Tag Archives: 1930s fiction.

Leslie Charteris and the Saint

Over the past few weeks I’ve been re-reading some of the earliest of Leslie Charteris’s stories of Simon Templar – The Saint. Some of the longer novels, such as The Saint Closes the Case (The Last Hero), and the novellas – Charteris preferred the word novelette – as in Enter the Saint, Alias the Saint, The Saint v. Scotland Yard, The Ace of Knaves and The Happy Highwayman.Enter the Saint by [Charteris, Leslie]

Now it should be noted that these early Saint stories had many manifestations. Simon Templar appears in novels, novelettes and short stories, and even a comic strip. Many were printed in magazines as long stories before they appeared in print. Some were slightly altered and updated over time, and published Saint books were wont to change their titles.

The Saint made his first appearance in a novel called Meet the Tiger, though Charteris had experimented with other heroes in a few novels before that. Charteris was unhappy with this first appearance and apparently considered Enter the Saint, as the real debut of the character he wrote about from 1928 to the 1980s; though it’s worth noting that many of the books published after 1963 were ghost-written by other authors, under Charteris’s “editorial control”.

Leslie Charteris was born Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin in 1907, and died in Windsor, Berkshire in 1993. He was half Chinese and half English. He spent most of his life in Britain and America, doing a variety of interesting jobs while he struggled to make it as a writer. He’d done about a year at King’s College, Cambridge, before dropping out on the acceptance of his novel. In 1926 he changed his name by deed poll to Leslie Charteris. Legend says that it was in admiration of Colonel Francis Charteris of the Hellfire Club. More prosaically, his daughter Patricia says he found the Charteris in the phone book.

Many people are familiar with the Saint from the television series starring, respectively, Roger Moore, Ian Ogilvy and Simon Dutton. And great fun though these are, the Saint is a rather different character in the early novels. On film the character has been played by George Sanders, Louis Hayward – in my opinion the nearest portrayal to the book character, though Charteris disagreed – and Hugh Sinclair. Vincent Price and Tom Conway played Templar on the radio.

I always think it would be great if the early Saint novels could be filmed in period, in the early 1930s. Personally, I think the earlier Saint books are the best. In later volumes, Templar takes on super-villains, even the Nazis, but in the first books he’s dealing with the underworld of the time – corrupt politicians, warmongers, blackmailers and other assorted nasty crooks.

And there are a whole team of Saint supporters: gentlemen adventurers who work for Templar on an ad hoc basis. He also has a rather dim American gangster assistant, Hoppy Uniatz, a “man” called Orace, and Patricia Holm, his utterly delightful girlfriend, who isn’t afraid to participate in some of his adventures. Sadly, for Patricia Holm fans like me, Charteris dropped her from the series in about 1948. Pity!

This early Saint might be the wisecracking gentleman familiar to TV and film fans, but there is a darker side too. Unlike these popular representations, in the books the Saint doesn’t hesitate to use violence where necessary, he blackmails villains and occasionally murders the wrongdoers he is dealing with. It would be grand to see a Saint played in such a way on the screen.

What is quite stunning about these early Saint stories in the sheer quality of the writing, particularly given that Charteris was only about eighteen when he started to pen them and only in his early twenties when the best stories were written. At times, Charteris can be positively post-modern with his wisecracking hero. In The Saint v. Scotland Yard (originally published as The Holy Terror) Templar remarks to the villain in the first of the three stories that, captured though he is, he positively can’t be killed off at that point as there are still two stories left in the volume! You have to be a very confident young author to get away with that.

These first Saint stories are wonderful escapism, but there is a message there too. The Saint is there to even up the odds, protect the vulnerable, help the poor – most of his ill-gotten gains are given to charity. It’s no wonder critics dubbed Templar “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime”.

If you only know the Saint from the films or TV do seek out the books, especially the early volumes. Entering the thrilling and occasionally dark world of the Saint is vastly entertaining.




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Fritz Lang’s “Man Hunt”

I’ve written before about my enthusiasm for Geoffrey Household’s classic chase thriller Rogue Male (see blogs passim). Most recently I passed on the news that there is to be a new film version starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

However, it’s not the first time film-makers have tried to bring Household’s book to the screen. There was a television version on the BBC in the 1980s starring Peter O’Toole, which stuck very closely to the book.

But long before that, in 1941, just before the United States entered the War, Hollywood had a go, though it changed some elements of the original story. The producers and the director, Fritz Lang, had something of a battle to get the story passed by the censor who – with the USA not yet at war – was frightened of upsetting Nazi Germany.

