E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM – Matorini’s Vineyard. Hodder and Stoughton, UK hardcover, 1929. Little Brown & Co, US, hardcover, 1928.

    “Mr. Amory,” the Princess continued, “is the English tennis player who has been the subject of so much discussion between us all — the young man, you know, who had the ill fortune to have been placed at the same dining table as the man Uguello, the night he was murdered in the Blue Train. Signor Torrita’s official position at Rome is well known, Mr. Amory, although perhaps in your absorbed life you may not have heard it. He is the Chief of the Italian Secret Police.”

   And there is a fairly succinct summary of the chief problem facing Mervyn Amory, the young tennis player mentioned, in this typical novel of high level intrigue and low down skullduggery from the pen of the Prince of Storytellers, E. (Edward) Phillips Oppenheim, whose bestselling works influenced John Buchan, Dennis Wheatley, and Ian Fleming, and at least in a backhanded way Eric Amber and Graham Greene.

   Signor Uguello, the victim was a member of the Red Shirts, an anti- Fascist group opposed to the dictator of Italy, Matorini and his Black Shirts (Matorini is Oppenheim’s stand in for Benito Mussolini, here, and in The Evil Envoy), who passed on vital information to the young Englishman as dying men are wont to do in spy fiction.

   At stake, another world war as the ambitious Marorini poses troops on the French border to retake territory seized almost a century earlier and the French are having none of it. Complicating things for young Amory is la Comtessa, a beautiful young companion of the Princess mentioned above who would seem to be a supporter of Matorini and his Black Shirts.

   I suppose Oppenheim is rather stilted and old hat by modern standards, but I still find him entertaining to read, and this is one of his better spy stories much of it played out on the Riviera where Oppenheim kept his yacht and its constant supply of attractive young men. In the end, common sense prevails, though it takes the combined forces of the British and American fleets to see that it does.

   Granted the view of Matorini is romanticized, something not uncommon for the era before Hitler entered the picture as the other Fascist leader, but this isn’t history however much Oppenheim strived to give that impression, the background merely the excuse for the intrigue.

   You can’t be too hard on a writer for not being prescient. Ted Bell made much the same mistake not too long ago about Vladimir Putin in Tzar.

   Spy novels were actually a fairly small part of Oppenheim’s output which ran from detective and crime fiction to romance and embraced no small number of amateur sleuths and amateur criminals from his start in the Victorian Era to his last book in 1940 (The Last Train Out). He managed to stay on bestseller lists for a goodly portion of that output, his works appearing in the best magazines, often with handsome illustrations by the best illustrators, and much admired.

   If his elegant ladies and gentleman, diplomatic and ministerial level intrigue, and old world gentility is out of fashion today, it laid the foundations for the modern spy story, born in the middle of Piccadilly Circus in 1910 in John Buchan’s The Power House. In the right mood, and with a little forgiveness he is still worth reading today, still a prince of if not the prince of storytellers.