Mrs Maybrick, by Victoria Blake

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The trial of Florence Maybrick for the murder of her husband James in 1889 is one of the most celebrated in the annals of criminal history.  Victoria Blake has compiled a short but highly informative account, describing the Maybricks’ backgrounds and unhappy marriage, the events leading up to James’s demise, as far as they can be established, Florence’s trial day by day, her incarceration, and sad life after release.  It is published in the National Archives’ Crime Archive series, and as might be expected, it draws heavily on the National Archives’ files.

James was a Liverpool cotton broker, Florence Chandler was American, born in Alabama, and theirs was a shipboard romance travelling from New York to Liverpool in 1880.  This was not though love’s young dream because while Florence was 18 when they met, James was 42.  Each had an erroneous impression of the other’s affluence.  James exaggerated his business success, and land Florence owned in the United States turned out to be worthless.  They married in July 1881 and eventually settled in Liverpool.

For a while the marriage proceeded happily, but cracks began to show, not helped by James’s money problems exacerbated by Florence’s free-spending ways and recourse to money-lenders.  To make matters worse, she embarked on an affair with a man named Alfred Brierley.  When James fell ill in April 1889, suspicions arose that Florence had poisoned him.  When he died on 11 May, Florence was arrested and prosecuted.  Unfortunately the trial was held locally in Liverpool, where there was greater risk of a biased jury, rather than in London.

The business was badly handled throughout.  James’s body had had to be exhumed after a fortnight for samples to be taken.  The trial judge, James Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s uncle, had had a stroke and in addition to an inability to grasp details, which he often got wrong, exhibited an extreme prejudice against the prisoner.  There was arsenic in James’s body, but only in small doses, unlikely to prove fatal.  Doubt hinged round whether he, neurotic about his health, had administered it himself in the common belief it was a tonic; whether Florence had administered it, either at his request (as she claimed) or maliciously; or whether James’s severe stomach upset was in fact caused by the arsenic at all or by something he ate.

Florence said she had used it herself as a cosmetic to treat eruptions of the skin, and much of the argument hinged around quite why there was so much of the poison in the house, and why Florence had needed to soak two batches of flypapers (which contained the substance) if it wasn’t to kill her husband.  Today we marvel at how easy it was to acquire such toxic substances in that period and how simple it was to circumvent the supposed safeguard of the poisons register.  The failure of the experts to agree on precisely what killed James, making an assessment now a matter of probabilities, then should have ensured her acquittal as there was no proof he had died as result of Florence’s actions.

The defence, led by Sir Charles Russell, put up a good case, with the single misstep of allowing Florence to give a statement, something never done before, when she made a damaging admission.  That and the outrageous summing-up by the judge, which was at times incoherent and lasted two days, encouraged the jury to bring in a guilty verdict.  Florence was condemned on the basis of a gut feeling, giving her infidelity disproportionate weight, than on the strength of the evidence.  The faulty logic condemned her as a bad woman on the basis of her affair and assumed she would be capable of murder.  Florence was compromised because of her relationship with Brierley, to whom she had written indiscreet letters, and had naively trusted people, servants and so-called friends, who were ready to betray her.

The verdict was death, but there was a public outcry against the sentence.  The case had attracted wide national and international coverage.  Remarkably, at that time there was no right of appeal against a conviction for murder, and it was necessary to petition the Home Secretary to obtain commutation of the sentence.  To retain judicial dignity and public confidence in the judicial process, in the grand British tradition of the fudge the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment three days before the execution date, on the basis of a conviction for attempted murder – a crime for which Florence had not been tried.  Two positive if belated results from this debacle were the Criminal Evidence Act of 1898, incorporating into the procedure the right of a defendant to give evidence, and the establishment of a criminal Court of Appeal in 1907.

Life meant 20 years, but a campaign on Florence’s behalf managed to obtain her freedom in January 1904, after 15 years’ incarceration – only after the death of the Queen who was convinced of her guilt and vehemently opposed her early release.  One further tragedy was that after her arrest she never saw her two children again, and they became estranged from her.  Florence returned to America and after a brief period when she capitalised on her notoriety by pounding the lecture circuit, lived in obscurity in Connecticut, under an assumed name, until her death in 1941 at the age of 79.