The resulting film might have toned down some of Household’s original plot, but Man Hunt is quite stunning in its own way, particularly with Fritz Lang’s clever direction and the atmospheric black and white photography. There’s an edge of suspense that keeps the action rolling along. Hollywood studios seldom re-created London quite so well as here.

We never learn the name of Household’s hero in the book, but here he’s Captain Alan Thorndike, played with gusto by Walter Pidgeon. Following a failed “sporting stalk” – and the target in the gun-sight is Adolf Hitler – Thorndike is captured by the Gestapo.

We never see the scenes of interrogation, the torture and beatings are only hinted at, though very effectively. Thorndike escapes to London where he’s rescued by a beautiful street waif called Jerry (played with real poignancy by Joan Bennett). There is no such character in the novel, but she’s a great addition to the film.

They are chased across London by Gestapo officer Major Quive-Smith, played with considerable relish by George Sanders in one of his finest performances – a truly believable Nazi – and a tall cadaverous man with a walking stick (John Carradine at his most menacing).

These London scenes are particularly well done, particularly the chase through the London Underground, which is the first climax of the original novel. Gripping stuff! The photography, direction and editing, plus the seedy settings of dockland London and the Tube, give this part of the picture a film noir feel.

In Household’s novel, his hero constantly considers whether his attempt to kill Hitler was just a “sporting stalk”, just to see if, as a hunter of big game, he could get close enough to the Fuhrer. Or did he always intend to pull the trigger and end the Nazi tyranny?

This question, fundamental to the aim of the original story, isn’t ignored. Thorndike considers the answer until the end of the film, when the tragic consequences of his actions come to haunt him. The answer was very relevant to audiences in 1941, on both sides of the Atlantic. It has a relevancy today.

A few months after the film was made the USA was at war with Germany. Hollywood fully joined the propaganda battle against the Third Reich, with movies good and bad. But Fritz Lang and 20th Century Fox set a very high standard, months earlier, with Man Hunt.


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The Durable Desperadoes

The Durable Desperadoes by William Vivian Butler

William Vivian Butler’s classic account of what I call “Rogue Literature” has always been a great favourite of mine, and I’ve just enjoyed a re-read.

The Durable Desperadoes are those rascals of crime and thriller literature who operate on both sides of the law, though always with an innate sense of  justice – often standing up for the weak and vulnerable, righting wrongs, and persecuting the powerful who prey on the dispossessed, i.e. other crooks without such a moral compass.

Think of Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar-the Saint, John Creasey’s John Mannering, alias the Baron, Bruce and Roderick Graeme’s Blackshirt and you are in the right literary territory.

Those are probably the best and most remembered examples, though William Vivian Butler draws his net wider, right back to E.W. Hornung’s Raffles, Edgar Wallace’s “Four Just Men”, Sexton Blake, and Sapper’s politically dubious Bulldog Drummond.

Interestingly, the best examples had the heyday in the 1920s and 30s, those two increasingly frenetic decades between the two World Wars, when society seemed to welcome heroes who went slightly off the rails.

This book is also a scintillating account about how writers prospered and became famous, starting out almost as penny a line authors for magazines such as Thriller, before finding fame, glory and bestseller status across the world.

Leslie Charteris dropped out of Cambridge and created several characters before getting the Saint just right – though, as Mr Butler shows – his character Simon Templar evolved as the decades went on. Personally, I like the earliest Saint adventures best of all, when he was more a devil-may-care though charming villain, who occasionally kills greater villains who have crossed the line.

Although the public loved the Saint from the very beginning, Mr Butler shows how Charteris struggled financially until he took himself and his creation to America. The Saint became a phenomenon, resulting in several Hollywood movies and a much-loved television series.

But perhaps the best example, dealt with at some length in this book, is the writer John Creasey, creator of the Toff and the Baron, as well as numerous other characters. Creasey was a writing phenomenon who would often pen a couple of full-length novels in a week.

Yes, in a week.

In the year 1937 alone, he produced some 27 novels, not just crime and detective stories but romances, juvenile fiction, westerns, action novels and… it’s hard to believe. I’ve recently re-read some of the novels featuring the Baron. There are no signs whatsoever of this pace of writing. Creasey was such a master of his craft. The characters are richly-drawn, the plotting superb, the writing standard excellent.

Despite already having created the Toff, Creasey was on the dole in the 1930s when he wrote the first Baron story “Meet the Baron”. He was working as a temporary Christmas postman, and had written the first 5000 words in the hope of entering the story in a competition to ‘find a new Raffles’.

He forgot about it. Only on Christmas Day did he remember that the deadline was just six days away. So he sat down and wrote the remaining 75,000 words in that time and won the competition.

For those of us who struggle to get up to a couple of thousand words of fiction in a day it’s almost unbelievable. And Creasey maintained this pace for much of his writing career, even though his bestseller status removed the financial need to do so.

