Sun 26 Oct 2014
VALENTINE WILLIAMS – Courier to Marrakesh. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover. Houghton Mifflin, US, hardcover, 1946. No paperback editions.
Enter one of the most despicable villains in popular literature, especially the popular literature between the wars, a clever, dangerous, fanatic, and self serving monster who serves his masters, but always serves himself first. Under the Kaiser there had been a code even he had to follow, but now he is Adolph Hitler’s top man.
By now you may have figured out this is not a nice man. The fact is he could give Moriarity, Carl Peterson, and even Dr. Fu Manchu a run for their money. His name is Dr. Adolph Von Grundt, but he is much better known as …
In Courier to Marrakesh the setting is mid-WWII in North Africa and Italy. Andrea Hallam is an American singer and guitarist touring with the USO, doing her best for the boys. She tried to join the WACS, but she was:
Andrea is also looking forward to running into old friend Hank Lundgren.
Andrea thought Hank, who had a business in radio before the war, was in communications, but when she meets dashing handsome gray eyed Nicholas Leigh, a young British officer, she discovers what he and Hank actually do: “I’m Intelligence, the same as Hank.” That’s certainly exciting, dull old Hank Lundgren in intelligence, who would have thought.
Andrea is soon up to her neck in dubious people, Countess Mazzoli, who claims to be an anti-Fascist Italian, and her son Captain Mazzoli among them, and the Countess has given Andrea a locket to deliver to a man named Safi, who is certainly suspicious, Peter Lorre type, you know. Then there is the Swiss Herr Ziemer who is to introduce her to Moroccan singer Shelika Zueima, a local artist Andrea has been wanting to hear. It is Zueima who will warn her about Clubfoot for the first time.
Soon enough Andrea is up to her lovely red hair in intrigue, enlisted by Leigh, Hank, and their buddy Major Riley (aka Snafu) in a bit of political intelligence. Andrea all on her own has stumbled on a nest of Nazi intrigue, and only just missed Clubfoot himself. They need to get her away and Naples sounds like the best place. Safu tries to explain to her the political situation she has stumbled on a struggle for power between the old Prussian guard of the German General Staff and Hitler.
This was soon to be the stuff of headlines as 1944 came to a close. The book came out in November of 1944 and the famous July Plot to assassinate Hitler led by Count Von Stauffenberg had only just happened.
Grundt and his boys are after an old drinking cup that contains something important and the stakes are high, winning the peace after the war.
This is far above the usual chase for some super weapon or battle plans of most wartime spy thrillers. Whether Williams was in any way privy to it or not, these debates were actually going on during the war and fought out in the shadow world of intelligence. There are still those who would have preferred to rearm Germany and declare war on Russia despite the fact both sides had the bomb by the end of the war. There are still those who think we should have sided with Hitler against Stalin. Riley sums it up for her.
Before it is over Andrea will fall in love with Nicholas Leigh, be captured by the Prussian side and threatened with torture, and be rescued, ironically, by none other than Clubfoot himself. Events move quickly and soon enough Andrea learns what is at stake.
Granted Dennis Wheatley did this same sort of thing, but Williams is a much more literate and smooth writer, and there are no huge chunks of undigested history to trip over in the narrative. It moves fairly fast, Andrea is an engaging and certainly different narrator/protagonist, and always, as in all of the Clubfoot novels, the shadow of Grundt’s lumbering figure hangs over all brilliant, threatening, and monstrous.
There’s a last minute desperate fight and rescue, but not quite soon enough, a happier ending than you might expect, and in the long run a better example of the WWII spy novel than you have any reason to hope for from the admittedly old fashioned Williams. Compare this to Wheatley’s Gregory Sallust novels or Oppenheim’s final novels at war’s beginning (The Last Train Out and The Shy Plutocrat) and you’ll see how literary and modern Williams reads in comparison. Wheatley still sounded as if it were 1939 in the 1960‘s.
Some discussion of Valentine Williams followed a recent review here of his collaborative novel with Dorothy Rice, The Fog, so I thought it might be of value to show one of the reasons Williams stuck with thrillers more than detective stories and was admired and enjoyed for them.
This book shows a style that embraced change and modernity, a willingness to experiment with a woman narrator and protagonist (she’s a pretty modern heroine, smart, tough, and capable, no swooning for Andrea) — and successfully — a pretty canny grasp of back room wartime politics, and Williams usual inventiveness.
He also does remarkably well with his largely American cast of characters, certainly better than most British writers of the era. John Buchan, a far better writer, didn’t do half this well with Hannay’s American pal John Blenkiron. It’s hardly revolutionary, but it is a good thriller in a long running series and an unusually fresh book for this late in the Clubfoot saga. Few thriller series that began in the grim shadow of the First World War were still this fresh and inventive mid way through the Second.