Blake outlines the case in clear chapters, illustrated with a selection of photographs and documents from the National Archives.  The context is sketched in, notably the Victorian fascination with murder trials and the growth of the popular press which first condemned Florence and then swung behind her once it became apparent how unclear the facts were and how the prosecution had failed to make its case ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’.  Blake covers the social aspects, the asymmetric way men and women were regarded socially and in law; men’s peccadillos (James had a mistress) were shrugged off while women engaging in the same behaviour were vilified.  The theory James was Jack the Ripper is mentioned, but not discussed.

A conclusion sums up the case for and against the defendant, and provides Blake’s own view of Florence’s guilt: she was innocent, if foolish, and an unlucky victim of circumstantial evidence leading to erroneous inferences.  In which case, if James died from a combination of a weakened constitution from self-administering poison, plus a chill, as opposed to the machinations of a wicked wife, this isn’t really a ‘crime archive’ subject.  Never mind, it is a case which will continue to fascinate, and shine a light on the often unsavoury ways our ancestors lived, and died.


How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You, by Matthew Inman

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A manual on ‘know your enemy’ lines would be a great way to explore a subject not nearly as much talked about as it should be because brainwashed cat slaves try to pretend their masters really aren’t furry psychopaths.  Unfortunately Matthew Inman’s book deals only tangentially with the topic suggested by the title, which is in any case incorrect; a more suitable title would be How to Tell When Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You, as with these malevolent felines one should automatically err on the side of caution.

This is a compilation of miscellaneous cartoons from the author’s website The Oatmeal, and while intermittently amusing, and occasionally instructive, it’s something of a single note which eventually wears thin.  Occasionally it tips over into poor taste, such as ‘Homeless man vs your cat’ and ‘How to tell if your cat is a raging homosexual’.  On the upside, the 130 pages zip by as it is mostly pictures, with a small amount of text.

Much of the cat’s antisocial behaviour the victim will know already, such as what happens if you are using a computer and the master is not getting its due obeisance (scratching the furniture guarantees instant attention), or the pleasure the evil beasts get from trying to trip you up when you are carrying a large object.  It is the centre of your world, and you had better get used to it, but that still won’t save you from being offed if the fifth columnist in your home gets a chance.

Homicidal intent, which Inman describes, can be quite subtle: dead animals are not gifts but the equivalent of a horse’s head in your bed; the kneading cat is checking your body for weaknesses to exploit; pawing your face while you are in bed is an attempt to smother you; shovelling litter is practice for burying bodies; one running out of a room as soon as a human enters is an indication of a failed ambush.  These are warning signs, and are handily reproduced on a pull-out poster at the back so it can be put on the wall as a reminder that vigilance needs to be eternal.

A large part of the book is occupied by a strip called ‘The Bobcats’, a day-by-day account of a couple of cats (supposedly real rather than a pair of hipsters) both of whom are called Bob.  They wear ties and work in an office – though of course the joke is that to cats work is an alien concept, so you wonder why anyone would ever employ a cat.  They behave weirdly and are thoroughly unpleasant, so that bit is plausible, bullying their co-workers and behaving in ways which put the gross into gross misconduct.  It’s mildly amusing but goes on too long, and is telling you why cats should not be hired in middle management positions rather than how to determine the signs it wants to kill you, as per the title.

If you thought most humans consider animals as objects purely for their own convenience, you should see how cats think of us.  Remember that the next time someone mindlessly tells you they are cute (you know what they say, ‘the ruling ideology is the ideology of the ruling puss’).  Unfortunately, while the world needs the cat equivalent of the Zombie Survival Guide, this all feels like a missed opportunity.  The only thing saving human civilisation thus far is the fact the horrors sleep 22 hours a day, but we cannot rely on their laziness indefinitely.  You have been warned.

The Grand Babylon Hotel, by Arnold Bennett

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Arnold Bennett’s jeu d’esprit is a light fondue worthy or that maestro of the Grand Babylon’s kitchen, Mr Rocco.  It is a curious name for an hotel, but the Grand Babylon, a magnificent establishment in London, had been founded in 1869 by one Félix Babylon with ambitions to make it the most prestigious in the capital.  In this he had succeeded and the hotel is frequented by nobility and the upper classes.  The prices are not displayed because if you have to ask you cannot possibly afford to stay there.  Luxury and discretion – ‘peaceful, aristocratic monotony’ – are guaranteed, and the operation runs like a well-oiled machine.  As well as the top-drawer clientele there are members of the nouveau riche in residence including, when the story opens, wealthy American Theodore Racksole and his assertive 23-year old daughter Nella.

