The Mystery of Tunnel 51 by Alexander Wilson

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The Mystery of Tunnel 51 by Alexander Wilson

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Category: Thrillers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Classic spy stuff from the golden age of the interwar years.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 350 Date: April 2015
Publisher: Allison & Busby
ISBN: 978-0749018054

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Major Elliot of the Sappers and Miners is heading up to Simla. It's the wrong time of year to be going to a hill station. Everyone else is heading back down to the plains. But Elliot is on a mission…

…it is one he will likely not survive. He has a set of plans to deliver: a set of plans that at all costs must be kept out of the hands of the Bolsheviks.

We're not given any kind of date for the events of Tunnel 51 but the book was first published in 1928 and it's fair to assume it is contemporary. The British are over-lording India and the fear of the day is destabilisation by the Bolsheviks (not the Russians note, specifically the Bolsheviks). The seeds of the future cold war are scattered through these pages, but there's also a sprinkling of hope that maybe communism won't quite take hold, that maybe Russia might return to the kind of imperialism that was the order of the day – and more to the point that maybe it would do so in a fashion that would leave Britain to her own Empire for a while yet.

Reading the story now, knowing how everything panned out in the next eighty-odd years, it all seems more than a little bit far-fetched even in its premise, let alone in plot detail. But no doubt, at the time is was plausible enough.

As for the plot, of course it's far-fetched. This is spy drama. It is full of coincidences and random happenings and unworkable disguises and all the glorious clichés of the genre that we expect.

At the risk of spoiling the first 20 or 30 pages (of 300 or so) I'll admit it: Elliot is short-lived. On the way back down from the Station, the lights go out in Tunnel 51 and the Major cops it. The locals are baffled and the risk is grave. So it's time to send for the experts… in this case the expert of choice is the Chief of the Intelligence Department, Sir Leonard Wallace. Summoned by the Viceroy and given every assistance by all and sundry, a one-armed war veteran is aboard a plane on the kind of mission that won't remain secret for very long.

Accompanying him are his two trusted sidekicks, his top agent Major William Brien and his personal servant Batty.

Billy Brien is little more than a foil for Wallace's intelligence, suavity and wit. To be fair, if this is the best the department can muster – someone who is brave enough, but also a bit short on meeting savvy that you might think goes with the job title – then it's a wonder the Empire survived as long as it did. Such sidekicks were a staple of literature for a long time, surviving in film and TV well into the early 21st century so it's hard to knock it here.

Batty is an archetype of the much more useful sort. Ex-navy, street-wise, handy with his fists and loyal to the core. Forget Lord Peter's Bunter, or Wooster's Jeeves, Batty is much more in the vein of Campion's Lugg, specifically as portrayed on the telly by Brian Glover, this was the image that echoed in my mind whenever he appeared on the page.

Our heroes fly to India in record time and under the guise of trying to solve the murder of Major Elliott set about trying to protect (or retrieve?) the secret plans. The honour and survival of the Empire is at stake.

To enjoy a book of this kind, requires a certain kind of approach. For all fiction you have to suspend disbelief. For historical fiction, you have to do that and then try to put yourself into the mind-set of the time. To read contemporary thrillers nearly a century later requires all of that and more. You have to remember that this is NOT historical fiction. This was written back then.

Moreover, it was written by a soldier and a spy. Someone on the inside. Someone who knew what was feasible, if unlikely. For all I know the totally unbelievable bits of the tale, might be the bits that are closest to the way it actually was. A car being chased by an aeroplane flying so low as to almost touch… could planes actually be flown that slowly, I wonder? (But not for long enough to slow down my reading.)

It's a romp, of course it is. And our heroes don't have it all their own way. Also, true to the spirit of the age when women were beginning to have a say in things, the wives don't get completely left at home and they may just end up being pivotal in the whole endeavour.

Weaponry is of historical interest, silencers for instance were a new invention at the time, whilst bombs could largely be disabled by deft provision of a bucket of cold water. But violence is the same down the ages. It's not overplayed, by the conventions of the time, but succinct enough to get the message across.

The language is 'of its time' but that surely is part of the charm of the thing. By Jove! and Good lad and This fellow rather resents us being here – probably sounded ever so slightly odd even back then, but that otherworldliness goes with the territory, even more so at this remove.

This is the first of the Wallace stories which were extremely popular at the time. If they're all up to this standard, then their re-release is long overdue.

We also have a review of The Devil's Cocktail by Alexander Wilson.

If you enjoyed the crime fiction of the era, Campion being a case in point, or more so if you followed Hannay's adventures beyond The 39 Steps, then you'll love this. I'm now off to read book 2.

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