There are other heroes featured at some length in Mr Butler’s book, though they have sadly gone out of fashion. There is Blackshirt, (nothing to do with the British Union of Fascists) created by literary agent Bruce Graeme, a cracksman very much in the Raffles tradition. When Bruce Graeme retired from penning his yarns, his son Roderick took over giving the character a post-war new lease of life.

There is Norman Conquest, the creation of Berkeley Gray (Edwy Searles Brooks), slightly in the Saint tradition, known to his pals, obviously, as 1066.

Mr Butler shows how these creations led up a certain Mr James Bond.

“The Durable Desperadoes” is a wonderfully readable and inspiring book, especially for those of us trying to create Desperadoes of our own, every page filled with humour and sympathy.

A terrific introduction to this engaging sub-genre of the crime thriller novel. Sadly, “The Durable Desperadoes” is out of print, though copies are available through online retailers. It would be wonderful if some enterprising publisher made it available once more.

Click on the link below to find a copy…





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Ngaio Marsh – The Nursing Home Murder

I’ve started an occasional re-reading of Ngaio Marsh’s thirty-two detective novels and am enjoying them enormously.

The Nursing Home Murder, published in 1935, was Marsh’s third crime novel. It’s interesting to see what settings a crime writer chose when they were starting out. Her first novel, A Man Lay Dead used the classic Golden Age country house party. The second, Enter A Murderer takes place in her beloved theatre-land. The Nursing Home Murder – well the clue’s in the name – is set around a private London hospital run by an eminent surgeon.

The victim is the Home Secretary who dies inexplicably, shortly after a successful operation for peritonitis. At least three people among the medical staff had a motive for murder.

Although written first, this novel reminds me somewhat of a great favourite, Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger (published in 1944) and also P.D James’s A Mind To Murder, written in 1963 and set in a London clinic. We get a closed circle of suspects – in this case around the operating table – and a dramatic build-up of tension. A patient at the mercy of masked and gowned figures, menace in what should be a place of safety, strong lights and shadows, scalpels, syringes, cylinders and deadly intent.

This novel was dramatized in The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries first shown on the BBC in 1996 . Ngaio Marsh’s sleuth, Detective Inspector Roderick (Rory) Alleyn was played by Patrick Malahide. It has been said that he was mis-cast but not by us. He’s a quietly compelling actor who gave a wonderful performance, bringing out the sensitivity beneath Alleyn’s slightly facetious manner.

In this novel – before he meets his great love Agatha Troy – Alleyn cuts a curiously lonely figure; eating solitary dinners in restaurants or his bachelor flat, attended by an elderly Russian manservant. His ‘unofficial Watson’ (Alleyn’s words) is the eager young journalist Nigel Bathgate, who disappears from later novels.

Though in the upper-class mould of Lord Peter Wimsey and Mr. Albert Campion; unlike them, Alleyn is a working policeman, a Scotland Yard detective. The reader is given interesting glimpses of his daily routine when he isn’t involved with murder.

The drama is faithful to the novel except in two important instances. The period was changed to be immediately post-war. Perhaps this isn’t such a great liberty when you recall that like Agatha Christie, Marsh was writing over several decades. For a name synonymous with the Golden Age, it’s surprising to recall that her last novel was published in 1982. However the change in decade meant that in a sub-plot, communist anarchists were changed to Zionists, which I don’t think worked so well.

Part of the interest in period detective novels is that social mores have changed so much. Writers were spoilt for choice with motives that simply no longer matter. Ngaio Marsh is perhaps a little less fashionable now than Christie, Allingham and Sayers – often known as the four ‘Queens of the Golden Age.’ I think her novels are up there with the best, intricately plotted, elegant, witty and fun. She was very good at the psychology of her times. The motive in The Nursing Home Murder is unusual and chilling.

Ngaio Marsh was also skilled at vivid characterisation, from the very likeable Alleyn and Inspector Fox ( superbly played by William Simons); to the quirky suspects of West End theatre, society, the art world and ordinary working people. All shades of pre-war London seen through the eyes of an outsider from New Zealand. She did some great classic village mysteries too.

Ngaio Marsh is not usually thought of as a great writer of place. In common with most inter-war writing, her descriptions are sparing. Though she could certainly write atmosphere when she liked. I’ll finish with this evocative glimpse of London by night.

“The river, busy with its night traffic, had an air of being apart and profoundly absorbed. There were the wet black shadows, broken lights, and the dark, hurried flow of the Thames towards the sea. London’s water-world was about its nightly business. The roar of the streets became unimportant and remote down here, within sound of shipping sirens and the cold lap of deep water against stone.”


