A fascinating quartet of second-hand novels has been receiving my attention recently…
The Path of the King by John Buchan
Fan of John Buchan though I am, I sometimes come across works of his that I have not previously encountered; he did, after all, write a lot of books and not all of them are still in print. This one, The Path of the King (first published in 1921), comes in the form of a smart-looking red hardback which was published by Thomas Nelson (an Edinburgh publisher, which as well as publishing Buchan’s books employed him as a director; the Thomas Arthur Nelson to whom The Thirty-Nine Steps was dedicated was a descendant of the company’s founder in addition to being a friend of Buchan’s). Later described by Buchan himself (in his autobiography Memory Hold-the-Door) as “my first serious piece of fiction”, it is an interesting tale of how greatness in people can be transmitted down the family tree; sometimes, it lies dormant for generations before re-igniting at the right time. The story begins with a prologue set some time after the American Civil War, in which three men around a remote campfire theorise on how the “spark” of “masterful men” can be found in the most unlikely places: “The things we call aristocracies and reigning houses are the last places to look for masterful men … who is more likely to inherit the fire – the eldest son with his flesh-pots or the younger son with his fortune to find? … The spark once transmitted may smoulder for generations under ashes, but the appointed time will come, and it will flare up to warm the world. God never allows waste. And we fools rub our eyes and wonder when we see genius come out of the gutter. It didn’t begin there.” I guess we modern folk would say it was all about genetics. This story begins with Biorn, a Viking prince, before jumping down a few generations to Jehan, a Norman knight – and so on. Rather like Buchan’s Sir Walter Raleigh, The Path of the King is less a coherent novel than a collection of short stories held together by a unifying thread or theme, which in this case is what happens to Biorn’s descendants down the centuries – men and women, some of them noble, some of them very ignoble indeed, all united by blood and by their possession of a family heirloom in the form of a gold ring, made from the amulet Biorn received from his father and which I suppose acts as the physical manifestation of the “spark”. They get caught up in events like the Norman Conquest, the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre and the Popish Plot, and they encounter real people like Joan of Arc, Sir Walter Raleigh, Oliver Cromwell and Daniel Boone. Eventually, the “spark” resurfaces in nineteenth-century America, in the form of Abraham Lincoln who is descended from Biorn on his mother’s side. He loses the gold ring, but it is no longer needed as it is he in whom the long-dormant “spark” will reignite – something his dying mother recognises. The epilogue has three men witness Lincoln’s funeral parade following his assassination; one of them (an American professor) remarks that “there goes the first American”, to which another (a British diplomat) replies: “I dare say you are right, Professor. But I think it is also the last of the Kings.” As novels go, this is very much one for those who are interested in history, and it reflects Buchan’s fascination with the New World and its ancestral links with the Old – particularly in his treatment of Lincoln and the admiration expressed for him by the British character at the end, which can be looked at in the context of people like Buchan looking to promote a spirit of cohesion between English-speaking peoples on both sides of the Atlantic. Reading this as an historical novel, it has to be noted that the the fact that so many real people and events over different centuries can be successfully woven into the plot in a way that it doesn’t feel like they’ve been crow-barred into it is testimony to Buchan’s great skill as an author.
The Courageous Exploits of Doctor Syn by Russell Thorndike
Having recently touched on this particular character when looking into smuggling on Romney Marsh, I was delighted to find a couple of old Doctor Syn paperbacks in a charity shop recently; the adventures of this most extraordinary of fictional clergymen, written by Russell Thorndike, ran to seven in total and have long been out of print. They make no claim to be great literature but as adventure stories they are most definitely up there with the exploits of (say) the Scarlet Pimpernel, Horatio Hornblower and Richard Sharpe. Published in 1939, Courageous Exploits was the fifth Doctor Syn book to be written, but if the novels are to be read in sequence it’s the fourth. By this stage in the series, the Reverend Doctor Syn is well established at Dymchurch as the much-loved local vicar and, under the identity of the ‘Scarecrow’, the ruthless leader of the Night Riders, the local smuggler gang (the secret of his identity is known only to a select few). Exasperated by the Night Riders’ continued success, the Admiralty has sent the ruthless Captain Blain down to Romney Marsh to defeat them and bring the Scarecrow to justice; his men are to be billeted in a local barn, while the captain himself moves into the vicarage! There follows a series of cat-and-mouse adventures, which could stand alone as short stories as well as parts of a coherent whole, as Blain tries to do his duty while Syn, or rather his alter ego the Scarecrow, rises to the challenge by growing ever bolder. A real historical person, the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), makes an appearance – as he does, funnily enough, in the adventures of the other three fictional heroes I have mentioned above. As is the case with “that demmed, elusive Pimpernel”, in Courageous Exploits HRH manages to encounter both Doctor Syn and the Scarecrow and respect the pair of them while at the same time remaining blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are the same person. This is good, old-fashioned adventure; a modern version would doubtless dwell more on the duality of Syn himself, the upstanding community leader who is also its most notorious criminal, and there would doubtless be a lot of trying to impose the values of the present onto late-eighteenth-century England which would mean that it would not be anywhere near as much fun to read. The Doctor Syn books may be out of print, but they are still worth looking into.
