Thursday, May 26, 2016

1957 BOOK: Conquest after Midnight - Berkeley Gray

For years I kept coming across the Norman Conquest books being offered up for sale on various bookselling websites. “Hmm,” I often mumbled to myself. “I wonder if those are any good.” But I never gave in to temptation. Maybe in the back of my mind knowing that “Berkeley Gray” was one of the many pseudonyms of the prolific thriller and crime fiction writer Edwy Searles Brooks kept me away for decades. The bulk of Brooks’ career was spent writing juvenile adventure stories for the British boys’ magazines and then spending a lot of time writing for Amalgamated Press and helping to further the exploits of Sexton Blake. I’ve never been interested in that kind of thriller so I avoided all of his books under his various guises.

Then one day earlier this year I stumbled across a mini library of Norman Conquest books at a Half Price Books location near me. All of them were $8 or less and so I bought them all. When I learned that Norman Conquest is a sort of clone of Simon Templar and that one of the books I now owned was published in 1957 fitting into this month’s Crime of the Century reading challenge, I decided to finally sample one of the adventures of the man known as the “Gay Desperado”. My fears all proved well founded. Even though this book was written in the 1950s it was like travelling back to the early twentieth century and read very much like a boy’s adventure story.

Like much of this pulp fiction the story is fast paced and often quite fun. And yet it is plagued with hoary plot devices, shallow observations about human nature, naïve or stupid characters who fail to see the obvious, and cringe worthy dialogue. Witness, for example, what Fiona says after a gasoline tanker crashes through her living room wall and explodes in a fiery inferno. Does she break down in tears, scream, rant, or rave now that her home and all her belongings have literally gone up in smoke? No, she wimpily exclaims, “Oh dear! What a muddle!”

There is nothing remotely modern about Conquest after Midnight (1957) which is a very old-fashioned potboiler. There is a rich master criminal (a prominent member of Parliament who owns an independent political newspaper) who devises a preposterous plot in order to remove a former business partner he cheated and who is now planning to expose him. Does he threaten him with violence or shoot him dead? Does he hire a thug to beat the guy up or otherwise scare him into silence? No, the M.P. pretends to be interested in starting a private zoo, buys a lion, and hires a couple of men to let the lion loose on his enemy who he knows takes an evening stroll. Let the lion be blamed for having escaped and mauling the man in a surprise but bizarre encounter at night. And everyone chalks it up to an accident. You have to give Rupert Hargrove credit for over-the-top imagination. Other bad guys might just try to run down the guy with a car. I think Hargrove watched too many old movies.

Though filled with cinematic escapades and melodramatic incidents the story is very thin. It easily could be told in less than 100 pages but Brooks’ long career in writing serials for magazines reveals the curse of this kind of penny-a-word writing: constant and needless reiteration. If the story was read from week to week the recounting of previous events would be somewhat necessary. To have Conquest tell characters things we’ve already been told three pages prior is more than annoying. A simple sentence like “He told Fiona what he told the police.” would serve perfectly fine. Not for Brooks. He must tell us two, three, sometimes as many as four times things that need only be explained once.

I’ll admit that it was fun to see how many quirks Norman Conquest has in common with Simon Templar and similar “gentleman adventurers” found in thriller fiction. He is independently wealthy having amassed a fortune from somewhat crooked dealings, helping himself to portions of the wealth of the rich villains he does battle with. Like Templar he leaves behind a calling card. Conquest’s has the significant date 1066 printed in red. Cute.

Towards the end of the book there are absurd surprises:

  • A coil of rope Conquest “invariably” wore “as an additional article of attire.” Added as an afterthought: “Easily carried between his undershirt and shirt and quite comfortable.” Batman’s utility belt would be a lot more comfortable.
  • Wry commentary meant to be witty but falling short of the mark: “This was no occasion for applying the Queensberry rules” when Conquest starts throwing punches in a fistfight.
  • The insults and epithets are pretty tame, too: “You’re a fast worker, slug.” “Careless of you, poison, to come alone...” “Don’t be such a rabbit...” (This last one spoken by a murderer to his cohort)
  • An Italian villain actually exclaims “Maledizione!” when foiled as if he were Snidely Whiplash in a literally translated Dudley Do-Right cartoon.
  • Conquest boards his private airplane (a Mills Conister Fury) with his wife and pilots his way to Italy to rescue the requisite damsel in distress who of course is being used as a bargaining chip. Hand over the incriminating documents or the girl gets it--- all the way over in Italy, no less.

