Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

WILLIAM LE QUEUX – Sant of the Secret Service: Some Revelations of Spies and Spying. Odhams, UK, hardcover, 1918. Later hardcover reprints from Hodder & Stoughton, UK. No US edition until recent POD editions have become available, such as from Createspace, softcover, circa 2013. Also available in ebook format and online.

   To those who, like myself, have moved in the Continental underworld of spies and spying, the name of “Sant of the Secret Service” is synonymous with all that is ingenious, resourceful, and daring. In the Intelligence Departments of London, Paris, Rome, and New York, the name of “Sant of the Secret Service” is to-day one to conjure with.

   Like Ian Fleming, William Le Queux was no stranger to spies and spying, though his own exploits, unlike Fleming’s, were done as a private citizen on the edges of the world of spies and often tied to his paranoia about the Russian Secret Services, Anarchists, and the Germans. One of his books about a German invasion of England not only warned of the Imperial ambitions of the Kaiser, but predicted them, both envisioning and helping create the circumstances that led to World War I.

   Whatever else, he was a patriot, and a prolific writer of fiction, journalism, and often semi-fiction somewhere between the two. His novels and not quite novels include sensational accounts of Rasputin, life in the court of the Kaiser, the Tsarist Secret Police, and others. He also managed to write lost world novels, at least one novel with a Bedouin hero, adventure novels about lost treasure, the then popular automobile and airplane adventure novel (the former virtually half the output it seemed of C.N. and A.M. Williamson), and mysteries, but none of those are as well known as his spy novels, some featuring a fictional version of himself, such as His Majesty’s Minister, The Zeppelin’s Passenger, and his best known work, Secrets of the Foreign Office, or The Doings of Duckworth Drew.

   Sant of the Secret Service is the second best known of his agent heroes after Drew, being Gerry Sant who is the epitome of the Le Queux agent:

   Cheerful, optimistic, and the most modest of men, Gerry Sant has seldom spoken of his own adventures. The son of a certain nobleman who must here remain nameless, and hence the scion of a noble house, he has graduated through all stages of the dark and devious ways of espionage.

   In other words, he’s a bit of a lunkhead in the modern view. If John Buchan invented the modern spy novel in 1910’s serialization of The Power House, it was in part in tribute to E. Phillips Oppenheim and likely revulsion with Le Queux. Still Le Queux is the first writer of his age to claim the spy story as his own, and he began in the Victorian era, thrived in the Edwardian (where most of his heroes are stuck), and lasted through a world war and the Roaring Twenties into the thirties.

   Not a bad run for anyone.

   Like Secrets of the Foreign Office and many of Le Queux’s spy novels, Sant of the Secret Service is not actually a novel, but a sort of fix-up of short adventures tied together. And, though Le Queux is by no means a great writer or even a gifted hack, the stories do have an old world charm now that is undeniable. The stories are loosely tied together by characters such as the admirable Madame Gabrielle and the dangerous German agent …

   Here, indeed, was an antagonist worthy of my steel! I had long known — and so far as his abilities went, had respected — van Rosen as one of the cleverest agents of the Koniggratzerstrasse. He was able to pose as an Englishman — a rare accomplishment in a German — for he had been educated at Haileybury, and had been in England off and on since his youth. He was now living in a north-western suburb, where he posed as Mr. George Huggon-Rose, a solicitor who had retired from practice. Only British apathy made this possible.

   Yes, Le Queux was the type to write “a foe worth my steel” without blushing or chuckling, and like spy writers ever since, he was always ready to take a shot at the vast unwashed who never know the secret war being fought to protect their affable ignorance. I always thought Eric Ambler must have read more Le Queux than he would have liked to admit when he took aim at the real world of spies who often acted as if they thought they were in a Le Queux novels.

