Every so often someone will email me to let me know of books that may pique my interest: Kate at CrossExaminingCrime has brought several Freeman Wills Croftses to my attention, and Ben of The Green Capsule has also informed me of some bargains, including today’s title that, it’s fair to say, we’re still not sure who was most excited to discover existed.
Ben has himself recently commented on how tricky it can be trying to nail down Brand’s oeuvre, and this seems to me another case in point. It’s well-known enough to be listed on her Wikipedia page, but — as with Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947) by Freeman Wills Crofts — doesn’t perhaps fit in well enough with our contemporary perception of Brand and her works to warrant a reprint. Like the other YAGAD titles I’ve read this month, you also can’t really see it resonating with the yoof of today; hell, I work with the age group this was probably intended for, and I don’t think I’d recommend it to even the most book-hungry of them. Yes, it is most assuredly of its time, and feels very dated, but in many ways this is what we GAD fans come for and so much of the following won’t deter you one bit.
So, first the physical book itself. The inside flap notes the following:
The success of Green for Danger, the film and radio versions of which were amongst the most popular programmes with children, according to the recent Ministry of Education report, not only assures this new title (the author’s first juvenile) of a wide welcome and entitles the author to be considered amongst our leading writers for children as well as for adults, but confirms the author’s own view, ‘the too many people write specially for boys and girls: this is a book about boys and girls, but it is written just as though it were for grown-up people’.
[Editor’s note — that’s me, JJ — italics are not added]
As with Robin Brand, which preceded this by a brace of years, there’s very much the feeling of making it evident to young ‘uns just how seriously this is being taken — not just any old crud for you, nothing but the finest authors flown in specially to treat this with the brow-furrowing seriousness it deserves. The rear flap, too, featuring a photo of the smiling Brand holding aloft her Siamese cat Willie-Davy and full of her recollections of childhood adventures in India (“I lived in a farm house, and leopards used to come down from the woods above us and steal the farm animals: and huge black monkeys used to come and rob the orchard … another time, I was in a swimming bath and there was a snake, curled up under the diving board! — nothing is worse than trying to swim away from a snake”). Is it a little twee? Yes. Does it bother me that it’s a little twee? Quite the reverse, I find it exceptionally charming.
This book, as with all these Tuesday titles except The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953) by Bruce Campbell from last week, is also illustrated and — bonus points — the illustrator credited with his work (his name is William Stobbs, FYI). The front of the book contains a contents page for the ten diagrams sprinkled throughout and the level of artistry is high and skilfully evokes the tone of most of the book. I shall, as before, use some of these diagrams throughout this post.
And so, to the contents.
This stands in stark contrast to the other YAGAD books featured this month in that Brand clearly does not wish to waste time setting up a securely comfortable existence for our hero to be cosseted within before the promised danger presents itself. That William Reddeven — young squire of Reddeven Hall, and scion of a family famous throughout the county — is a cosseted little Fauntleroy is established in time, but Brand instead starts us in media res with a trip over the moors in his family’s Rolls Royce and waits a mere six pages before she up-ends everything: William is cast out into the mist-strewn moor, defenceless, confused, and hopeless. It’s pretty bold stuff, and aided phenomenally by Brand’s superb use of lexicon:
But murder was not a pleasant subject for thought, all alone out here in the terrifying silence of the moor. The clip, clip, clip of his hard shoes on the surface of the road seemed like a little voice talking to him, saying one unintelligible word, over and over again, pleading with him, perhaps, or trying to tell him something, or — warning him. He gave a little uncontrollable shudder and moved onto the grassy verge of the road where his feet made no sound. Or at any rate a different sound…a softer sound, chiff, chiff, chiff. The unintelligible word was being whispered now. He did not know that he liked it any better than the clip, clip, clip.
William is no a likable character at first — “what a sissy he would feel, being friends with a girl” is the one consolation he has to cling to, an odd sentiment for “a book about boys and girls” — but it’s difficult not to feel the isolation and confusion that he whirls around in anent his situation. Here, we also get a glimpse of the background to his family life that has led to him being so protected, filled in with Brand’s customary aching sense of unspoken longing for peace amidst the tragedy the sweeps over lives without any cause or reason — a hint of a dead brother, never really understood, and the light this cats his parents in, sympathetic and pathetic both, Brand never really being one to make it too easy to really dislike anyone. It veers close to farce, but her lightness of touch steers it assuredly into a domestic tragedy of all manner of flavours. And in about two paragraphs, too. Goddamn, this woman can write.
