MAX BRAND – The Darkness at Windon Manor. Altus Press, 2018. Introduction by William F. Nolan. Originally serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly, April 21 thru May 12, 1923.

   â€œWe had one common topic which bound us together—our complete financial ruin. Some one remarked that if a man of mere uninspired common sense was capable of robbing a great bank with impunity for years, a group of intelligent men would probably be able to rob the world with impunity forever.”

   Andrew Creel, the hero of this 1923 crime novel originally serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly and not appearing in novel form until this Altus Press reprint, is a somewhat bored and disaffected young man whose chance acquaintance with a close look alike on board ship leads him to be mistaken for his near twin and then fall in with an audacious group of businessmen turned super criminals who have taken up residence in the title’s Windon Manor after a bank failure wiped out their fortunes eight years earlier. (The idea that successful businessmen were only one step away from crime has always been popular in American fiction.)

   The mistaken identity and the hero who accidentally falls in with a gang of criminals and is forced to play along to foil them is also an old theme, and certainly Brand himself played numerous variations on the theme of the look-a-like hero, most notably in Montana Rides, but here the unique touch is that Creel soon finds he likes being Edward Ormonde, master criminal, and that it fits him all too well.

   Far from reluctant victim, Creel embraces his new identity which frees him from his ennui and falls in love with Anne Berwick, the heroine of the story, herself a jewel thief whose father betrayed the group.

   As the novel opens, James Ashe who formed the group, and who also loves Anne, has returned to Windon Manor suspected of murdering Ormonde, his rival, who managed to recover an important case stolen by Anne’s father and who is returning it as part of a deal to spare the senior Berwick’s life.

   Creel, having been identified as Ormonde by one of the conspirators at dockside is taken to Windon Manor, where playing along he learns the backstory of this dangerous and murderous lot.

   Creel soon finds himself with two unexpected allies in his charade, Anne, who goes along with him to protect her father, and Ashe, the dangerous leader of the gang who Creel bluffs by seeming to know more than he really does, then audaciously challenges that he will win Anne away from him in the two days’ respite he is given to live.

   The style here is more E. Phillips Oppenheim than Dashiell Hammett. — Brand’s Anthony Hamilton stories were also influenced by Oppenheim, in fact, it is pretty much an Oppenheim plot despite the American setting — with more talk than action, but it is fairly bright conversation and moves at a pace. And Creel and Anne make attractive leads playing at dangerous games with Ashe and the others, and as Creel soon demonstrates he is more than a match for the criminal Ormonde at his own game.

   Despite Brand’s penchant for one particularly annoying stylistic tic that grinds my back teeth whenever he employs it, as he too often does even in his best works (The jaw of Ashe set hard/ The eyes of Ashe wavered/The whistling of Creel continued…) Darkness at Windon is an entertaining crime novel moving swiftly and building up to an audacious bank robbery and down to the wire conclusion that admittedly is a bit more Leslie Charteris than Oppenheim despite the half-hearted reformation required by the norms of the era.

   He had thought at the time that he was merely playing a game—stealing and smashing laws merely to make the society, in the end, throw up its hands and bid him be gone forever from the precincts of Windon Manor…But now he saw clearly that this thinking had been the merest subterfuge. Crime for crime’s sake had fascinated him. He had been a thief; he might be a thief again at any moment, if the wild spirit of Edward Ormonde swept once more upon him in the storm wind or the hush of night.

   Historically that echo of anarchy and adventure was already changing British popular fiction with the rise of the gentleman adventurer Creel resembles and would transform crime fiction soon in the pages of Black Mask and others this side of the Atlantic (Brand included) albeit on the right side of the law.