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Murder at the Seaside

Murder at the seaside has long been a popular sub-genre of English crime fiction. Within this framework the setting and topography of Mayhem-on-sea can vary widely. The 1930s Brighton written about by Patrick Hamilton is very different from Raymond Flynn’s North Sea Eddathorpe of the 1990s or the Edwardian resort of Andrew Martin’s The Blackpool High-Flyer.

Seaside resorts provide a rich source of atmosphere for the writer. A contained world that comes complete with its own architecture and language. Grand Hotels along the esplanade, seedy Sea View boarding houses, the pier and pavilion, boating lake and prom. Locations from cliff-tops, Winter Gardens, crowded arcades or empty beaches offer endless possibilities for the finding of bodies.

Sending your characters to the seaside is a useful device whereby they join groups of strangers and meet with unexpected situations. Even Jane Austen wrote a mystery sub-plot within Emma – complete with clues – about what Jane Fairfax got up to in Weymouth.

If you fancy reading a seaside detective novel while it’s still summer, here are a few of our favourites.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase is the second of her novels to feature the crime novelist Harriet Vane. Harriet is taking a solitary walking tour along the south-west coast when she finds a body that is later washed out to sea before officialdom can arrive. Under some suspicion, she stays at the nearby resort and Lord Peter Wimsey soon follows to help her discover whodunit.

Published in 1932, Have His Carcase has been criticised for including racial stereotypes we wouldn’t countenance now but it is very much of its time and should be enjoyed as such. The novel gives a fascinating impression of the well-heeled at the seaside between the wars. An age when the best hotels had their own orchestra and exhibition dancers; tennis coaches rubbed shoulders with penniless companions, elderly residents and card-sharps. (The famous Miss Marple novel, The Body In The Library covers a similar setting equally well.)

We can’t leave out the wonderful Death Walks At Eastrepps, published a year earlier. Eastrepps is loosely based on the charming Norfolk resort of Cromer. For more detail see blogs passim.

Agatha Christie’s N Or M? features her engaging sleuths Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and sits somewhere between detective novel and spy thriller. Set in the spring of 1940 in a sleepy south coast resort. The Beresfords, now middle-aged, are staying in a boarding house and secretly searching for a German agent, a Fifth Columnist among the seemingly ordinary residents.

This is a rattling good yarn which gives an interesting insight into the times. We decided not to watch the BBC drama currently running as they’ve updated the setting to the early 50s and swopped Nazis for the Cold War – destroying the whole premise of the story.

The plot twists and turns with suspicion shifting to one character after another. It’s hard to think of anyone as good as Christie at making an everyday scene suddenly become sinister. (By one of life’s strange coincidences Agatha Christie named one of her characters Bletchley and made a reference to code-breaking. At the time of publishing in 1941 Bletchley Park, Britain’s legendary code and cypher establishment was of course top secret. Questions were asked!)

Eileen Dewhurst’s Phyllida Moon series first appeared in the 1990s and has an intriguing premise. Phyllida Moon is a gifted repertory actress who moves to the quiet south-coast town of Seaminster. There she begins a new life working for a private detective agency and sleuthing in character. This may sound as though it requires a suspension of disbelief but Eileen Dewhurst writes so well that this is effortless to do. Her plots are very original and raise interesting questions about the nature of identity. She is very good on the psychology of her characters and setting.

Curtain Fall by the same author features another series character, Inspector Neil Carter and is also set in a resort. If you want to know what seaside summers were like in the 70s, in the last days of regular end-of-the-pier shows – this is a superb read. Terrific atmosphere combined with a first class plot.

You might like to try our own seaside mystery, A Seaside Mourning:Seaside-Mourning-Ad-Cover.d

An atmospheric Victorian murder mystery set in 1873.

The small seaside resort of Seaborough, half-forgotten on the edge of Devonshire, seems an unlikely setting for murder.
When a leading resident dies, the cause of death is uncertain. Inspector Abbs and Sergeant Reeve are sent from Exeter to determine whether the elderly spinster was poisoned.

As mourning rituals are observed and the town prepares for an elaborate funeral, no one seems to have a motive for ending a blameless life.

Under increasing pressure, Inspector Josiah Abbs must search the past for answers as he tries to catch a killer.

When the autumn leaves fall and secrets are laid bare, revealing a murderer may prove dangerous…
Now out in paperback and eBook.

Please click on the link to see more:



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Arthur Ransome’s “The Big Six”

When boats are being mysteriously cast adrift on the Norfolk Broads, suspicious eyes are turned on Bill, Joe and Pete, the three young sons of boat-builders. The three boys have to call on the help of their friend, doctor’s son Tom Dudgeon, and visiting fellow birdwatchers Dick and Dorothea Callum to nail the culprit.

