Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Pass Beyond Kashmir - Berkely Mather

The P.R. materials I received with my copy of the recent reprint of The Pass Beyond the Kashmir (1960) call it a "ripping yarn." While that is a perfect marketing catchphrase it is something of a disservice to this remarkable novel by John Weston-Davies, former military man who served in both Australia and India. Writing as "Berkely Mather" Weston-Davies created three series characters Peter Feltham, British spy Jack Wainwright, and Idwal Rees who debuts in this book. Amazingly, this action packed story is Mather's second novel. It's a masterfully balanced story that blends literate prose, spirited characters, cultural insights and suspenseful action. So impressively done The Pass Beyond the Kashmir is practically a textbook on how to write the perfect adventure page-turner.

The story takes our hero Idwal Rees through a rugged adventure marked by multiple pursuits, captures and escapes as he and an Australian opportunist named Smedley try to make their way from Bombay to Kashmir. There they plan to meet George Polson, a retired British major, who will lead them to the location of documents that may reveal the source of a hidden oil reserve. Aided by Rees' servant Samaraz, a strong-willed Pathan, the two men get off to a bad start when the major vanishes from his home where his wife has been brutally attacked. The local police begin to show an interest in the major's disappearance and based on the probing questions Rees suspects that it may have something to do with the documents. As the three continue eluding and escaping a variety of villains it is clear everyone wants the major and/or the documents. At one point Rees quotes an Indian proverb which aptly sums up the seemingly endless chases: "The Indian night is blind for the watched, but has a thousand eyes for the watcher."

Over the course of these densely packed 190 pages the reader will also be tutored in all things Indian and Asian. Mather is especially adept at interspersing into the action a series of lessons in everything from the Indian caste system to the making of Tibetan butter tea. Below are a few more of the numerous tidbits picked up:
  • In India it is not the Express train that will get you to your destination the fastest, it is the Mail train. The express is actually a local.
  • Speakers of Urdu cannot pronounce an initial S sound with first adding an additional vowel sound. Therefore, Smedley becomes Ish-medley.
  • Only Muslims who have made the arduous journey to Mecca and paid their respects to Mohammed there have earned the right to wear a green turban.  (this may not be so true now apparently)
  • A Pathan is an upper caste Muslim. In the story Samaraz is a particularly intolerant, in fact intensely hateful, of anyone not of his caste.
  • You apparently cannot do anything in India without the help of baksheesh. Rees and friends are lucky to have the wads of rupees with them as they are constantly passing out money to everyone they meet.
The characters are alive and human and so unexpected in how they behave. Along the way Rees will meet a mysterious Sikh of unknown allegiance; Yev Shalom, "seller and buyer of anything" especially information, who is eerily omniscient in how he obtains that information; a tenacious and very clever British nurse who sees through one of the many disguises Rees and Smedley must adopt; a blind brigadier general who helps guide them to Kashmir; and the requisite master criminal who will turn out to have a surprisingly close connection to Rees. These and several others make for a even more entertaining "ripping yarn."

Humor is also abundant amidst the more serious aspects of the story's violence and politics. Smedley becomes the object of Rees' anger several times and Rees deals with his frustrations and sublimated rage when he chooses to give Smedley a variety of humiliating disguises. He at first shaves his hair and eyebrows, uses shoe polish to darken his skin, and passes him off as a lower caste servant. Pathan insults Smedley further by saying he looks like a dung seller. Later, Smedley is forced to wear a burkah and pretend to be a woman. When he takes advantage of this disguise by attempting to board one of the women only passenger cars on a train all hell breaks loose. It seems his physique and gait give him away immediately.

The Pass Beyond Kashmir is one of the many reissued adventure thrillers released by Top Notch Thrillers, that fine imprint of Ostara Publishing. Mike Ripley, editor of the series, has once again uncovered a whopper of a tale, an exciting page turner to rival anything published today. In fact, I prefer something like this book over the padded doorstop tomes we have nowadays. Mather's story not only has the ring of truth and authenticity thanks to his many years of living in India he tells his tale with hardly one diversion into the Land of Backstory and limits himself with psychological character explanations. As I mentioned before this book is a wonderful primer on how to write a thriller, how first and foremost in this genre it is how action can reveal character better than long drawn out explanations of past life experience. An adventure tale more than any other genre should have immediacy and should take place first and foremost in the present. The Pass Beyond Kashmir is as immediate as they come.

