Friday, August 11, 2017

Miles Burton's The Secret of High Eldersham

The Secret of High Eldersham was the second of the Desmond Merrion mysteries written by Cecil John Charles Street under the Miles Burton pseudonym. It was published in 1930. It’s recently been issued in paperback in the British Library’s excellent Crime Classics series. In some ways this title was an unfortunate choice for the series, as we shall see.

The setting is a quiet village in East Anglia called High Eldersham. A very quiet village. A village where strangers are regarded with a good deal of suspicion. Retired police sergeant Sam Whitehead has just taken over the lease of the village pub, the Rose and Crown. He seems to be doing quite well and then one day he is found brutally murdered. There is an obvious suspect but the Chief Constable feels that this is a case that should be passed on to Scotland Yard. The Yard sends Detective Inspector Young to take charge.

Young has an odd feeling about the case and asks his old friend Desmond Merrion to take a run down to High Eldersham. Young feels that he really needs someone he can trust with whom to discuss a case that he is convinced is not going to be at all simple. Young has a theory but it’s so outrageous that he’s hesitant even to mention it. He doesn’t need to - Merrion has spotted the same indications that worried Young and has come to the same conclusion. There is evil afoot in High Eldersham but it’s not ordinary everyday evil. It’s an ancient evil that most people thought had disappeared from England’s green and pleasant land centuries ago.

This is all disconcerting enough but there’s an element that is even more disturbing to Desmond Merrion. That factor is Mavis Owerton. Mavis is a very pretty young woman, a bit of a free spirit, and Merrion has fallen in love with her. The really awkward thing is the possibility that Mavis may be involved in the evil goings-on in High Eldersham. Merrion is convinced that she can’t be involved because she’s very pretty and he’s in love with her.

Mavis is the daughter of Sir William Owerton, the local squire who appears to be a dusty but harmless scholar. Mavis has another suitor (a most unwelcome suitor), a Mr Hollesley, who lives at Elder House. Hollesley and the Owertons are the only gentlefolk in the area. They seem innocent enough but there’s a strange atmosphere in the village.

Apart from ancient evils there’s also a good deal of messing about in boats in this story. Merrion hires a yawl to use as his base of operations. Hollesley has a yacht. There’s a Dutch tramp steamer that plays a key role, and there’s also Mavis’s speedboat. In fact this almost qualifies as a nautical adventure.

While there’s certainly a mystery here and Young and Merrion do a certain amount of detecting this is really more of a thriller than a detective story. It has more in common with Edgar Wallace’s potboilers than with the detective novels Street published under the name John Rhode. I happen to like Edgar Wallace potboilers so that’s not a problem for me but if you’re not a fan of that sort of tale then this might not be quite your cup of tea. Street was a master of the classic golden age detective story so this novel is not at all typical of his work, which is why I’m not sure it was a good choice for the Crime Classics series. 

The Secret of High Eldersham is also untypical of Street’s work in that it features a major romantic sub-plot.

Death at Low Tide, which I reviewed here not long ago, is a Miles Burton book that is much more a detective novel, and a very very good one.

If you’re new to the work of this author then this book is probably not the place to start. Personally I thought The Secret of High Eldersham was great fun. If you don’t mind your detective fiction mixed with thriller elements, romance and a touch of the gothic then you might enjoy this one as much as I did. Highly recommended, with those caveats.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman

The Talisman is the second of Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of the Crusaders. It was published in 1825. It deals with the adventures of a brave but penniless Scottish knight, Kenneth of the Leopard, during the Third Crusade (1189-92). It also deals with the intrigues among the Crusaders which played a major part in the crusade’s failure.

Sir Kenneth of the Couchant Leopard had set out on crusade with a small retinue and high hopes. Now most of his retinue are dead or dispersed. Kenneth’s hopes remain as high as ever. For some obscure reason Kenneth had been sent on a secret mission, connected with peace negotiations with Saladin. Kenneth encounters a young Saracen emir on the road, they fight, and the fight having ended in an honourable draw they become firm friends. 

King Richard I of England, Richard Coeur de Lion, is the military leader of the crusading forces but the other crusading kings and princes all have their own agendas and their own ambitions as combined with various petty jealousies and secret betrayals the crusade has the potential to become a chaotic farce. To make thing worse Richard is seriously ill with fever. Kenneth returns to Richard’s camp with a Muslim physician, sent by Saladin to minister to the ailing Coeur de Lion. Can a doctor sent by the crusaders’ most dangerous enemy be trusted? King Richard has reason to think that he can.

The idea of Saladin and Richard as worthy adversaries, each in his own way representative of the very highest ideals of his respective culture, is one of the book’s major themes. 

For Sir Kenneth there are many misfortunes in store. He has, in accordance with the  ideals of chivalry (another major theme of the novel), pledged himself to the service of a noble lady. He has perhaps set his sights too high, the lady in question being of royal birth, a close kinswoman of King Richard, a certain Edith Plantagenet. This is only the beginning of Kenneth’s woes. Dishonour and slavery await him.

King Richard has his problems as well. The alliance of princes who launched the Crusade is falling apart, torn by jealousies, conflicting ambitions and outright treachery. A wise physician can heal the King’s bodily infirmities, and some physicians seem to have other talents as well.

There’s also a bold, perhaps overbold, plan to bring the wars between Christians and Saracens to an end in a most surprising way, by means of an extraordinary marriage alliance.

The plot is certainly extravagant, with all manner of surprising revelations and unexpected twists. Modern readers may be disappointed that there’s very little in the way of actual action. There is however plenty of tension and intrigue. There’s also a focus on questions of honour, matters of critical importance to the medieval mind (and not entirely forgotten even in the Britain of 1825). There’s also romance of course, in the form of the hopeless love between Kenneth and Edith.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) more or less invented modern historical fiction. He remained immensely popular until well into the 20th century although his critical reputation plummeted as the idea of reading books for enjoyment became anathema to critics. Scott was everything modernist critics hated - his political views were unacceptable, he was patriotic, his novels had coherent plots and worst of all his books were exciting and entertaining. His Tales of the Crusaders committed the further sin of being extremely sympathetic to the ideals of chivalry.

The Talisman is very much a product of the Romantic Movement although Scott is brutally realistic in his treatment of the cynical, scheming and treacherous leadership of the crusade. Both Sir Kenneth and King Richard personify the ideals of chivalry, as does Richard’s enemy Saladin. The novel is remarkably even-handed on the subject of religion. Amusingly both Christian and Muslim characters betray the same profound misunderstandings of each other’s faiths.

One thing Scott did understand about historical fiction - there’s no point in writing such fiction if you populate your stories with anachronistically modern characters. You have to make an effort to capture the spirit, and the prejudices, and the obsessions, of another historical epoch. This lesson has now been all but forgotten, with catastrophic consequences for historical fiction. Scott does make the effort to make his characters convincingly medieval. Perhaps he doesn’t always succeed, but he does try. And there are times when you almost want to strangle Sir Kenneth because of what seems to a modern reader to be a monumentally stubborn refusal to compromise on matters that he believes to be essential to honour or religion. The fact that we grow exasperated with him demonstrates that Scott has managed to make him reasonably believable as a man of his times.

King Richard is the most interesting character. Scott portrays him as a great and charismatic hero but one with very definite flaws, although he remains a sympathetic character. He’s a man destined not to achieve his great objectives, partly through his own failings.

If you have any interest at all in historical fiction you have to at least sample Sir Walter Scott’s work. Even if it’s somewhat lacking in the degree of action you might expect The Talisman is an absorbing and entertaining tale, somewhat far-fetched but all the more enjoyable as a result. Recommended.