One evening they visit the dining room, and when independent-minded Nella requests fillet steak and Bass beer for dinner as a birthday treat, the magnificently supercilious head waiter Jules declines their order.  Not to be bested, Racksole promptly goes to see Mr Babylon, and offers to buy the hotel on the spot.  Babylon accepts, because even though Racksole is a complete novice he is clearly the sort of man who makes a success of any venture to which he turns his hand.  Though he has purchased the place on a whim, Racksole rather enjoys the idea of being an hotelier.  Naturally he fires Jules but finds his suddenly ex-employee continues to have an interest in the hotel, as part of a conspiracy involving the German principality of Posen whose soon-to-be married but heavily indebted ruler, Grand Duke Eugen, is about to visit London in order to negotiate a substantial loan.

The Racksoles are drawn into the plot after members of staff go missing, an equerry to the Grand Duke is found murdered on the premises, and then his body disappears; to cap it all Eugen fails to arrive.  The adventure takes them to Ostend, where Eugen is being held captive, and back as they try to keep on top of the twists and turns of events masterminded by the redoubtable Jules, and work out who is behind the nefarious goings-on that have so bespoiled the customary placidity of the Grand Babylon.  Nella acquires a personal stake in events when she falls in love with Prince Aribert, who is Eugen’s uncle, though thanks to complicated family procreation patterns the two men are about the same age.  Should Eugen die, Aribert would become ruler and be obliged to marry a princess, so it is in both his and Nella’s interests for Eugen to prosper and thereby allow Aribert to wed this most uncommon of commoners.

If that all sounds ridiculous, it is, but it is entertaining, and it aims a few barbs along the way, mostly at our American cousins.  Theodore Racksole is probably the third richest man in the United States, which Bennett suggests automatically makes him probably the third richest man in the world.  There is an acknowledgement of growing American economic power and an admiration for the its entrepreneurial spirit, but Bennett also hints at American corruption – Racksole, generally cast in positive terms, is described as owing 60 votes in Congress, in a country where you can bribe judges and newspapers.  Racksole himself appreciates the advantages of English life.  He it turns out is half-English and despite his humble beginnings was educated at Oxford; he plans to settle in England, considering life there superior to that in the United States.

Bennett also skewers the pretensions of self-important waiters who feel themselves a cut above the diners they allegedly serve.  One suspects the book was an influence on PG Wodehouse; an early exchange between Racksole and Jules:

‘And who is Mr Rocco?’

‘Mr Rocco is our chef, sir.’  Jules had the expression of a man who is asked to explain who Shakespeare was.

Worthy of Jeeves himself: ‘‘A prince is never seriously ill until he is dead. Such is statecraft.’  Uniting the two authors too is the theme of the American heiress in Europe bringing a breath of fresh air to the stuffy Old World (though both have a debt to Henry James in that regard).  The Racksoles have a touching father-daughter relationship, with mutual respect, though Nella knows she can get her own way if she chooses, to the extent of persuading her parent to rustle up a million pounds to bale Eugen out at a few hours’ notice.

It is a pacy, if rambling, story, in part a parody of adventure authors like Anthony Hope and Rider Haggard.  It is vaguely pro-German, with Aribert being an honourable young man ready to renounce his royal title to marry Nell (though he does receive a generous settlement from Racksole, who gives half his considerable fortune to his daughter, in compensation).  It is a contrast to Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands published the following year, which shows the Germans in a much more sinister light, though Bennett’s autocratic Emperor in Berlin is unattractively cast in terms reminiscent of a spider at the centre of a web.

It is surprising to learn The Grand Babylon Hotel was published in 1902, as, apart from a couple of references to the recent Victorian period, it feels as if it could have been written in the ‘30s.  A discussion about the pleasures of St Petersburg which mentions exile to Siberia might have been referring to Stalin’s grip on power rather than the Tsars’, except it would have been unlikely that an American plutocrat’s daughter would have been allowed to enter the Soviet Union.  Like one of the vintage wines in the hotel’s cellar, which plays an important part in the plot, The Grand Babylon Hotel has aged well and is a delight for the truly discerning connoisseur.

