Be careful what you wish for – I was bemoaning the absence of a novel with a structure or plot, and this is what the bookshop’s shelves presented me with.
I normally start these entries with a plot summary to provide me with some means to remember the book by in months and years to come, as well as being at heart a traditionalist. This novel is itself deeply traditional – with one exception – it reads almost as a pastiche. Briefly, it follows the adventures of Lysander Rief, an improbably named actor who is in 1913 Vienna for psychiatric treatment of a sexual problem. This problem melts away when he meets another ex-pat, an English artist, Hettie Bull, who swiftly and artfully seduces him under the nose of her Austrian lover. Like most of the other problems in the novel this psychological issue is transient and easily solved – nothing much stands in our hero’s way. Hugely improbably Hettie later accuses him of rape when their affair leads to a pregnancy. Rather than being a serious threat to our hero this is simply a way to disguise their affair from her sculptor common-law husband. Despite the charge being transparently fabricated, Lysander escapes Vienna in a comic disguise with the help of some shadowy embassy officials. It is hard to take this or any other peril he faces seriously when all problems fade away so easily.
This is the start of his wartime career as a spy, and where the Buchan pastiche really gets going. The embassy officials contact Lysander back in the UK. He has joined up on the declaration of war but been posted to an internment camp in Wales. On the pretence of collecting payment for the legal and bail bill incurred in Vienna they persuade him to travel back to Europe to track down a spy. He brutally tortures the relevant information out of an embassy official who dies of a heart attack shortly thereafter – we can never be entirely sure if this is as a result of the torture, but quite possibly. Another comedy disguise allows escape back to the UK, despite his being shot in transit by a fellow spy as the result of a misunderstanding. All this promises mystery and suspense that never quite materialises, but the recovered code points to a mole in a UK Government War Ministry, which Lysander, once quickly recovered from his wounds, infiltrates. Uncovering the mole is a business-like affair, quickly done, and the book shudders to a halt with the spy’s eventual perfunctory revelation and dispatch. There is no twist in the tale or denouement beyond the resolution we had been shown 100 pages earlier.
Throughout the novel false trails are laid none of which go anywhere. Mysterious characters are sketched in and then fade away and are forgotten. The front line of the war is visited briefly in the manner of a tourist, and the solution to the various puzzles thrown in Lysander’s way can all be resolved without much effort. This all adds up to an author on auto-pilot.
I mentioned earlier one instance where this novel differs from its Edwardian predecessors, and that is in its frank treatment of sex. Lysander effortlessly sleeps his way though the book, with none of the women immune to his charms. The treatment of women in this novel has not been picked up on by any of the reviewers I have read, but to me it was ridiculous – he only has to snap his fingers for corsets to be unbuckled and stays removed, an Edwardian James Bond.
If fiction which is unchallenging and instantly forgettable – and I found myself having to check on the novel’s bland title – is to your taste then I would have thought an original, such as Riddle of the Sands or 39 Steps would be much more rewarding fare.