Review by George Simmers (see his Great War Fiction blog here).
Once Upon a Time is an entertaining romp. It begins with a prelude set in 1901. After Victoria’s death, the new King, Edward VII, enters his father’s study, which the Queen had left preserved exactly as it was on Albert’s death forty years before. The room brings back deeply unpleasant memories for the new King, and he finds a mention of a girl who once helped him to escape for the constricting palace environment for a day. He discovers that she was imprisoned by her mad father for having dared to help the prince.
The story then switches to 1949, when the book was written. Oliver, an ex-soldier, has lost his memory of the years since D-Day, and still thinks he is still in occupied France. He attacks a person he thinks must be an enemy, and thinks he has killed him. Gradually realising that something is wrong, he tries to escape the area by stowing away in the back of a lorry.
This turns out to be the travelling headquarters of a small gang of crooks, led by the charismatic Onnley, alias Warrack, alias Father Bernadine. They are involved in currency dealing, illegal after the War, and are on the run not only from the police but also from ‘Them’, a far more dangerous gang. Warrack is a master of disguise with a commanding personality, a romantic temperament and a scorn for convention.
The story spins from episode to episode, each one introducing new characters, often of a Dickensian eccentricity. Gradually we learn that Warrack is in search of the treasure of Ehrenberg, smuggled out of Germany in the thirties. His enemies are immensely evil ex-Nazis, led by a vile SS-man Baldamus, who also wants the treasure. The climax comes when the bad men besiege the heroes in the hiding-place of the Grand Duke of Ehrenberg.
Even when Oliver has sorted out his true identity, he decides to stay with Warrack and his gang, partly because of the attractions of the two female gang members, nicknamed Twinkle and Spicey. He beds one and falls in love with the other. The novel is more sexually frank than many light entertainments of the forties.
Once Upon a Time is not only a rollicking story; it plays with the idea of storytelling, and maybe Wilkins is making fun of his own career as a spinner of historical romances. Many of the characters take historical events and shape them into stories for their own purposes. The various crooks tell lies, and historical legends are twisted and interpreted in different ways. A notable character is a formidable female genealogist who researches family histories for rich Americans, and manipulates the historical facts to make the ancestors appropriately glamorous. The former Grand Duke now supports himself by writing detective stories that are more formulaic than the adventure that he himself is involved in. The most intriguing female character, Spicey, makes up stories about herself, and some of the characters explicitly compare their adventures to The Arabian Nights. The story of the girl who helped Edward VII becomes significant at various points in the present-day plot; it is open to different interpretations, with a final explanation that is unexpected.
The male protagonist, Oliver, has lost his memory, and so has to piece his story and identity together. Even at the end of the book, there is not a complete explanation about what he had done during the five years of memory-loss. This is typical of the book, though, which leaves several loose ends dangling.
The book struck me as in some respects typical of 1949; the drabness of the postwar years is contrasted with a more glamorous past, as in forties fictions like Brideshead Revisited. The glamorous crook who runs rings round petty regulations is a forties figure with an appeal in the years of rationing and controls. Sometimes the book reminded me of the Ealing comedies of the period.
By no means a great novel, but an entertaining adventure story.