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.