   There is no shortage of duped noblemen in the government, femme fatales — not always on the other side — in black velvet dresses and opera gloves showing a bit of patriotic cleavage, dangerous men in soft brimmed hats lurking, and heroes in sturdy bowlers that could be spotted a mile away as British agents by a myopic three year old. The bowler hats are no doubt designed to protect their soft skulls.

   Physically Madame Gabrielle was a match for him; she was a superb gymnast and in hard training, whereas van Rosen had been leading a dissipated life and was in thoroughly poor condition. A brief struggle had ended in Madame Gabrielle throwing him heavily by a simple wrestling trick…

   This is the type of passive writing that passes for an action scene in Le Queux, since he is trying to fool the reader into believing our hero is coolly recounting actual events that transpired in a professional manner. You can imagine how that mitigates suspense and narrative drive after a while. Still, perhaps she was the grandmother of Mrs. Peel or Pussy Galore.

    “Well, mon cher Gerald,” said Madame Gabrielle, as she sat with me in my flat in Curzon Street, soon after breakfast the same morning. “You see they receive warning of coming air raids and meet directly after. Who are they?”

    “Enemy spies, beyond any possibility of doubt,” I replied.

   Stirring stuff. John Le Carre must be ready to surrender his Le to the master.

   And on it goes, with secret papers and the odd exploding cigar, new French torpedo exploded by electric eye, poisoned pin in the wash towel, silenced weapon, or other cartoonish threat, all related in leaden prose as if describing the weekly garden party in the local gazette.

   It’s the kind of book where a half blind old musician is a traitor in the German employ and not blind at all and lives in a place where …

   It had struck me that the house which sheltered the grey parrot might conceivably conceal a wireless plant of sufficient power to convey a message to a submarine lurking off the coast.

   I should point out that Sant never really works or observes any of these brilliant deductions, he just knows them. Actually showing him at work and drawing conclusions did nothing for the melodrama Le Queux tries to hide with his semi documentary style. It’s a bit like reading a novel consisting of nothing but the voice over from The House of 92nd Street or any other of the docu-Noir films.

   I had grasped my prize and was just about to shut and relock the trunk, when I heard a sound behind me, and, turning, found myself face to face with Oscar Engstrom himself.

   And not only that, but I was looking straight into the barrel of a very serviceable-looking automatic pistol, held without a tremor in Engstrom’s very capable hands!

   Golly what next? Actually, not much, it’s William Le Queux. Everyone talks about it even at gunpoint. 007 would at least have thrown a pillow.

   Upon the shiny black leather cover of that book he had traced with a solution of nitrate of silver, mixed with other chemicals, a geometrical design — a square divided in half, the lower part being left blank, and in the upper portion a “V,” above it being traced a small circle. When he had placed the book into her palm it had left an indelible imprint upon her skin, a device which did not show itself until an hour later, when, very naturally, it greatly mystified her. Carlo Corradini had thus branded the woman he hated, and then, the coup having been made at Fiume, he had at once written an anonymous letter to Armand Hecq, head of the International Intelligence Bureau, denouncing the Admiral’s wife as an Austrian, who had divulged Italy’s secret.

   I think I saw that one twice last week on television. Never show anything you can tell in as dull and anticlimactic a manner as possible.

   If I am quoting more than reviewing the plots of this one, it is in part to give readers a taste of Le Queux’s prose and a warning, because as I said, this book, and some of his others have a sort of perverse charm, a relaxing somewhat brainless trip in time to another age and place and a look at what ended up James Bond, George Smiley, Matt Helm, and Harry Palmer.

   In his own way, his lame heroes and shopworn femme fatale’s still entertain. Certainly they lack the entertainment and sophistication of Oppenheim’s work and the fierce energy and often beautifully written passages of John Buchan, but on their own they have more than historical value. Just know what you are getting into. All those histories of the spy novel slamming Le Queux, have a point, but so did the readers that kept him popular for almost forty years. At the very least Gerry Sant and Duckworth Drew are worth a nodding acquaintance, if only for Duckworth Drew’s name.