By the end of the first chapter, and certainly by the end of the third, we are well aware of a pattern behind events that William will learn, and it’s as adroit a piece of plotting as these four YAGAD novels have yet contained. On one hand you could call it a convenience of the least believable magnitude, but then you remind yourself that it was designed like this by the people involved and…man, that’s clever.
Enjoy this feeling. It will not last.
Look. I hold nothing against this book because there’s virtually no detection — it’s clearly an adventure story from the off, full of prison breaks and sinister strangers holding violins, and people racing for a train and wondering if they’ve eluded their pursuers, and sinister adults who may or may not actually follow through on that sinisterly air…maybe appearances aren’t everything, maybe they are, time will tell. It is, in a way, simply a Hitchcock movie for younger readers — 60 pages in, I put down the book and advisedly made the note The 39 North-by-Northwest Steps?? — but it is not, in the manner of how we typically use the word to describe a narrative experience, good.
It is strung together by a ridiculous set of coincidences that delight the Hitchcockian in me — Roger Thornhill calling over a waiter and mistakenly being swept up as George Kaplan is one of the most gracefully brilliant things committed to film, fight me — and played out against a background of almost Lear-esque nonsense (Edward, not King) in the notes the criminal gang pass back and forth among their members (the key part of one message reads “This side the novel clue. Ignore claret but round two chartreuses together. Lees three cremes de menth. Fish night.”). William and the young gang member Patch bounce from experience to experience, encountering time after time the same three people: a sinister smiling youth, and two giants each carrying a violin case: one with a wooden leg and the other with a hook in place of his left hand. It is gloriously impossible to figure out what is happening, and every time the boys jump to a conclusion it happens to be correct — none of this bothers me; even the wholly unlikely transvestitism ploy is part of the loopiness that I do not buy for a second but would love more of in my fiction.
But it does also does not feel like a book that has a plot. The scenes do not join in any meaningful way, leaving it feeling like an exercise in Erle Stanley Gardner’s plot wheels that simply goes to show why one must be as talented as Erle Stanley Gardner to work with plot wheels. When you get to the end — and you’ll do so quickly, no doubt, it rattles past — you see where it was all apparently heading and it’s just…another thing that happens. There’s a showdown of sorts, and some semi-clever use of contemporary detail to explain an aspect of the neat little bow tied to the top of this eldritch-shaped package…but none of it feels as if it has any relevance to anything that has gone before. It’s en ending because the characters reach a place where the thing that was going to happen happened and so the author stops writing. This is part of my difficulty in recommending it: Brand doesn’t seem to know what she was trying to write.
Perhaps in an attempt to give this screeching halt some meaning, we get treated to two twists — the second of which is fine and something you can see a lot of younger readers taking huge delight in (the adult me spotted it very early, irritating the 8 year-old me as I am wont to do), but the first is…I mean…what is that? I’m…I’m not even sure it counts as a twist, because it doesn’t mean anything — it adds nothing, alters nothing, takes nothing away, but it definitely happens and is intended to be a thing…I confess bewilderment. I want to praise Brand for coming up with a new way for a novel to linger in the memory, but it’s just…it would be clever if there was any point to it, but there isn’t, and so doing it is not clever. It’s like the day after you get a haircut and you look in the mirror in the morning and have a moment of “Oh, yeah, I got a haircut…” and then never think of it again, except people keep telling you that you got a haircut. It’s like that. At the end of a weird non-plot. And until someone else reads this you won’t be able to tell me how correct I am, but I promise you I am. That haircut analogy is one for the ages.
I don’t deny that I want to love this, and wanted to round off this month of YAGAD with a panegyric to the talents brought to bear on enticing younger readers into the welcoming embrace of brilliant plotting and ingenious puzzles. But for all the telegenic features that make this so appealing to fans of the “innocent man being pursued” subgenre it ends up more Albert’s Handcart than Alfred Hitchcock.