On the Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

On the Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

“The Big Six” is a 1930s set detective story for children, which means that adults can enjoy it as well. It is, of course, one of the famous “Swallows and Amazons” novels by Arthur Ransome. It is a thrilling tale of suspicion, chases, subterfuge and social comment.

It is the direct sequel to Ransome’s “Coot Club”, which has the same Norfolk setting and characters. In that book, Tom Dudgeon has to set loose a boat to save a bird’s nest – hence the local people’s belief that members of the Coot Club are responsible when lots of boats go adrift a few months later.

Are they guilty, or is someone trying to blacken their good name? This is a wonderful page-turner, and quite an amusing homage to 1930s detective stories.

Ransome was a fascinating character; after years of apprentice work as a hack writer in pre-Great War London, he went to Russia to study its folklore and story-telling traditions. He became a first-hand witness to the Russian Revolution, played chess with Lenin, and came away married to Evgenia, a jolly young lady who just happened to be Leon Trotsky’s secretary. He was probably a spy as well.

Settling, at various times, in the Lake District, East Anglia and London, he became an acclaimed feature writer and the author of the children’s novels about the adventuring Swallows and Amazons. Those children don’t actually appear in “The Big Six”, though there are links through their friends Dick and Dorothea Callum.

The novel, though set at the beginning of the ‘thirties, was first published in 1940 – a time when the very survival of the United Kingdom was questionable. The first readers must have perused its pages against the background of air-raid sirens, perhaps huddling in shelters against the falling bombs, or as young evacuees sent to safety in remote areas of the countryside. By that time Norfolk itself was part of an armed camp, soldiers on the march, airfields being constructed, fighters overhead and members of the Home Guard preparing to repel Nazi parachutists. Looking back a decade to a quieter England, must have been quite a relief to the book’s early fans.

A Heron at Horning (c) John Bainbridge 2015

A Heron at Horning (c) John Bainbridge 2015

The book, like its predecessor “Coot Club” is Ransome’s love letter to the Norfolk Broads. He writes quite beautifully about the countryside there. Years later, when I was an undergraduate at the nearby University of East Anglia, I used to journey up to Wroxham or Horning and hire a little boat and explore these same waters. The Broads are one of the delights of England. I was inspired very much by my childhood reading of Arthur Ransome.

Ransome writes with wonderful veracity about the Broads at a most interesting time. We see the early effects of tourism and boat hire, but there is a beautiful portrait of an eel-sett at night, the activities of an old-style village policeman, pre-war boatyards, doctors, solicitors and fishermen. More than a vanished world in so many ways. But the echoes are there if you go to the Norfolk Broads and look for yourself.

Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Ransome is particularly good at defining the class system, that silly institution that still bedevils so much of British existence. It’s interesting that the doctor’s son Tom Dudgeon is only very briefly suspected of being the culprit, even though he has form for casting off boats in the previous novel. But Bill, Pete and Joe, working class sons of boat-builders, are immediately under suspicion and persecuted in ways they wouldn’t be if they were perceived to be higher up the social scale. You can sense Ransome’s impatience with the class nonsense all the way through the book.

Like all good detective novels, there are lots of clues, red herrings, a race against time and a thrilling denouement. And characters that leap off the page.

If you haven’t encountered Ransome before this is a good one to start with, though you might like to try “Coot Club” first, or better still read all of the Swallows and Amazons novels in the order they were written.

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Edward VIII and the Nazis – Background to a Novel

Edward VIII and the Nazis – Background to a Novel
It is at first sight the very stuff of romance: the King who gave up his throne for the woman he loved. Growing up in England in the 1960s it was still a tale on the lips of the older generation, the Abdication of Edward VIII in December 1936, so that he might marry the American socialite Mrs Wallis Simpson. Had it not happened we may never have had Edward’s brother King George VI on the English throne during World War Two, or the present Queen reigning to this day.

In my youth there was still a feeling of distaste amongst older people that a popular monarch had been forced from the throne by a po-faced Establishment. Although a lot of the people detested Mrs Simpson, they were equally uneasy about the role played by other members of the royal family. I suspect I could have asked at random a number of people who were alive at the time and there would still be a feeling of betrayal. The affair with Mrs Simpson was kept from the British people until the last moment. Although it was widely reported in the American press, the British press barons made a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Buckingham Palace to keep the intrigue under wraps in Britain.

That was the story as I heard it as a child. But it is a mere percentage of the whole truth. Only in recent years has more of the background to the Abdication come out. And a lot more about the character of King Edward VIII, who became the Duke of Windsor after his abdication.