The Lakeland Pedlar: Period Photographs and Poems, by Irvine Hunt

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The title is a misnomer as The Lakeland Pedlar, published in 1974, is dedicated to photographs of Lake District life generally in the Victorian and Edwardian period and is not specifically about pedlars.  The reason for the title is that compiler Irvine Hunt happens to be particularly fond of pedlars and in an afterword hopes that the book will be like a pedlar’s box, containing ‘unexpected and interesting finds’.

As is to be expected, rural living predominates, with many of the photographs showing country folk at work.  A fair few of these are local characters, though there is too a good sprinkling of middle-class visitors, as Lakeland was a popular tourist destination then as now.

However, agriculture and country crafts are prominent, and Hunt stresses how hard life was for all ages in the low-wage economy.  The author is obsessed with how much people earned in different trades, which in most cases wasn’t much.  It wasn’t all work, and there are sections on leisure activities, local customs and country ‘sports’.  There are also urban street scenes and, naturally enough in Lakeland, water transport.

Many individuals are named in the captions, which is refreshing considering how often those pictured in collections of this sort are anonymous.  This is probably because Hunt made huge efforts to collect images from local owners rather than lazily relying on picture libraries.  The most striking has to be Mr and Mrs Richardson of Kendal, photographed in 1864 on Mr Richardson’s 90th birthday.  He was born in 1774, Mrs Richardson two years later.  It is an odd sensation to gaze at the faces of people born in the 18th century.

Hunt is a local resident and there are useful comments on the photographs showing a deep affection for and knowledge of the area.  Dotted through the book are his poems, inspired by particular images.  In fact the original intention was to combine each photograph with a poem, but fortunately there were too many good photographs he wanted to include and the poems were largely squeezed out.  He made the right choice.

Along The Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story, by William Blacker

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Englishman William Blacker was extremely enterprising, driving across Europe as soon as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and only stopping when he reached Romania.  Liking the place, he made his home there between 1996 and 2004, firstly in Maramureș, in the far north near the Ukrainian border, and then further south in Transylvania.  Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story, published in 2009, is his account of those years.  It is a tender and affectionate portrait of his adopted home, focusing on the country people in remote areas far from Bucharest.

He found a place where the way of life had been much the same for centuries, despite changes of regime and ideology, and which was hanging on when it had to a large extent disappeared everywhere else.  In Maramureș he became the lodger of Mihai and Maria, who treated him as the son they had never had and whose affection he reciprocated.  Mihai even encouraged him to meet a local girl and settle down, but William wasn’t keen, and his participation in the strict courting rituals was diffident and gauche.

Patterns of living were dictated by the seasons, bucolic summers, harsh winters, self-reliant and using traditional materials, and generally uninfluenced by the outside world.  Cars were almost unknown, instead the horse ruled, with little time for mechanisation (as the Communist regime found out when it tried to replace horses with tractors).  In a society where social bonds were strong the people were hospitable and took him in as one of their own.  He fell in with the local routines, working in the fields and sharing fully the life of the people (which included imbibing considerable quantities of horincă, a plum brandy).

In Maramureș he lived among Romanians and Gypsies, and in Transylvania among Romanians, Hungarians, Gypsies and Saxons (established there since the 12th century, initially as a bulwark by the Hungarian monarchs against Islamic invasion but stranded as the tide of history receded).  However, most of the Saxon community – the older members of which had been deported to the Soviet Union after the war as forced labour – had gone to Germany after 1990 in search of a better life, abandoning their Romanian houses to be stuck in urban flats.  Some of these buildings were occupied by Gypsies, others had been left to decay.  To his credit Blacker began a campaign to help restore the finely-built houses and beautiful historic fortified churches, employing local people.  He felt a great sadness at the mass emigration by Romanian citizens of all types, and notes that moving away from one’s roots entails a loss, even if it brings economic benefits, not guaranteed, to the migrant and the community left behind.

