Friday, August 23, 2019

FFB: Secret Sceptre - Francis Gerard

THE STORY: The preposterous plot of Secret Sceptre (1937) reads like a matinee cliffhanger serial overloaded with harrowing incidents, gruesome murders, hairsbreadth escapes and eleventh hour rescues. Sir John Meredith investigates a murder by decapitation carried out by men in armor and eventually uncovers an ancient secret society made up of men entrusted with protecting the Holy Grail.

THE CHARACTERS: Our hero is the inscrutable Sir John Meredith, a Foreign Office agent who becomes a policeman almost by accident. In this seventh book in sixteen book series he is aided by Sergeant Beef (who is nothing like his namesake created by Leo Bruce) and some other associates from both Scotland Yard and both Foreign and Home Offices. Meredith is not at all a likable man in this book. He comes off as arrogant, classist, and racist. Surprised? I'm not. He has little patience for anyone, insults people to their faces passing it off as wry wit, is constantly telling his colleagues to shut up and is generally one of the worst examples of the ubermacho self-styled aristocrats found in pre-WW2 era fiction written by British men. Took a while for me to warm up to him, but even then I didn't' think him the ideal candidate for the protagonist of a sixteen book series. Maybe he becomes less haughty and sarcastic as the series progresses.

Thankfully the book is filled with interesting and colorful characters along the way like Dermot O'Derg an Irish mercenary "born several centuries too late" whose "out of time persona" makes him the stand out in the very large cast. O'Derg is a powerful red haired man who might have been descended from Vikings despite his obvious Irish speech and heritage. He falls hard for the requisite "pale beauty" of the novel -- Daphne Birrell, sister of sculptor Nicholas Birrell, of one the many handsome young men who met a grisly end over the course of the book.  (For some reason Gerard likes to kill of "handsome young men" with an almost gleeful sadism.  No sooner has a "handsome young man" appeared within the story he is almost immediately dispatched with callous cruelty. Wonder what that's about!)

Apart from O'Derg it's the villains who steal the show. There is the sadistic American who speaks with an indeterminate foreign accent Al Cartell-Ardew, the master criminal of the novel who is constantly slapping the face of his Asian-Jewish servant Li-Fu Isaacs. There is a Russian secret agent who join forces with Cartell-Ardew. And let me not forget the motley crew of oddball criminals Cartell-Ardew hires in order to free a prisoner who he needs for his master plan. In one of the more hilarious portions of this very odd book Cartell-Ardew engineers a prison break that seems like a Mission: Impossible episode as written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. The group of crooks masquerade as French prison experts and demand a tour of Broadhurst prison then manage to ferret out their targeted inmate all without once resorting to violence.

INNOVATIONS:  Secret Sceptre is a strange mix of straightforward adventure with hard edged violence and loopy farce. I'm convinced that Gerard was in fact parodying all of the superhero protagonists of British pulp fiction. The prison break sequence alone is evidence enough. Gerard's irreverent humor mixes groaning puns, Abbott & Costello wordplay, a couple of dirty jokes (one about "Lord Hereford's Knob" amazingly escaped the blue pencil of the 1937 editor at MacDonald), and low farce clearly are all signs of high spirited fun. Nothing is meant to be taken too seriously here. Witness this pointless and ridiculous exchange between Daphne and Nicholas as they snack on pieces of melon while lounging in their pajamas and dressing gowns:

"Why must you make those disgusting sucking noises, Nick?"
"Can't help it," he replied, "the damn thing drips so and I haven't got a bib."

En route to the Welsh coast in order to get to Fishguard where Slim Shardoc, an American crook is being held for questioning Meredith has a car accident. While speeding down the foggy road a boy on a bicycle appears seemingly out of nowhere and he swerves and skids to avoid hitting the boy. He gets of out of the wrecked car and swears up a storm in Hindustani which Gerard graciously translates for us: "Now may Shaitan gather thee to his bosom in the nethermost pit which is seven times heated."  And then -- "John put his head back, raised his fists to the sky, opened his mouth and howled like a wolf, at which the small boy, hastily remounting his bicycle, peddled frantically into the darkness."