This is the type of book where the rich and powerful villain can’t be bothered to save his own skin. He hides behind his façade of respectability and hires goons and lummoxes, and in one case a femme fatale who owes him a favor, to do all his ludicrous dirty work. There would be no story if these crooks behaved like real violent criminals who want to protect themselves and just shot everyone dead. Instead we get all this globetrotting silliness, murder by a “monstrous device” that resembles lion claws, kidnapping on board a cable car in the Italian mountains, and stowing the abducted damsel in a refugio hidden in the forest.

I expect more from a writer with a long career in concocting this kind of formulaic crime novel. Most crime writers who have successfully had long careers spanning multiple decades found it necessary to evolve and adapt to reflect how the plots, characters and formulae of crime fiction change with the times. Brooks seemed to find it very easy to cling to his origins and remain firmly rooted in the past. After reviewing the various bibliographies at the Edwy Searles Brooks tribute website I learned that Brooks recycled many of his stories. This tends to be the curse of the writer who feels compelled to produce numerous books at a logic defying rate. John Creasey did the same thing in order to deliver his hundreds of books in his various writing personas. Though many of the Norman Conquest books are noted as being rewrites of plots Brooks used in boys' papers or other pulp magazines Conquest after Midnight apparently was an original story for this series. Could have fooled me.

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This is my second contribution for the Crime of the Century vintage mystery blog meme sponsored by Past Offences. During May we read books published in 1957. My other, much more enjoyable read, was Three for the Chair by Rex Stout.

10 comments:

  1. I don't know, all these very convincing and well-argued criticisms, but somehow it still sounds tremendously appealing. It's probably that splendid cover.

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    1. I'll admit that much of Norman Conquest's dialogue cracked me up because it was just so anachronistic. Reading this book was sort of like watching a 1930s serial. For a book written in 1957 I expected something a bit more mature and less frothy. It's almost like a nostalgia piece.

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  2. I'm not much into the 'Boy's Own Paper' genre of detective fiction but if I'm in the right mood they can be marvellously entertaining. I suppose that if all murderers committed their crimes in a logical and straightforward way, much GAD fiction would lose its savour. I love the idea of the lion.

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    1. A valid point about GAD fiction. Maybe if I had pretended it was written and set in 1937 I would've been less harsh. It's just hard to believe something like this was published three years before 1960. Very out of touch with the times.

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  3. Well, I guess you have to be the right age to enjoy this kind of stuff and if you didn't read them with enjoyment then, well, lets just say it sounds like that ship may have sailed for both of us!

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    1. Let's face it, Sergio. I've become a curmudgeon. What a sad realization. Once upon a time I would've been delighted by this kind of book. Now I just sort of snicker at it.

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  4. I once bought a copy of Gray's 'Calamity Conquest', seeing that it received mention in Robert Adey's locked room bibliography. I also picked up one of the titles published as by Victor Gunn, 'Death at Traitors' Gate', which sounds more promising as the crime location is within the precincts of the Tower of London. I have long been a fan of The Mad Hatter Mystery by Carr, so I wonder how this one compares? Thank you for providing some insight into what I can expect.

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    1. Guess what? One of the books in my Berkeley Gray bag of books is CALAMITY CONQUEST! Now I have to read that one.

      I have two by Victor Gunn and I have to say after sampling the first couple of chapters of THE DEAD MAN LAUGHS I like Bill "Ironsides" Cromwell a lot more than Conquest. He's brusque, impatient, temperamental -- a lot more human. Not at all like the devil-may-care wiseacre Gay Desperado who is too cartoonishly superhuman for me. I read all of the plot blurbs for the Ironsides books at the Brooks website and many seem to have neo-Gothic elements that would appeal to me -- haunted cemeteries, legends of highwaymen, ghosts, and an impossible crime in a pub were some of the details that caught my eye. But compared to the Conquest books (which must've sold in the thousands) they're next to impossible to find. When books by Victor Gunn do turn up for sale the prices are absurd. [...sigh...]

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  5. I'm going to start using “Don’t be such a rabbit...” even though I'm not sure what it means.

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  6. I'll also say "What a muddle!" But what an entertaining review this is. Thank you so much John. I have a book of this author somewhere. Now I must read it.

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