He shows the discrimination the Gypsies endure at the hands of the wider society, and the unfair way they are treated by the local authorities, but also how they often deserve their dubious reputation, and are more devoted to carousing, in which Blacker is happy to join, than horticulture, with little thought for the morrow.  So it is a little awkward when he starts to live with one and finds his Romanian neighbours are not happy, doing what they can to sabotage the relationship.  When he keeps sheep, which one would consider a respectable occupation, ironically it is a cause of friction with his Romanian neighbours because he is encouraging the Gypsies, who are seen as feckless.  Having corrupt, racist and often nakedly brutal local police only exacerbates the situation, and Blacker draws a portrait of harsh treatment towards the Gypsies, and his exhausting, but largely successful, efforts to use the courts for justice.  Eventually he and his dark-eyed companion split up, but then she has a son, Constantin whom Blacker acknowledges as his, and so finds he has parental responsibilities that draw him back.*

Despite the apparent centuries-old stability of the region he arrived on the cusp of change, but there is little here about the wider political and economic situation.  He was there at the right time, in the interval between the fall of Communism and Romania’s accession into the EU in 2007, to track the changes – not all for the better in his estimation – as modernity began to catch up with this sleepy corner of Europe.  However, this is rather a depiction of the life in which Blacker immersed himself, and the emphasis is very much on personalities, though he does describe how these lands have been contested over the centuries, forming a singular regional character.  He is more interested in tracking the rhythms of the seasons and in local customs, about which he writes with an anthropologist’s eye.  There are strong folk and pre-Christian elements mixed with the Orthodox faith, and superstition is still a strong presence.  The effort to see symbolism in acts can occasionally lead to humour: at a funeral Blacker asks Mihai why a candle in a jar is standing in wheat, suspecting some profound significance, to be told it is to stop the candle falling over.

He is reticent about his personal circumstances but you sense his lifestyle was only possible with a private income.  He writes an article for the Telegraph, but such incidental journalistic activities would not support him even in such a poor area.  He is accepted by the people he lives amongst, even if they do consider him a member of an exotic species at times, and he is willing to put his head over the parapet on behalf of the Gypsies even when it costs a great deal, but there is always a sense he can leave any time he wishes.  It’s easy idealising the peasant way of life if you do it on a voluntary basis rather than through necessity.

The existence Blacker depicts may be hard, but the work, the landscape, family and social ties, combine to form a unity the modern world has lost, with negative consequences in his view.  The tone is elegiac, but it is easy to romanticise in such circumstances.  Blacker documents the changes occurring in the area, bemoaning the passing of a simpler age, with the village now reached by a tarmac road rather than the old track, encouraging motorised transport, but why should the people there remain isolated?  When Mihai fell ill Blacker had to obtain drugs from the vet because there was no local doctor, so there are advantages in having improved communications.

On the other hand it is hard not to be sympathetic when Blacker talks about the advent of plastic packaging with no municipal waste removal arrangements (what need when everything is organic and recycled) so the stream clogs up with rubbish.  He shows the villages emptying as young people go westward in search of work, a process which has only accelerated because of the EU’s freedom of movement principle.  It seems paradoxical that a lifestyle which had survived Fascism and Communism, the massive upheavals of the twentieth century, should be destroyed by the free market.  The book’s ending is touching, recounting the funeral of Mihai in 2008, with whom Blacker had originally lodged.  His death symbolised, for better or worse, the passing of an era.

*An article in the Telegraph in March 2017 noted that Constantin’s real name is actually Valentin, and that he is held in affectionate regard by Prince Charles, apparently a friend of Blacker’s.  Prince Charles owns property in Romania, where he is a regular visitor.  Along the Enchanted Way is dedicated to ‘Constantin’.

Crossfire, by Miyuki Miyabe

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In Miyuki Miyabe’s Crossfire (1998), Junko Aoki is a loner with an extraordinary talent: she can start fires at will, big blazes that are concentrated but reach high temperatures.  This we learn later has a genetic component and she comes from a line of firestarters, though the gene is somewhat recessive and can skip a generation.  Junko also has a conscience and uses her ability to take on malefactors in Tokyo, some of whom are extremely unpleasant, dishing out her unique brand of vigilante justice on behalf of their victims.  In addition to her pyrokinetic ability, she is able to fling out a powerful energy whip which breaks the back of her target.

However, her flamboyant style of dispatch draws her to the attention of both the police and a shadowy group, the Guardians, who also tackle those criminals the justice system cannot touch but who do it in a far more discreet fashion than Junko’s pyrotechnics.  While the former, notably Detective Chikako Ishizu of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s arson squad, are trying to track her down, the latter seek to recruit her.  From a police perspective, however, it is hard to sell murder by combustion, so those officers who believe this to be the method have a problem of credibility, and Ishizu herself only reluctantly becomes convinced Junko is employing a paranormal ability.

