Wallace of the Secret Service by Alexander Wilson
|Wallace of the Secret Service by Alexander Wilson|
|Category: Crime (Historical)|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A decent read, more of historical appeal than for its own sake this time.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 350||Date: April 2015|
|Publisher: Allison & Busby|
This is the third in the re-issued series authored by the former soldier, spy and Professor of English Literature, without whom it is said, there'd have been no Bond, no Smiley, no Bourne.
I suspect that's not strictly true, but it makes a good tag-line. And certainly Wallace was one of the early contenders. Unlike Bond, he is happily married. Maybe that was a necessity of appealing to a mainstream publisher back in the twenties and thirties. He's also head of the department rather than a loose cannon of an agent.
Also unlike Bond, and perhaps a bit more like Sherlock Holmes, he is less likely to turn up announcing his bona fides as to show up in any one of a myriad of disguises good enough to foil even his closest colleagues – although not quite sufficient to throw Mahatma Gandhi off his trail. Not at the first attempt anyway.
As we've started with departures, lets continue in that vein. This book also differs from the previous two in that whereas they were fully-fledged novels, what we have here is a collection of short stories. There's a lead-in thread by way of an introduction from a third party who's allegedly been asked to collect the stories together, but as that offers up no more than a prologue of an introduction for anyone who didn't start with The Mystery of Tunnel 51, it actually adds nothing to the collection.
In these days of "more enlightened understanding" or "political correctness" (depending upon your standing), it can be difficult to read stories about the past which by their nature have to be true to the mores of the time. How much more difficult then, for a publisher choosing to re-issue stories which were contemporary when written, but which will undoubtedly now offend many of our sensibilities?
One of the tales in particular springs immediately to mind in this regard. One that I would expend to engender such a revulsion among the chattering classes (should they stoop to read such frivolous intrigues) that I am actually impressed that the publishers have left it in the collection.
The tale in question is the one in which Gandhi penetrates the disguise of our agent: East is East.
Remember that the stories were written in the late twenties, early thirties of the last century. It sounds such a long time ago when phrased like that. The collection was first published in 1933.
The story opens by telling us that The Statutory Commission appointed by the British Government to inquire into the working of the Indian constitution wended its futile way through India, meeting at every turn opposition and obstruction, hindrance and hostility. This may well be a reasonable representation of the facts, but what is more interesting reading the thing some 80 years later is the understanding of just how futile. But more than that: it is the understanding that the likes of Wallace, and presumably the author Alexander Wilson, didn't really 'get' what was actually happening and what was going to happen and how a minor detail like the second world war was not going to get in the way.
Gandhi had taken leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921 on a wide-ranging programme of easing poverty, expanding women's rights, building religious and ethnic tolerance, removing the notion of an "untouchable" caste, but above all for achieving independence. This has to be put in the context that the great British Empire was slowly being dismantled all over the world, morphing into variations on a theme of greater or lesser control and/or alliance that would eventually emerge as the Commonwealth.
At the time he wasn't the ultra-wise semi-mythical being we know today. He was a lawyer and career politician who took some breathtakingly innovative approaches to securing his aims. He was also a Hindu. Whilst he might have personally held to a view of religious pluralism, and a strategy of non-violent civil disobedience as the means to the end, he failed to get the unstinting support of the Muslim nationalists. History tells of how we then succeeded in completely mismanaging the whole situation in the late forties, which led to that part of the world being as unstable as many others where we (the British) had a less than successful hand in pulling out.
At the time of writing though, the independence campaign is in its infancy, and whilst Britain seems disposed to offer a measure of home rule, it's a long way short of the full self-governing status that the nationalists want. Wallace and a few of his sidekicks are out in India on something approaching a parallel tour, to find out what the real lie of the land is.
So far as the story itself is concerned, it is par for the course of the rest of the book. Mildly entertaining if you accept the context, an exercise in plot above characterisation. It revolves around Wallace getting close enough to Gandhi to find out what he's plotting next: it's all about our hero's ability to be someone else. From the historical perspective though, what makes one smart are comments like Oh in a few years' time some sort of federal government will probably be instituted, the Indian statesmen will make a mess of it, the country will get into a state of chaos and there you are.
What's particularly interesting is that these words are put into the mouth of Wallace himself. They can be taken, therefore, as the 'official' view of the world. And it gets worse I have not met an Indian yet who could hold a position of real responsibility without losing his head, or using his rank and influence to feather his nest. They are all tarred with the same brush; the Muslims are perhaps a little more honest, but not much. The Hindus see in self-government a wonderful opportunity of ruling the roost and forcing the Mohammedans under foot.
But for the purposes of the tale Wallace has a plan to stop it all happening. And before we forget the context of all of this let's skip ahead (with no apologies for the spoiler) to the final words of this chapter:
Speaking of the campaign of civil disobedience Wallace says no matter how well organised it may be. It will be a failure
And just in case we're not convinced, our author adds History is proving the accuracy of Sir Leonard's forecast.
As I say, you have to read it all in the context of the time.
The other part of that context that was a novelty to this reader, was just how much we were worried by the Russians at the time. I was brought up on the notion that the Cold War was something very much post-WW2. Clearly not. There'd just been a pause in hostilities while we joined forces to defeat Hitler and then it was back to business as usual.
Many of the stories are about Russian (i.e. Bolshevik) plots to either destabilise what was left of our Empire, or to generally take over the world. Whether he's rescuing agents from Egypt or Morocco, or foiling plots to steal nerve gas here at home, it's much the stuff you'd expect from the genre.
Many of the characters from the previous two books make their appearance, not least Carter and Batty and Major Brien. With the exception of Batty who does sterling work as the Jeeves-cum-Crichton-cum-hired-thug, the side-kicks are sadly of the type who make you wonder how they got as far in their careers as they did. No boss is made to look good by having to continually rescue inept colleagues. I wonder if that penetrates Wilson's approach as the series progresses.
Having admired Lady Wallace in her first spirit filled outing in The Mystery of Tunnel 51 she is sadly relegated to fairly pathetic female status in the episodes of this one where she makes an appearance, being little more than a plot device for the most part.
Not holding the attention in quite the same way as the two preceding novels did, this collection engenders a more critical response and I'm not convinced it lives up to it. Working in the short form, Wilson is just too pat with his solutions. Without the prior tension and red-herrings that the novels provide space for, they seem less believable.
A decent read, more of historical appeal than for its own sake this time.
If you want a look at where all this spy stuff would lead, then still reckoned to be the best spy story of all time is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre.
You can read more book reviews or buy Wallace of the Secret Service by Alexander Wilson at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Wallace of the Secret Service by Alexander Wilson at Amazon.com.
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