Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The Mystery of Tunnel 51 [books]

Oh, what a refreshing surprise this 1920s adventure story was! The first in Alexander Wilson's series of Wallace novels, it begins with a mystery: a soldier carrying the plans for the British defences in India is murdered on his way to deliver them to the Viceroy, and the plans are stolen by the Russians. With no idea how the plans were taken from him without anyone noticing, let alone where the plans might now be, the Viceroy calls in the head of the Secret Service, Sir Leonard Wallace, and his second-in-command, William Brien. They fly across from England to solve the mystery. Car chases, secret tunnels, and even the occasional bomb all follow as Wallace pits his wits against the nefarious Levinsky.

Missing plans, a murder, aeroplanes... Sounds like a fairly typical Jazz Age adventure, right? But if you've read the Robot for any length of time, you'll know I usually have a very good grizzle about vintage portrayals of people of colour, especially in adventure stories. Here's the thing: Wilson himself actually lived in Lahore in what was then India (now Pakistan), and worked there. He shows an appreciation for the cities and people that you don't often come across in adventure stories of the period. My heart sank when Batty, Wallace's 'man' took umbrage at some Indian staff at the Viceroy's house, trotting out some awful phrases... but by the end of the chapter he was singing their praises and learning a bit of Hindustani. Likewise, when he wanders into a local village near Simla, he seems amiable and willing to get along, even charming a group of ladies on the way despite their language differences. Batty himself is more than the comedic relief working-class characters are so often relegated to in adventure stories.

Of course, it's not perfect. The attitude towards Indian people is still patronising, and while there are all sorts of Indian policemen, businessmen and so on to be seen, heroic action is pretty much all the province of white men. The social structure of the time – posh white men in charge, working-class white men and brown men doing as they're told – is presented but not questioned. (My own McDonald forebears were in Asia at this time; none of them could ever have hoped to reach a management position within the Post Office or telegraph service, regardless of talent, because they were mixed race.) The lead villain is Russian and is described several times as looking Jewish; 1920s casual antisemitism rearing its ugly head there. But for its time, and for its setting, I was mostly pleasantly surprised by the portrayal of people of colour, and very pleased by the hero's attitude towards them.

So, taking my usual reservations into account, did I enjoy this book? Absolutely. The mystery of how the plans were stolen is an interesting one. Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim is one of the most famous about British/Russian espionage ('The Great Game') in India, but there aren't many others. It's easy to forget how much the Russian Revolution shook Europe, as it's overshadowed by the Second World War for us looking back, but in its way this is a reaction to that as much as a nod to Kipling's well-loved story. And the story is pacy and engaging. A good 'un!

20 comments :

  1. Oooh, I've been meaning to tell you about the Wallace novels ever since I stumbled across three of them (oddly, and frustratingly, numbers 8-10 of 10 - what's that about, eh?!) in my local branch of The Works (on a 3 for £5 deal, now sadly finished). "Mim would like these", I thought to myself, having read all three of them in record time.

    Absolutely agree with you - ripping stories, very well-paced and enjoyable. I couldn't put them down! It's true that some of the views are definitely "of their time" - in one story a character displays opinions that would nowadays be classed as homophobic, and the author's antisemitism is evident on more than one occasion. But that sadly was the norm back in the 1920s and 30s, as you say, and for me it didn't detract from the overall storylines. I'm now on the look out for the rest, including The Mystery of Tunnel 51. Glad to hear you enjoyed it too!

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    1. I've added a load of them to my Amazon wishlist, which I maintain to help confused relatives. (Otherwise I'll end up with more body lotion, and I still have some of that left from Christmas 2014!)

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  2. A spy story set in India, now you're talking. That's one I haven't read. With the prospect of a return to my spiritual homeland not too far away I start consuming any book remotely Indian I can lay my paws on.
    I know what you mean, I tend to favour Indian authors over Colonial ones. Some of the language in Kim is cringe-worthy.
    I am quite fond of John Masters, The Lotus and The Wind was about "The Great Game". xxx

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    1. I enjoyed Kim more than I expected to. And, to be honest, I find the writings of people who had actually spent time in Asia infinitely preferable to that of those who hadn't - one early 50s crime novel disgusted me in its portrayal of a mixed-race airman. (I have kept the book because it reminds me just how hard things would have been for my family in many instances. It still enrages me!)

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  3. On my last visit to the US I couldn't help but notice the only groups it was ok to publicly insult & treat with contempt were the white working class and the obese. I guess people always need someone to be nasty to?
    Casual antisemitism seems to be almost a must for 1920s novels.
    Sounds like a good book none the less!

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    1. It looks like that's changed, the US appears to be experiencing a wave of nastiness similar to that we saw in post-Brexit Britain.

      I wish people all decided they needed someone to be extra nice to instead. What a lovely place the world would be then!

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  4. Thank you for the great review. It sounds like a really interesting book an not too much of a period piece. I never fail to be surprised by the levels of sexism and racism in those early 20th C books but it was so endemic even until relatively recently. When we were cleaning out the loft in my Mum's house she had an old time of paint from the 1960's and the colour was called "n****r brown" printed in big letters on the front. Mum said that was a very popular colour and was used a lot in reference. I found a book in the charity shop and thought of you. It is an "Inspector Singh Investigates....." and is set in Malaysia. Have you read it? Any good? Xx

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    1. Ooh, I haven't read that one. I've got some of the Inspector Ghote books (India) and they're very good.

      N-word brown. I hadn't realised that was still being talked about in the 60s; I see it a lot in 1930s clothes/fabric adverts. Glad that expression has gone from our lexicon.

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  5. Sounds like a interesting read in many aspects. Great review. xxx

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    1. It was! I always read these books knowing there will be something offensive, so it was a relief when things turned out better than expected.

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  6. That does sound like a good read, Mim. I must keep my eyes peeled for this author. I love the cover as well.

    Have a great weekend

    Veronica
    vronni60s.blogspot.com

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    1. I'm glad I picked it up; I read one of the others in the series but didn't enjoy it half so much, but the Indian setting persuaded me to give this one a try.

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  7. One to add to the list, thanks Mim!

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    1. Can't beat a good adventure story!

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  8. That isn't my normal kind of book (although it's so long since I sat down and read anything, who knows if my tastes have changed) but with this review I might be tempted! Thanks Mim!

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    1. I love a good tale of derring-do. Something with plenty of action and adventure, where wrongs are righted and the day saved.

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  9. I suppose I will have to keep this in my mind's notebook, and maybe the book will get translated - one day. There are a lot of books, some of them intriguing, world-known and rewarded that haven't yet been available over here.

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    1. If there's ever anything you'd like me to send you, let me know - we have a godo cheap bookshop in Trow so I could keep an eye out for things.

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  10. Sounds really interesting, will keep a look out for it.

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