The narrative switches between Junko and Chikako so we are able to follow their thought processes.  Junko feels she has been given her ability for a reason, but she agonises about hurting those who are either innocent or less culpable than those she hunts but who get caught in the crossfire.  As the body count mounts and she learns to let other people into her life, the more she questions her role as executioner, and whether it is entirely voluntary.  She finds a connection with Koichi, a young Guardian who makes contact and acts as her mentor, but at the climax she finds that her affections are not reciprocated and her interests and those of the Guardians do not coincide.

The novel begins and ends with coincidences.  At the beginning, Junko accidentally witnesses a group of teenagers about to murder a man in an abandoned factory late at night.  She is there to rid herself of surplus pyrokinetic energy, for which she needs a pool of water, but she is spotted hiding.  She kills all but one of the gang, and the dying victim tells her his girlfriend has been abducted, sending Junko on her trail of revenge in order to save her and prevent the gang members from murdering other girls.  The carnage allows Chikako to note similarities with an earlier fire bearing similar characteristics and makes her determined to find out how such an abnormal conflagration could have occurred.

Then at the end there is an even more unlikely coincidence: Ishizu and her colleague are able to locate Junko simply because the owner of the bar she goes into briefly with Koichi obsessively writes down the registration numbers of the cars parked outside, a habit he had developed after Junko set a car on fire outside a year before.  Learning she had been in the bar from one of the staff leads to the list of registration numbers, which include Koichi’s.  The information so fortuitously gleaned allows Ishizu to track Junko down.

In addition to the drama, the novel contains social commentary: Ishizu faces the misogyny of the police department, having innocently obtained her position through the operation of office politics by her superiors, which her colleagues tend to remind her about, and she is obliged to demonstrate her commitment and ability more than her colleagues would.  Japan is shown to be a society with rigid views about acceptable roles for women.  In one scene she is being driven in a taxi to the police station and the driver assumes she is a mother on her way there because of an errant child, his assumption undercut when she takes a work call on her mobile phone.  Another strand to the novel is that of youth violence, surprising to those whose image of Japan is, Yakuza apart, generally benign.

The novel asks about the morality of vigilante justice when the laws are too weak to protect the innocent, and also the utilitarian question of whether it is acceptable to sacrifice the innocent if a greater good – the elimination of significant evil – is thereby achieved.  There is irony at the heart of this conundrum.  Junko is determined to save the woman who has been abducted and in so doing burns down the building where she is being abused.  As Junko and the woman take refuge on the roof, the victim is shot dead by an unseen assailant.  At the end we learn the killer was an ex-policeman who had joined the Guardians after his own daughter had been murdered by her husband; he had pulled the trigger on the rooftop as the Guardians have a rule to work undetected and she knew him.  In trying to do good, he has become no better than the man who killed his daughter.

So in this morally compromised world, the reader has to ask whether Junko is a serial killer or someone to be admired for doing those things society cannot.  How far can one condone extra-judicial killings, and where is the line drawn when individuals or self-appointed organisations take the law into their own hands?  Junko always feels she is acting for the best, which makes her sympathetic, but that does not exonerate her when she is acting outside the law.  At least she has a conscience, but the Guardians are ruthless in pursuing their aims, even to the extent of killing Junko when they feel she might compromise them.  The novel is leisurely in its pacing, and has weaknesses in its plotting, but raises worthwhile questions.

Chronicles of the Secret Service, by Alexander Wilson

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Chronicles of the Secret Service is the ninth and last of a series by Alexander Wilson charting the efforts of Sir Leonard Wallace, head of the British Secret Service, and his trusty lieutenants to maintain order in the British Empire.  It contains three independent novellas published together in 1940, when Alexander Wilson was himself a serving intelligence officer, though the tone is more Boys’ Own than a serious depiction of the work of espionage, with stiff-upper lipped patriots ready to sacrifice their lives for King and country.  The stories depict threats from enemies at home and abroad, whether foreign powers or anarchists.

