The Day of Temptation by William Le Queux (1899)

William Tufnell Le Queux (1864-1927) is a fascinating figure. His Wikipedia entry paints a rather splendid and exotic picture of an Anglo-French bestselling author and journalist, who travelled widely, made pioneering radio broadcasts, and was an early ‘flying buff’. However, it does caution that Le Queux’s own account of his exploits and abilities were usually exaggerated. The entry from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography goes further, and describes him as ‘author and self publicist’: ‘he presented himself as a hero involved in dangerous adventures, and listed “revolver practice” in his Who’s Who entry’. Hmm.

He was certainly an extremely prolific writer. In addition to short stories and articles, he averaged over five novels per year – writing a total of over two hundred. The Day of Temptation, reviewed below, is typical of his melodramatic thrillers, which had enticing titles such as A Secret Sin, The Indiscretions of a Lady’s Maid and Wiles of the Wicked. They are set in cosmopolitan continental destinations, with wicked foreign villains, and a worldly, rather cynical hero.

Le Queux is little-known today, but in 1898 he was among the highest paid fiction writers, at 12 guineas per thousand words, the same rate as Thomas Hardy and H.G. Wells. Le Queux claimed his readership included Queen Alexandra and A. J. Balfour, and it definitely did include the young Dennis Wheatley and Graham Greene. I’m surprised we haven’t received more Le Queux novels in donations (we have only this one) given just how well he sold. His book The Invasion of 1910 (1907), a sensational story of German invasion, was among the first million sellers. It warned of British vulnerability and German atrocities, and urged the introduction of compulsory military training. Le Queux was particularly paranoid about spies, and apparently his evidence was among that used to convince the committe of imperial defence of the necessity of a secret service, leading to the establishement of the Secret Service Bureau (later MI5 and MI6).

I’ve drawn heavily here on the DNB entry by Roger T. Stearn, and I would encourage those of you with access to have a look at it. There’s a lot more to say about Le Queux!

Roger T. Stearn, ‘Le Queux, William Tufnell (1864–1927)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2007 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37666, accessed 5 Dec 2012]

Review by Helen N:

The style of The Day of Temptation is very melodramatic and overwritten – adjectives and adverbs abound to the confusion of the reader. The book is very much set in high society and sometimes reminds me of the immortal Daisy Ashford – I’m sure books like this were among her inspiration.

The book opens with three Italians in a house in Rutland where one of them, Malvano, is the village doctor – later in the book he turns up as a waiter (an ideal cover for espionage). The conversation concerns an Italian girl, Vittorina, who is coming to England, an event that fills them with apprehension. “We are in peril. Vittorina must not come.”

The action moves to London, where Vittorina arrives at Victoria Station accompanied by “a smart, military-looking man of not more than thirty-three, tall, dark, and slim, with a merry face a trifle bronzed, and a pair of dark eyes beaming with good humour”. This is Captain Frank Tristram , one of “the Greyhounds of Europe” – in other words a roving diplomat. I thought this would be the hero but he is shortly behaving in a sinister fashion and Vittorina is discovered by the driver, dead, in his cab. The scene shifts again to Leghorn in Italy where Charles Armytage is wooing the enigmatic Gemma.

The dialogue is heated: “if they knew everything” says Gemma,  “I should tonight  be placed in a  criminal’s cell”. She spends much of the book hinting at dark secrets in her past but she has very little substance as a real person. I feel that the author is aware of this because as the book draws to its climax he increases the references to her shady past.

The narrative passes from one of these groups of people to the other, Charles is turned against Gemma but then reconciled, Tristram turns out to be made of the right stuff after all and at the denouement it turns out that Charles happened to be by when the murderer entered to cab to dispatch Vittorina with a  poisoned ring. Gemma, who turns out to have been working for the King of Italy, dismantles a jar full of explosives just in time and the lovers are happily united at last.

I found it very funny with its melodramatic language and extravagant descriptions but the characters never come to life.

It is mainly interesting as an early example of a genre which was developed by writers such as Buchan, Dornford Yates and “Sapper” and which came to a full flowering after 1940 with the Cold War as a constant backdrop to narratives by Fleming, Deighton and Le Carre.

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3 thoughts on “The Day of Temptation by William Le Queux (1899)

  1. Just the kind of novel that lent itself to the description “ripping.” I’m sure it made many a long train journey seem that much shorter. Not that there’s anything wrong with long train journeys.

  2. “Ripping” – exactly! I have an old Dennis Wheatley book knocking about somewhere – must give it a try!

  3. Ripping yarns indeed! My next book from the collection will be The Scarlet Pimpernel, which I shamefully have to admit to not having read before. Hopefully that will be ripping – or perhaps swashbucking?

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