I have recently published an historical thriller, Balmoral Kill, which is set several months after the Abdication. In my book my characters have to deal with the very real crisis that overhung Britain in the period between the Abdication and the outbreak of World War Two in 1939.

The idea for the novel occurred to me several years ago when I saw a television interview with an elderly gentleman who had served as a British army officer in the events leading up to the fall of France in 1940, and the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. After arriving safely in England he had been billeted with an aristocratic family in southern England during the period of the Battle of Britain. He had said in the interview that he had been quite shocked when he found out that a number of landowning families thought that Britain should surrender to Hitler so that they might preserve their landholdings.

I was aware, of course, that there was a great deal of sympathy for Hitler in the British Establishment during the 1930s. This was in many cases quite overt. Even mainstream British newspapers such as the Daily Mail regularly heaped paeans of praise on the Third Reich, and published membership forms for Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists so that their readers might have the opportunity to join.

There was also a strong pacifist belief. Britain was still shocked by the slaughter in the trenches of the First World War. Many people thought that almost any accommodation with Nazi Germany was well worthwhile if it prevented another war. These individuals genuinely believed that Hitler would not interfere with Britain and its Empire if he was left alone. So deep was the fear of war that many chose to turn a blind eye to what Hitler as doing in Europe.

And while the majority of the British people were wise enough to have no truck with fascism and Hitlerism, there were elements of the British Establishment who thought that Hitler should be either appeased – the majority – or embraced – a very substantial minority. Indeed, appeasement was the policy of the British government, firstly under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and then his successor Neville Chamberlain. Well-meaning politicians both who simply couldn’t accept that anyone could be as evil and devious as Hitler. Former Prime Minister David Lloyd George visited Hitler in 1936 and was full of praise, considering him the “George Washington of Germany”. Newspaper barons Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, who were to be instrumental in hushing up King Edward’s affair with Wallis Simpson, were lavishly entertained by Hitler and subsequently praised him in their newspapers.

Even as late as May 1940, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, an arch appeaser himself, said that he had been “deluged with letters from a number of the nation’s greatest aristocrats imploring him to propose a policy of surrender and appeasement to Hitler, so that they might keep their great estates.” At the time King George VI favoured Halifax as Prime Minister instead of Churchill.

As a writer, I was interested in just how far people would go to keep Britain out of the war or to try and bring Nazism to Britain. I was fascinated with the notion that Winston Churchill, grandson of a duke, and a fully paid-up member of the British Establishment, was prepared to jeopardise his own political career to put forward a contrary point of view. To warn the British people of the dangers of Hitler right from the beginning. For much of the 1930s Churchill was a voice crying in the wilderness, unheeded and even laughed at. But history was to prove that his minority voice was wiser that of the cacophonous roaring of the appeasers and fellow-travellers of the Nazi regime. Researching further, I was surprised to find just how deep the roots of Nazism went into the very depths of the British Establishment.

Edward and the Nazis

Edward VIII, or the duke of Windsor as he became after the Abdication, does not actually appear at all in my novel Balmoral Kill, though his shadow drifts across, and is the motivation for, much of the plot. His brother and successor George VI does make a brief appearance.

The British royal family had had an uncomfortable twentieth century in many ways. In World War One, following air raids on London, they had been obliged to change their surname from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg -Gotha to Windsor, at a time when shops and businesses with German names were being attacked by mobs in the street. For two hundred years, from the accession of King George I, the family had been essentially German, considering German their first language over English. World War One had brought along the embarrassment of finding their country at war with King George V’s cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. As the 1930s progressed a number of their other German cousins were very obviously embracing the policies of Hitler’s Third Reich, at least one of their relatives even being an officer in Heinrich Himmler’s dreaded SS.

Given the British government’s policy of appeasing Hitler in the 1930s this didn’t actually present a problem to the royal family. Before the outbreak of World War Two, Nazism was a subject open for discussion – as far as the royal family were concerned. Edward VIII’s brother, the duke of Kent, made many visits to Germany and professed a fascination for all things Nazi. His Nazi relative in Germany, Prince Ludwig von Hessen-Damstadt noted “Duke of Kent. Very German friendly. Clearly against France. Not especially clever, but well informed. Entirely for strengthening German-English ties. His wife is equally anti-French.” (The duke of Kent’s opinion changed when Hitler started dropping bombs on London in 1940.)

All through the 1930s Edward VIII, both as Prince of Wales and King, entertained many Nazis on their visits to Britain, including von Mecklenburg – a notorious member of the SS – in 1933. Edward took great pains to excise any mention of the visit from the official Court Circular. He was on friendly terms with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi ambassador to London. Wallis Simpson may well have been on even friendlier terms with Ribbentrop. The talk of London was that she was having a sexual relationship with the ambassador at the same time that she was courting King Edward. Ribbentrop sent her seventeen red roses every morning during their time together in the British capital.