In ‘The China Doll’, Sir Leonard Wallace is the acting governor of Hong Kong.  Concerned about Japanese aggression in the region and its threat to British interests, he is investigating the efforts of its agents to ascertain the territory’s defences, and to attack its finances by defrauding the colony.  Sir Leonard is uneasy too about similar spying against Singapore.

A lucky break indicates that a drunk Japanese seaman had been found in possession of a code, and as he had been observed following a route around various night clubs, a British agent is sent to follow the same itinerary to see what he can pick up, the sailor having disobligingly committed hara kiri. One of the establishments is called the China Doll, and as the sailor’s round had coincided precisely with the times a singer of the same name had entertained patrons in the clubs, there is obviously a connection.  The British agent is on the right track, drums up a friendship with the singer, and eventually he is led to the Japanese spy.  Naturally the dastardly Nips’ plan is foiled.

In ‘Noughts and Crosses’ a young couple-about-town are bored with life and, after leaving a club in a vain search for kicks, come across an inebriated tramp playing noughts and crosses with a piece of chalk on their car.  While remonstrating with the bounder, a foreign gentleman who lives close by offers to have his man clean the marks while he offers them hospitality.  He is also, it transpires, a fanatic for the child’s game of noughts and crosses and sees in the tramp a worthy opponent.

The pair agree to accompany their new friend, but are followed by the tramp who tells them sotto voce, not to enter the house if they value their lives.  Needless to say he is not quite the indigent he at first appeared, and the would-be benefactor has an ulterior motive for his kindness to the couple.   Naturally the society types are soon out of their depth among a bunch of terrorists, and they get more excitement than they had bargained for.  Amusingly there is a scene with the tramp and the foreigner furiously playing noughts and crosses as if it were a classic chess competition, whereas in reality one can always win if going first and at least draw if second, so there is not much drama to be had in real life from the pastime.

‘That Bloody Afghan’ is set in the lawless lands on the North-West Frontier, with secret service agents attempting to break up a plot to agitate native discontent into rebellion against the British.  This is not about ‘The Great Game’ with Russia but local stirrings of revolt fomented by the ringleader of a campaign to unite the tribes, Abdul Qadir Khan.  He is stockpiling weapons to be used in the planned uprising, which has Islamist roots.  As well as combining the tribes into a significant fighting force, he is also seeking an alliance with the fence-sitting government in Kabul.

The method employed to combat his plot is a novel, and implausible one: to create the persona of a man of the people who will become popular enough to warrant the attention of Khan, luring him so he can be captured.  This hero is Aziz Ullah, in reality a British agent in disguise, who with the help of a fellow officer achieves the goal and, with the threat neutralised, restores peace to the region.

While there is plenty of scope in these stories, Wilson in general avoids racist attitudes, though there are moments when he is condescending about foreigners.  In particular he is complimentary about Japanese methods of espionage, prescient given later events, presumably because he saw them as a fellow imperial power.  The Chinese he did not rate as highly, though clearly the China Doll, who turns out to be tougher than her delicate looks suggest, is seen as admirable.

Yet she is considered part of a separate sphere; when there is a suggestion her British collaborator might marry her, the response is: ‘For the first time in my life,’ he muttered, ‘I find myself wishing I was a Chinaman!’  She may be suitable in every way, but miscegenation is out of the question.  The one out-and-out negative comment is in a passing reference to a train journey ‘squeezed in among a crowd of smelly Peshawaris, wives, children, family utensils, and whatnots.  It was great fun.’

Wilson was a complex, mysterious and not altogether attractive character who did at one point work for MI6.  He left government service under a cloud in 1942 and Chronicles of the Secret Service was the last thing he published, with no further work issued after 1940 though he lived for almost another quarter of a century.  So, was his writing tapping into inside spy knowledge?  Probably not, as there is nothing here that could not have been deduced from newspaper articles and spy thrillers.

There are some moments, notably the threat of rape in ‘Noughts and Crosses’, which lift it out of the run of pulp novels of the period, but on the whole these are forgettable yarns.  When this volume appeared Britain was at war, though not yet with Japan, and it would have been heartening for the British public to read of the efficiency of the intelligence service to protect the country’s interests against those who wished it ill.  The stories feel dated and are slow-paced, but they do indicate the attitudes the governors harboured towards those they governed around the world, on the cusp of far-reaching political changes that would irrevocably alter their relations.

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