Saturday, September 12, 2009

What will happen? When will Germany strike? WHO KNOWS?

My little foray into the history of the thriller novel has run into a hitch: a hitch called Mr William le Queux. When researching early thrillers le Queux's name featured large. Naturally, I added him to my list. Nobody actually mentioned quite how dreadful he was - and he is insanely, awe-inspiringly awful. Quite how gloriously awful is captured in this parody of his style:

'Tell us the whole facts, Ray,' urged Vera Vallance, the pretty fair-haired daughter of Admiral Sir Charles Vallance, to whom he was engaged.

'Well dear, they are briefly as follows,' he replied, with an affectionate glance at her... 'Last Tuesday a man with his moustache brushed up the wrong way alighted at Basingstoke station and inquired for the refreshment-room. This leads me to believe that a dastardly attempt is about to be made to wrest the supremacy of the air from our grasp.'

'And even in the face of this the Government denies the activity of German spies in England!' I exclaimed bitterly.

'Jacox,' said my old friend, 'as a patriot it is none the less my duty to expose these miscreants. Tomorrow we go to Basingstoke.'

Le Queux's work was usually serialised and he had such trouble remembering his characters names he had to give them outrageously alliterative labels. In the Spies of the Kaiser we follow the adventures of Vera Vallance (the pretty fair-haired daughter of the Admiral), the hero Ray Raymond and staid sidekick John James Jacox, as well as German masterspy Hermann Hartmann and the spiritual Reverend Richard Raven. Not that this helped le Queux remember their names: halfway through the Spies of the Kaiser le Queux seems to have forgotten the name of his hero and the meek and mild John James Jacox becomes a thrilling man of action for two chapters before reverting back to his role as dense sidekick. The parody above (written by A.A. Milne of all people) is hideously accurate. Imagine a book in which such a scene occurs at least once every three pages and you are well on the way to conceiving exactly how dreadful an experience it is to plow through the Spies of the Kaiser.

Wikipedia describes le Queux's novels as fantasies and that's pretty accurate - le Queux comes across as a paranoid conspiracy theorist, convinced that English society was thoroughly infiltrated by a 'vast army' of German spies. In some ways this reflected the temper of the times. Le Queux was writing in the years following the Boer War, when it took a British army of 450 000 to quell a rebellion of 40 000 Dutch farmers. The future of the British Empire was at stake and the citizenry was not looking up to the challenge: in some poor areas nearly two thirds of the young men who tried to enlist were rejected as being unfit for service. With the signing of the 1904 Entente Cordial, France was no longer an enemy and people were looking suspiciously towards Germany. Le Queux always insisted that his novels had been based on real people and actual events and he does seem to fervently believed his own nonsense - at one stage calling for police protection as German spies were sure to target him for 'rumbling their schemes'.

These fantasies however, did have curious outcomes. The pre-publicity for Spies of the Kaiser insisted that the novel contained more truth than fiction, it promised startling revelations of the extent of German infiltration and booksellers were assured that the book was based on serious facts. Publication was preceded by a campaign headline: FOREIGN SPIES IN BRITAIN 10 Pounds given for information. Have you seen a spy? The result seems to have been an avalanche of nonsense but nonsense on a scale that supported the call by MO5 head Lt.-Col. James Edmonds for a national enquiry into German espionage. Naturally, le Queux was one of his informants. As is noted by Nicholas Hiley in the introduction to Spies of the Kaiser, 'Edmonds was compiling an index of public nervousness, not a record of German espionage'. The very lack of real evidence was taken as proof of just how cunning and all pervasive the German spy network was. In 1909, in a climate of hysteria, the British Government accepted the plan for the creation of the Secret Service Bureau to 'ascertain the nature and scope of the espionage being carried on by foreign agents'. This organisation was to become MI5. Modern histories of the organisation are pretty clear about le Queux being one of the chief contributors to the prevailing atmosphere of paranoia.

So, to quote Hiley's introduction again, 'poorly imagined and badly written' but bizarrely influential.

1 comment:

larrythelibrarian said...

beautiful deconstruction and much hilarity - some great quotes -