Edward hated the very concept of democratic monarchy. He wanted to be a king who ruled as well as reigned. He spoke on many occasions as to his regret that Britain and its people couldn’t be “controlled” by one ruler in the way that Hitler led Nazi Germany. Even in the pro-appeasement British Establishment the alarm bells were beginning to ring.

In December 1936, King Edward VIII, who had reigned for less than a year, abdicated, when the Church of England made it quite clear that no British king could marry a divorcee. It was sold in the newspapers that were sympathetic to him as a touching and very moving love story, the very essence of tragic romance. How far the church and other elements of the establishment were pressured to jettison a king who had become a political liability, using his romance as an excuse, is still open to debate.

But there were elements in British Intelligence, already contemplating the need to fight Hitler, who were thrilled to bits. His successor, his brother Albert, became King George VI. As it happened the new king also favoured a rapprochement with Germany, though not to the pro-Hitler extent that Edward had favoured. But, as far as British Intelligence was concerned, the removal of a solidly pro-Nazi king like Edward was a step in the right direction.

Winston Churchill despaired of Edward, or the duke of Windsor, as I shall call him from now on. He had loathed the very idea of the Abdication and was personally fond of the duke. There is little doubt that he thought that the duke should have kept the throne and, initially, viewed his extreme politics and sympathy with the Third Reich as a fad that he might grow out of. In the years that followed he changed his mind.

In 1937, the duke and duchess of Windsor made a visit to Germany that acquired considerable notoriety. To Churchill’s dismay they sailed to the country on the German liner Bremen, giving the Nazis a propaganda coup. During their time in Germany the pair visited a Nazi training school, inspected the already murderous SS and had tea with Hermann Goering. A few days later they dined with Hitler’s propaganda chief Dr Josef Goebbels. On 22 October 1937, the duke and duchess had a private and reportedly very friendly meeting with Adolf Hitler. On several occasions during the tour, the duke was to be seen making the infamous Nazi salute.

The duke and duchess settled to live in France and stayed there after the outbreak of World War Two. As a serving British army officer, the duke carried out inspections of France’s defensive Maginot Line. The suggestion has been made (see Martin Allen’s book Hidden Agenda) that he sent classified information about France’s defences to the Nazis, care of his friend Charles Bedaux, an American businessman who was spying for Hitler. The truth regarding this alleged treachery may never be known. Bedaux committed suicide in 1944 after being arrested by the FBI.

The Windsors were hastily moved to Lisbon when France fell to the Nazis in 1940. But even in neutral Portugal, the duke of Windsor was thought to be in contact with well-known Nazi officials and the Abwehr, German military intelligence. In despair, the British government decided to ship the couple off to the haven of the Bahamas, a British colony where they could be kept from German influence. At first the duke refused to go. A despairing Churchill reminded the duke that he was a serving British officer and that he would be court martialled if he refused to obey this direct order.

It was around this time that J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, on the direct order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, ordered surveillance on the couple, noting that the duchess in particular, still an American citizen, “was exceedingly pro-German in her sympathies and connections.” FBI files noted a great many links between the couple and the Nazis.

My own researches suggest that there is little doubt that the Third Reich favoured the return of the duke of Windsor to the British throne, almost from the time of the Abdication and his visit to Hitler in 1937. The duke of Windsor himself almost certainly considered such a possibility. How far he would have gone, if the circumstances had allowed it, is debatable. I doubt, for instance, that he would have tolerated the assassination of his brother and successor George VI, though had anything removed King George from the throne in any other way, there is a possibility that he might have returned either as king or regent.

I based the plot of Balmoral Kill, and I must stress that my book is an historical thriller and not a history volume, on the possibility that certain elements of the British Establishment contemplated such a scenario. Although in reality matters never went as far as I have imagined in my pages, there is little doubt that the idea behind it was given much serious consideration amid less patriotic elements of the British elite. It was only after doing further research into the period after I had finished writing that I realised how close I had got to some sort of truth.

Joachim von Ribbentrop certainly proposed that the duke of Windsor should become a puppet king if Britain fell to invasion in 1940, and King George VI and his family fled to Canada. Buckingham Palace was bombed no fewer than nine times during the London blitz. At the Nuremburg Trials, Ribbentrop said that he had personally offered the duke 50 million Swiss francs if he would make a claim on the British throne. The duke of Windsor denied that any such sum had been offered.


