Book review by George Simmers: This is the third of Dornford Yates’s ‘Chandos’ novels, and the first not to feature Jonah Mansel. Mansel had followed the Bulldog Drummond pattern for a twenties action hero – he was an ex-soldier sorting out peacetime problems by bringing into play the attitudes and skills learned in war. In Blind Corner (1927) Jonah, faced with an adventure, had recruited to help him two young men, Bill Chandos and George Hanbury, who ‘had lately been sent down from Oxford for using some avowed communists as many thought they deserved.’ (It should be remembered that this was written just after the General Strike, when the Oxford undergraduates who had stepped in to run the railways and the buses were seen as national heroes by the respectable middle classes. By using violence against communists, Bell and Hanbury are by implication even more admirable than the strikebreakers.)
By 1929 ex-soldiers were perhaps a little too old for the action role, so it is Chandos and Hanbury alone (or rather with their servants, of whom more later) that Yates sends into Austria. They intend to spend their holiday in leisurely tourism and fishing, though when one of the servants asks Bell whether he should store the guns in the secret compartment of the Rolls, Bell tells him that he should, just in case. This is a wise precaution.
All goes pleasantly until, by chance, they give a lift, under odd circumstances, to a Duke from a tiny European principality. As with most Dornford Yates characters, his character is evident from the first glance:
Duke Paul was a loose-lipped youth [….] His hair was sandy, and his complexion most pale. Weak, idle, dissolute -as such he impressed me. There was nothing noble about him, but much that was mean, and while his manner was haughty, this arrogance was plainly at the mercy of anyone that was minded to meet his gaze. His nails were bitten to the quick.
Duke Paul is heir apparent to the throne of Carinthia, a tiny principality, but his unscrupulous brother Johann wants to cheat him of the throne when their great-uncle, the old Prince dies. Chandos and Hanbury would have jettisoned him to his fate had not they met his fiancée, the beautiful Grand Duchess Leonie:
Her mouth was especially lovely, but very proud: her colour was high and healthy and her skin very white and indeed, her whole countenance was fine and fresh and vivid as a flower may be in a garden before the sun is high.
Chandos falls immediately in love with her, and he and Hanbury nobly accept her request to help the appalling Duke, her prospective husband, to the throne. He accepts their help ungraciously (and later on will actually betray them).
So the action starts, and Yates comes into his own. He is very good indeed at the moment-to moment thrills of chases and stand-offs. He has set up the classic thriller situation where the heroes have a difficult mission, but the authorities are hunting them, and nobody can be trusted. There is an especially good sequence where they are trapped in a dubious night club, ‘The Square of Carpet’. Johann’s men are out to kill them, and their drinks have been spiked. Another excellent sequence has Chandos trying to get himself and the Duchess back into Carinthia, past border guards who have been primed to arrest and capture them.
On the level of action, the book is a triumph. On the level of character, less so. Yates has learned a lot from John Buchan about how to keep up the suspense and the thrills, but has not learned how to make his villains interesting. Duke Johann embodies pure viciousness, and that is all there is to him. His main henchman, Grieg, just carries out his master’s orders, with no sign of inner life whatsoever.
Most of the good characters are no more interesting. George Hanbury, Chandos’s partner, is loyal and trustworthy, and often shows initiative, but that’s it. He does the job, never complains, and never expresses a doubt about the mission, despite the awfulness of the man they are helping to the throne. He has no complexity, whatever, and not even an eccentricity that might make him interesting.
Even flatter as characters are Bell and Rowley, the two servants. They are summed up in the first chapter:
Bell and Rowley were ex-soldiers – quiet steady men who knew no fear.
Their one characteristic is their ‘unswerving devotion’ to their employers. They go through as much as the two heroes, risk their lives and suffer at least as much discomfort, but they never once think to question their mission, or to complain. They are a fantasy of what an utterly devoted servant would be, and this is the key to the book. It is a fantasy of utterly noble British heroes up against untrustworthy foreigners, and the lower-class Britons know their place and are completely dependable – a comforting fantasy indeed in those years just after the General Strike, when so many ex-soldiers had turned against their social betters.
Duke Paul (the ‘loose-lipped youth’) is a memorable character, but remains consistently ungrateful to his rescuers and unreliable throughout the novel. The one ambiguous and enigmatic character, and so the only really interesting one, is the lovely Grand Duchess Leonie. Beautiful and intelligent, she completely sees the flaws in Paul’s character, yet remains engaged to him. Is she doing this through a misplaced sense of duty, and will she actually go through with marrying this complete rotter? (A clue that might be a spoiler: Chandos is madly in love with her, his feelings are requited, and this is a Dornford Yates novel.)
The whole book is utterly unbelievable, yet it is most enjoyable to read. Why? Part of the answer is Yates’s skill at setting up and carrying through the scenes of action. But there is more to his style than this. Corinthia is a magic realm where places have names that are usually abstract nouns: Vigil, Anger, Vogue. There is a touch of the Pilgrim’s Progress to them. Yates’s writing is often lush, and his phrasing stately. The lusciously purple passages flow freely. The book embodies a set of values that are flattering to the reader., because it includes the reader in a magic circle. The earlier ‘Berry’ books made the reader feel like part of a charmed circle of friends. The thrillers reassure him or her that they too are part of an elite, British, decent, privileged and deserving to be so. The books are fantasies in which the British, the traditional and the old-fashioned come out as winners, and foreigners and outsiders are shown to be markedly inferior. This book is a romance of the world as the middle class readers of the Windsor Magazine think it ought to be.