If there’s one thing I love even more than spy novels it’s pre-First World War spy novels. E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Double Traitor was actually published in 1915 but it’s set in the weeks leading up to the outbreak of war in August 1914.
E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) wrote around 150 novels during his long and successful career. This immense output included many spy thrillers. He was certainly one of the people who put this genre on the map. Like most of the great espionage writers he’s now forgotten.
The Double Traitor deals with a man who becomes a spy by accident, a theme that would become enormously popular in British spy fiction. Francis Norgate is perhaps not quite an amateur spy though. He is a junior British diplomat, stationed in Berlin in 1914. His espionage career comes about as a result of two accidents.
The first occurs in a Berlin restaurant. He is dining with the beautiful Baroness von Haase when he is insulted by a Prussian aristocrat, a prince no less. Norgate, quite reasonably, suggests that the prince needs to improve his manners. Of course at this point the reader naturally expects that there will be a duel, but Oppenheim is not as predictable as that. The actual result of the incident is that Norgate finds himself recalled to London in disgrace.
On the train to Ostend he meets a jovial and garrulous German crockery merchant. Herr Selingman in fact seems to think he’s the Henry Ford of crockery. Norgate is not in the mood for conversation so he claims not to speak German, which of course he speaks fluently. He dozes off and, half-asleep, he overhears Herr Selingman talking to one of his agents. But they’re not discussing tea cups. They’re discussing the Belgian fortifications at Liège, and in terms that strongly suggest that their interest in this subject is far from innocent.
In a moment of confusion Norgate grabs a piece of paper that has fallen out of his traveling companion’s brief-case. It is a list of German spies in Britain!
Back in London Norgate tries to interest Scotland Yard in the list and also shows it to a Cabinet Minister friend of his. Nobody wants to know. The British government is convinced that war with Germany is impossible. They have allowed the country’s defences to be run down and therefore they are determined to go on living in a fantasy world in which the peace-loving German Empire would never start a war.
Norgate decides to go it alone. He joins Selingman’s espionage network, but he is determined to feed them false intelligence. He is now an unofficial double agent. If the British government refuses to face reality he will do what he can as an individual to undermine Germany’s spy ring in Britain and will try to gather enough information to convince the British government of the nation’s mortal danger.
His position is complicated slightly by the act that he has met the Baroness von Haase again and is hopelessly in love with her. She loves him as well but she is a spy as well, an Austrian spy who also works for the Germans.
This is very different from most later spy novels. There’s virtually no action. There is danger though. While these spies are very genteel and civilised even in this world spies can still wind up dead. That’s perhaps one of the more effective things about the book - when one spy does end up dead it comes as a considerable shock. What seemed like a mere Edwardian parlour game is suddenly revealed to be very serious indeed.
There are concepts here that you won’t encounter in modern espionage fiction. There’s honour, and it’s a reality rather than a mere word. There’s patriotism, and it’s patriotism without fashionable irony.
Considering the time it was written, at the very start of the First World War, it’s surprisingly free of any personal animosity towards Britain’s enemies in that war. The Prussian prince who inadvertently triggers off the while adventure is an arrogant bully but the other German and Austrian characters are mostly just doing their jobs. The book is certainly very critical of German militarism but Oppenheim makes it clear that that is a result of policy rather than any kind of inherent quality. And the book is equally critical of the head-in-the-sand pacifism it attributes to the British - the kind of approach to foreign policy that would a generation later become infamous (and rightly so) as appeasement.
There are quite a few characters trapped by conflicting loyalties, including the heroine, Baroness von Haase (who is half-English and half-Austrian).
It’s fashionable today to regard the Victorian and Edwardian periods condescendingly or even sneeringly as ages of hypocrisy and jingoism. This is an attitude that says more about the arrogance of our own age that it says about the Edwardians. The Double Traitor is evidence that even the popular fiction of the early 20th century was capable of dealing with complex conflicts of loyalty and similar difficult issues.
It’s slow-moving and lacking in action by modern standards but still quite entertaining. Anyone with an interest in the early development of the spy genre will certainly find this novel intriguing. Recommended.