King George VI, overcame his shyness and his stammer and became a considerable figurehead for British resistance during World War Two. On his premature death in 1952 his daughter Princess Elizabeth became the present Queen. The duke and duchess of Windsor lived quietly in Paris, the duke dying in 1972 and the duchess in 1986. Their connections with Hitler’s Germany were skated over in their respective memoirs.

But at the end of the war, a military intelligence officer, Anthony Blunt, later Sir Anthony Blunt, subsequently Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was sent to Germany by officials at Buckingham Palace with the task of seeking out and removing from the Nazi archives any documents that might incriminate members of the royal family. Any papers he found were probably secreted in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Many years later, Blunt was discovered to be a spy for Soviet Russia. His only real punishment for treachery was the removal of his knighthood. The British public were amazed at this mild treatment of a traitor. Suggestions were made at the time, and have been since, that he was protected because he knew too much.
If we are ever to know the absolute truth about the relationship between the duke and duchess of Windsor and the Nazis, then the relevant files are probably in the archives of the United States. As late as 1953, Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister for the second time, asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to suppress any FBI documents that might suggest that the duke and duchess of Windsor were sympathetic – or even worse complicit – in the activities of the Nazi regime.

Sometimes when you write a work of fiction based on real events, you find that the events themselves are more astonishing that anything that could possibly be imagined.

John Bainbridge

John Bainbridge read history and literature at the University of East Anglia. Apart from Balmoral Kill he has written the Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest, the historical novel Loxley – The Chronicles of Robin Hood and several books about the British countryside. He has contributed to a great many newspapers and magazines. As a writing team with his wife he writes the Inspector Abbs historical mysteries, so far A Seaside Mourning and A Christmas Malice.

Balmoral Kill is available in paperback and on Kindle, Kobo and Nook eBooks.

Balmoral Kill is at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Balmoral-Kill-Sean-Miller-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00Q8I7LGO/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418549432&sr=1-1&keywords=balmoral+kill

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Night and the City by Gerald Kersh

Until recently, Night and the City was only known to me as a classic film noir set in London and starring Richard Widmark – one of the very best of that genre. I’ll return to the film version in a future blog. There is a later film version starring Robert De Niro, where the story is relocated to New York. I haven’t seen it so can’t comment, though I know a lot of people feel it to be inferior to the Widmark version.

I had never read the novel by Gerald Kersh, though it’s well known that the screenwriter of the Widmark film abandoned most of the plot, lots of the characters, and that the film company more or less paid Kersh for the evocative title.

There is a splendid edition of the book now published by London Books with an excellent, atmospheric and very informative introduction by John King. I really recommend that this is the edition that you seek out – not least because it is beautifully produced.

It is one of the finest novels about London, and in particularly the Soho district in the 1930s I have ever read. It is not a crime novel per se, though many of the characters operate on the fringes of the underworld. It is a lowlife novel, with characters whose lives are hopeless and tragic. The anti-hero Harry Fabian is one of life’s losers. A cockney who wants to get on, who pretends very often to be an American, with a bad imitation of the accent, on the grounds that it might impress others. Harry is a ponce (a pimp in modern parlance), a blackmailer, an entrepreneur of the crooked Soho world, who simply cannot compete with real existence in that great depression of the 1930s – the book is set in the period immediately before the coronation of King George VI.

Harry tries to get on, but every enterprise seems doomed to failure. He takes up one thing after another, but fails because he gets bored too easily and can’t persist with anything. He seems destined for a tragic end and, in a way, gets one. But not the end you might expect.
Every aspect of lowlife Soho is covered. Characters run dubious night-clubs, women are lured into working as hostesses and worse just in order to survive. There is a wonderful demonstration of the growth of fixed all-in wrestling matches at the time, and one of the best fight scenes in literature.

But this is almost, as we would say today, a docudrama. Kersh is clearly writing from his own great personal knowledge of this world, with the same vividness for social observation that you get in the writings of George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton.

Night and the City is not an easy read. It shows aspects of London life that we all know are there, but try not to think about, with an array of characters that make Kersh a kind of twentieth-century Dickens – Nosseros, the night-club owner, Helen the hostess, Zoe and Vi, working girls with a doubtful future, Bert the Costermonger, who is an object lesson on how to survive on the right side of the law, the Black Strangler, a wrestler with an uncertain temper.

If you ever want to know what lowlife London was really like in the 1930s then Night and the City is the book to read. I know Soho quite well. There are aspects of Kersh’s depiction that are still valid today.

I hadn’t discovered Gerald Kersh until I read Night and the City. Now I shall seek out more of his work. His own life was fascinating, as you’ll see if you look him up online. The characters and settings of this novel could never have been “mugged up” – only someone with first-hand knowledge could have produced a literary work of such distinction.

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, with an introduction by John King. Published by London Books.


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