Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

VALENTINE WILLIAMS – Courier to Marrakesh. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover. Houghton Mifflin, US, hardcover, 1946. No paperback editions.

   A huge figure stood in the doorway. It was a vast man in a black hat and a dark business suit, who leaned heavily on a cane. He might have been a tank, the way he shouldered Mülder aside as he came into the room, limping as he went. I instinctively glanced at his feet. My blood seemed to turn to ice when I perceived that one of them was encased in a monstrous surgical boot.

   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.

    “He is a monster, a wild beast, and everywhere he goes he leaves a trail of treachery, of broken faith, of blood—yes, blood!”

   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 …

    “… Clubfoot does not change. Human beings — poor creatures with broken hearts like me — they change. But not Clubfoot. Because the man is not human.”

   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:

    … sternly told at Washington that my job was to keep up morale, singing to the armed forces. They seemed to like me at the Stage Door Canteens, the camps and naval bases, not only my cowboy and hill-billy numbers, but even the old French and Italian ballads, the Spanish saetas and Portuguese fados, in my repertoire. It may have been my red hair, of course; our sailors and soldiers have never been known to have any particular allergy to redheads. But my heart was not at peace and I never rested until I persuaded Washington to send me overseas to sing at the camps.

   Andrea is also looking forward to running into old friend Hank Lundgren.

    If I had been the marrying sort I could have settled down with Hank Lundgren at Milwaukee. It was in the fall of ’39, soon after war broke out in Europe, that he came up with his proposal… I liked Hank tremendously, but the songs came first.

   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.

    “ …a strong anti-Hitler movement has developed among a small but influential group of the high-ups on the German General Staff. These Generals realise (sic) that Germany has lost the war; what they’re after now is to try to salvage as much as they can of the wreck. The plan is to throw dust in the eyes of the free nations by getting rid of Adolf and the Nazis and have the Generals fix the peace.”

   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.

    “Hitler’s not the only danger to the future of the world. The reactionary elements everywhere are fighting a rearguard action to save the world from democracy, people who have this cock-eyed idea that a military government in Germany, purged of the Nazis, is preferable to a victorious Russia.”

   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.

    “In Marrakesh, lady, anything can happen. Through no fault of yours you’re up to the neck in this game of ours, and let me tell you, my dear, it’s a game with no punches barred. There’s nothing to choose between your Dr. Grundts and your Colonel von Rodes. These Prussian Army gangsters are fighting for their very existence…”

   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.

    “All the Nazi leaders keep dossiers against each other,” he (Hank) said. “Fritsch was supposed to have had one on Hitler. Sheer dynamite, if what they say is true — that’s why for years Hitler didn’t dare to touch him. Anyone who could have got hold of it could have blown Adolf sky-high… That Hitler dossier is right up our street. No need to publish anything; just see that selected extracts are shown to the right people, both in Germany and outside. That dossier is supposed to contain the complete file of Hitler’s dealings with the German industrialists who financed him, his correspondence with Mussolini, documents establishing his responsibility for the famous Party purge, details of his private fortune and where it’s tucked away abroad—gosh, in the Balkans alone it would be worth ten divisions of troops to us.”

   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.