The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
As was the case with John Buchan, I first discovered P.G. Wodehouse when I was in my early teens, at first because of the superb Jeeves and Wooster TV series with Melchett and George from Blackadder – sorry, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie – in the title roles. They were brilliant in that, by the way, and it was but a short step from watching Jeeves and Wooster to discovering the books on which the series was based, of which the school library had a plentiful supply. Oddly, though, I never really progressed much beyond the Jeeves stories – the other Wodehouse creations, like Psmith and the Blandings crowd, didn’t really hold much appeal and while I have tried over the years to expand my horizons in the world of Wodehouse I always find myself coming back to the Jeeves stories. Maybe it’s because they are told in the first person, with that upper-class twit par excellence Bertie Wooster as the narrator, he being not so much an unreliable narrator but one who is not in full grasp of everything that’s going on. Luckily, though, he has Jeeves, the manservant par excellence who is able to extract his master, and at times his master’s friends, from the most unlikely and desperate of scenarios, allowing them to continue to amuse themselves, and us readers, at the Drones Club and various country houses. There are a lot of things going on in The Inimitable Jeeves, what with Bertie’s chum Bingo Little falling in love with every woman he meets, his rather scary Aunt Agatha trying to get Bertie married off at every conceivable opportunity, the mental-health specialist Sir Roderick Glossop (who, naturally, thinks Bertie’s off his rocker) putting in the odd appearance and his cousins Claude and Eustace (“the curse of the human race”) getting up to all sorts of shenanigans. Unlike some of the Jeeves books, The Inimitable Jeeves is actually not so much a novel as a collection of short stories (they first appeared in The Strand Magazine before coming out in book form in 1923), although some of them do follow on from one another. Some showcase Wodehouse at his best, with the humour deriving from the most unlikely sources. For example, ‘The Great Sermon Handicap’ is all about a group of young men, led by Claude and Eustace, placing bets on which of the local vicars in a corner of rural Gloucestershire will preach the longest sermon on a particular Sunday; naturally, Bertie and Jeeves get drawn into the mayhem that ensues. More of the same can be encountered in ‘The Purity of the Turf’ which involves bets being placed on, and attempts being made to rig, the races in a rural parish’s sports day (Mothers’ Sack Race, Choir Boys’ Hundred Yard Handicap, etc). There are some great set-pieces too, like the time Bertie has Sir Roderick for lunch on the same day that Claude and Eustace hide three cats and the top hat that they have stolen from Sir Roderick in Bertie’s flat, Bingo pretending to be a communist and Bertie actually getting one over on Aunt Agatha when the woman she’s been trying to set him up with turns out to be a jewel-thief. Finally, Bertie’s ongoing claim to be an author of romantic fiction under the pen-name of Rosie M. Banks (originally done in order for him to impress Bingo’s uncle so that he can persuade him to increase the ever cash-strapped Bingo’s allowance) gets exposed as a sham when it emerges that the woman whom Bingo has just married is not a waitress as he had supposed but none other than Rosie M. Banks herself. Only Jeeves can sort out this unholy mess. Hilarious.
Who Pays the Ferryman? by Michael J. Bird
The TV series of this name was before my time, but I’d vaguely heard about it from somewhere – it is set in the mid-to-late Seventies and concerns a middle-aged Englishman returning to Crete, the island where as a young man he spent part of the Second World War fighting in the mountains with the andartes of the Greek Resistance. He wants to try and reconnect with his wartime lover, but soon finds out that she is dead although she did bear him a daughter who is unaware of her true parentage. While many see ‘Leandros’ (Haldane’s nom de guerre among the andartes) as a returning hero there are a few who wish him ill because of what happened during the war. Seeing this in a charity shop, I was interested as I have previously read and enjoyed books about occupation and resistance during the War, both fictional (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Guns of Navarone, etc) and factual (Ill Met by Moonlight, and for what it’s worth the real-life Kriepe kidnapping gets referred to in Who Pays the Ferryman?, the implication being that the fictional Haldane was somehow involved in this operation along with Billy Moss and Paddy Leigh Fermor). The novel version of Who Pays the Ferryman? is based on the TV series, not the other way round (Bird, whose TV dramas were usually set in the Mediterranean, wrote both). It is pretty good, although there are some annoying typos which might indicate that publication was a somewhat rushed job, the TV series having been very popular in its day (1977). As for the plot itself, a slow-burner of a relationship between Haldane and Annika, the sister of his old love (she being unaware that Haldane is her niece’s biological father, and he being reluctant to commit to her for that very reason) plays out alongside sub-plots like an Australian visitor trying to lay the past (in the form of his late Cretan grandfather) to rest, the sudden appearance of Haldane’s (English) ex and Haldane’s restoration of an old caique (sailing-boat), while in the background a vendetta against Haldane establishes itself. The characters are well-rounded and very believable. It’s a good story which shows us that war casts shadows which continue to fall long after the guns have stopped, and that while actions always have consequences, it can sometimes take decades for the consequences to make themselves known. I liked this book enough to find some episodes of the TV series on YouTube, and very good it is too.