aside. This is after all a world where By Jove! is a serious expletive, where evil cads give women time to prepare themselves for the prospective of being raped, where blackmailing, gold-digging sirens see the error of their ways with only the gentlest of persuasion, and where hardened American agents have a tendency to say "Gee".
It's frivolous – of course it is. Put it in the publishing conventions, dare I say the societal conventions of the time, and we have to accept that. Suspend disbelief from the unseen highest rafter and just enjoy the tale.
That's clearly something I can do with ease, because (as with the first) I read this at a rapid click and enjoyed every second of it. If you want to compare it to anything, think of the Indiana Jones movies or Romancing the Stone. Utterly silly, but a joy none the less.
I'm sure that at the time the communist threat to Empire would have leant more of a thrill to the story than one can appreciate at this remove. Was Bulgarin ever at a secret meeting in a college in Lahore plotting with the Chinese, and a conglomerate of European nations to un-do the super-powers of the day? Not only have I no idea, but this isn't the kind of tale to make me want to go look it up. It's pure escapism. Enjoy it for what it is.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Devil's Cocktail by Alexander Wilson at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Devil's Cocktail by Alexander Wilson at Amazon.com.
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