The Espionage and Adventure Novels of Berkely Mather

Idwal Rees and Samaraz appear in:
Berkely Mather as he appears on
the DJ of one of his early books
The Pass Beyond Kashmir (1960)
The Terminators (1971)
Snowline (1973)

Jack Wainwright, British spy appears in:
The Springers (1968) aka A Spy for a Spy
The Break in the Line (1970) aka The Break
The Terminators (1971)

Peter Feltham appears in:
The Achilles Affair (1959)
With Extreme Prejudice (1975)

Non-Series Thrillers
Geth Straker (1962) (based on radio scripts of an adventure serial)
The Gold of Malabar (1967)
The White Dacoit (1974)

Mather has also written historical fiction, TV scripts and was the screenwriter for Dr. No and The Long Ships, an unintentionally campy sword and sandal feature about Vikings and Moors in search of a legendary golden bell.  I may write up a review of that movie which he co-wrote with Beverley Cross.


  1. John, I have heard of many, and read a few, books fictionalised during the British occupation of India but this is not one of them. Thank you for writing about THE PASS BEYOND KASHMIR which certainly seems like a “remarkable” novel. Western writers have been fascinated by Kashmir, the Khyber Pass, linking Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Tibet for more than a century. I can perceive their interest in these regions which continues to attract global attention even today, all for the wrong reasons. I’m going to have to get hold of this book as well as some of the others by John Weston-Davies.

    “You apparently cannot do anything in India without the help of baksheesh” (bribe, informally). That holds true even now.

    1. I didn't have time or space to talk about all the political aspcets of the book which are numerous. There is a subtantial section of the book devoted to smuggling of Tibetan refugees and their brutal treatment at the hands of a murderous Chinese army. There is also a amzingly prescient monologue delivered by the "master criminal" in which he pontificates on how China will soon be a dominaant world power because no one is paying attention to where their true interests lie. Weston-Davies invents a fictional plot that I shouldn't ruin but it makes a lot of sense in the context of the story. He does, however, erronesouly think that nuclear power will not be of much interest to India or China. So while the author may have been somewhat of a seer in predicitng China's future place in global politics he definitely missed the mark as far as the nuclear race went.

  2. I'm a happy woman today. A new author and a list of books I can't wait to read. You are a treasure, John, for introducing me to yet another writer.

    1. This is a fantastic book, Carol. When I hit the halfway mark I knew I had to read more by Mather. So I went to the CPL and discovered that every single one of his books is on their shelves! I picked out two of the most interesting including THE TERMINATORS since it's the 2nd Idwal Rees book.

      You will make Mike Ripley and Andrew at Ostara very happy if you buy a copy of the Top Notch Thrillers reprint of The Pass Beyond Kashmir. Mike told me in an emial yesterday that he plans on reissuing the two other Idwal Rees books if all goes as planned.

  3. This sounds great John, I'll have to get a copy. I was introgued when Mike said he was putting this one out as I only know of 'Mather' through his screen work. Sounds like a real corker (to use some vintage Brit jargon) - cheers mate.

  4. Lovely summary of the book and work of a writer.

  5. I've just finished 'the break in the line," by Mather and stumbled upon this review while searching for more Mather Greats! Although I haven't read this one, the review builds my excitement that they will all be so good. The cultural lessons in these stories stand out by far. I feel you could read many books about the Far Eastern ways and not learn as much as from one of these books. I enjoyed The Break in the line immensly. The characters carry such weight it was a shame to finish.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree, Mike. If you come across a copy of THE GOLD OF MALABAR - pick it up. I also wrote about that book here. In many ways I think it's even better than THE PASS BEYOND KASHMIR.