As the outrageous story progresses, the bodies pile up, the offbeat sense of humor becomes increasingly ludicrous and the climax seems like something out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail four decades before that comedy troupe ever thought up their King Arthur saga parody. Even if Gerard's description of the Knights of the Holy Grail is presented as deadly serious, the mix of nationalism and sanctimonious dogma in which the secret society members espouse their mission "to keep England English and Christian," the scene and group ultimately come off as absurdly risible while simultaneously being scarily resonant in our isolationist narrow-minded age. The Knights exploit the local superstition about a haunted abbey where they are headquartered by dressing as white robed monks thereby hoping to be seen as ghosts if anyone might accidentally encounter them in their nightly vigils. Typical of Gerard's eccentric humor the Grand Master of the Knights of the Holy Grail is an ornithologist whose keen observational skills aided by his high powered binoculars prove very helpful at a key moment.

I'll leave it at that. You must read the book to discover the rest on your own.

THINGS I LEARNED: Arabic lessons! Meredith suspects that Al Cartell-Ardew is not American at all. Using his knowledge of Arabic and Muslim culture Meredith tells his police colleagues that the man's name is an Anglicization of al kātil adū which translates as "deadly enemy." The actual 21st century transliteration of the Arabic for deadly enemy is alqatil aleaduu.

QUOTES:  John Meredith had the reputation of a complete lack of scruple, but this applied only to his methods, not to the end in view. He was one of those men who believe that if you have to fight at all, every weapon is justifiable.

THE AUTHOR: The most complete and interesting biographical information written about Francis Gerard appears on the rear flap of the Tom Stacey reissue of Secret Sceptre, the edition I own. Most of the bio blurb is quoted verbatim below with some additional trivia in brackets added by me:

"Francis Gerard was born in London in 1905. His father was French and much of his childhood was spent in France. He began to write while working in London as a dealer in precious stones. His first stories appeared in The Thriller [a weekly magazine that published the work of several well-known and prolific crime fiction writers like Gerald Verner, Berkeley Gray, Leslie Charteris and James Ronald].

"During the war he served as Major in the Essex Regiment, while his wife worked at the foreign Office. In 1946 he moved, with his family and aging parents, to Natal where he became a South African citizen. Gradually he wrote less and less, devoting much of his time to politics instead. Springbok Rampant, a semi-autobiographical account of his reasons for leaving Britain, was published in 1951. [The title is a heraldic reference pointing out Gerard’s lifelong interest in heraldry and coats of arms, an interest which featured prominently in Secret Sceptre and frequently turns up in his other fiction.]

"He married twice and had three children by his second wife. He died in 1966."

Sir John Meredith Adventure & Crime Novels
Number 1-2-3 (1936) (US title: The 1-2-3 Murders)
Concrete Castle (1936) (US title: The Concrete Castle Murders)
The Black Emperor (1936)
The Dictatorship of the Dove (1936)
Fatal Friday (1937)
Red Rope (1937)
Secret Sceptre (1937)
The Prince of Paradise (1938)
Golden Guilt (1938)
Emerald Embassy (1939)
The Mind of John Meredith (1946)
Sorcerer's Shaft (1947) - only in a minor role
Flight into Fear (1948)
The Prisoner of the Pyramid (1948)
The Promise of the Phoenix (1950)
Transparent Traitor (1950)
Bare Bodkin (1951)

5 comments:

  1. "O'Derg is a powerful red haired man who might have been descended from Vikings despite his obvious Irish speech and heritage."
    It seems that the Irish are actually a lot more Viking than anyone had supposed: https://www.independent.ie/breaking-news/irish-news/irish-population-in-serious-decline-before-vikings-arrived-research-finds-38425307.html

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  2. I do love a good mystery farce. I will be searching for this or some other Gerard volume.

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    1. Today, to my delight, I found a library discard of one of Gerard's books at the local dump. Alas, it turned out to be one of his historical fiction books, THE FLAIL AND THE FISH, rather than a GAD crime novel so I still have not read a Sir John Merideth story. I'll still read it, but I'd much prefer a crime novel.

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    2. At the dump?! Do they separate books in a special place? I used to visit a paper pulper/recycling plant that had their own used book store. They’d rescue the rare and collectible from being pulped, sell them and use the funds to help run the place. They closed it down a couple of years ago. I found quite a few amazing books there— some still with old dust jackets.

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  3. The Irish-Viking connection is well-known. "Vikings" from Norway and later Denmark, raided and then settled in Ireland from roughly 800-1014 AD and Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Limerick are all now recognised as Viking settlements. Medieval (Church) historians played down the Viking heritage but archaeology has confirmed it beyond doubt.

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