Codes and spies and stuff

The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan

Reading this book appealed because I love the Hitchcock film and I was looking for a couple of short books to read before embarking on 1Q84.

Richard Hannay is an intriguing lead character. He has made himself a small pile of money mining in Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia, as it was then) and come to London to enjoy his earnings, but quickly finds himself bored and lonely. So it’s almost a stroke of luck when he discovers a Mr Scudder has been murdered in his flat, just days after the victim confided in him that he has uncovered an assassination plot that could lead to war.

As prime suspect in the murder, Hannay flees London for remote Scotland with both the British police and a German spy ring close at his heels. His resourcefulness and acting skills ensure there is never a dull moment. And he has Scudder’s coded notebook, with a mysterious message about 39 steps.

I really liked this. It’s an enjoyable romp and yet any reader knows that the war Hannay is working so hard to avoid is inevitable (the dates are clearly given as May and June 1914), which gives it a sad air. The descriptions of Scotland are beautiful but brief because there is no space here for asides. It’s 107 pages of action and, as such, was perfect for translation to film, but there was still, as always, something lost in transition. The book explains why Hannay is how he is and briefly summarises the political state of Europe, neither of which is in the film, as I recall.

First published 1915.

Steampunk spy action

The Vesuvius Club
by Mark Gatiss

A friend passed this book on to me describing it as a “romp”. I think that’s an excellent assessment. All very silly and over-the-top but undeniably fun.

This is the first book in the Lucifer Box series, that being the name of their outlandish hero. Box inherited wealth and a property on Downing Street and as far as most of the world is concerned he’s a dandy and a so-so artist with a big ego. But he has a secret life as a spy for the British government. Throw in an Edwardian setting with a touch of steampunk, some rather open sexuality and a black sense of humour and you get the gist.

The story in this case is that two prominent scientists have recently died and a British secret agent who reported having suspicions about their deaths has gone missing. Box is asked to investigate and looks forward to the necessary trip to Italy, but first he has to get his best friend Christopher Miracle out of a spot of bother and he’d quite like to close the deal with the beautiful Bella Pok. And what’s with the suspiciously un-businesslike undertaker Tom Bowler?

As you can see, the names are fantastic. Dickensian, or perhaps sillier than that. And Box is deliciously twisted, initially seeming quite unfeeling and cruel, though his concern for his friend Miracle proves that assumption wrong. The story powers along at full speed, with multiple attempts on his life, including a horse and carriage chase through a cemetery. Like Sherlock Holmes, Box has his London low-life helpers, who are a brilliant touch even if the attempt to write in their Cockney accents did grate a little.

Box narrates the story as a cross between a memoir and a casebook. He delights in the religious connotations of his name and plays on this often. As he does in misleading the reader. And there were some nice touches. The “office” he goes to receive his spy missions is a men’s toilet, because the government can’t afford better. And the scattered illustrations by Ian Bass add a certain stylishness.

To be honest, this was fun but it wasn’t great. The characters are all absurdly over the top, which is I’m sure deliberate but not my taste. The attempts to surprise or gross out the reader are blatant, the science/technology stuff is ridiculous and the action got a bit hard to follow. Not that you need to follow it closely, the detail isn’t hugely important, but considering I read this in one day it’s pretty bad that I still got a bit lost whenever I put it down and picked it up again.

I should probably add that I am not a fan of the League of Gentlemen, Gatiss’s most famous writing credit, though I do really like the new BBC Sherlock Holmes series, which he co-writes. I generally dislike caricatures and gross-out comedy. If you like League of Gentlemen you will probably like this book a lot. I think it says something about the skill of the writer that I didn’t dislike it and I did laugh at times. But I won’t be rushing to pick up the sequels.

First published 2004 by Simon and Schuster.