When Jack Haldean encounters Durant Craig in the lounge at Claridge’s hotel, the latter apparently carries a grievance from their war days and offers up a volley of abuse before storming out. Haldean refuses to disclose the reason for Craig’s outburst — offering only that “I let him down rather badly once…I deserve it” — and instead seems keen to forget the meeting. When a mysterious car accident during a fancy dress party raises the possibility of murder, it’s not long before Halden and Superintendent Ashley find themselves investigating a menage that involves one Durant Craig…and so it seems that Jack Haldean has a reckoning with the misdeeds of his past.
The static nature of most Golden Age detective characters meant that their authors were free to simply fill in a few shadows and leave them be for 40 years, but modern writers don’t have that luxury. Thus even writers of Golden Age-era fiction have an obligation to work in a Dark Past, and I suppose the longer you leave it the harder it becomes. Thus the fourth book in a series, as A Hundred Thousand Dragons (2010) is, becomes possibly the best place for it. I’ve only read one preceding title, third book As If by Magic (2009), but have enough of a sense of Haldean (effectively a free agent in proceedings, so falling into the Amateur Detective mould) and the people around him to be invested in the setup, and we’re early enough in the series that it’s not going to wildly unbalance anyone’s views of the character if he does indeed turn out to be the coward and scum Craig brands him.
Before we get to that, however, there’s the small matter of a car veering off the road and bursting into flames, and a charred body being discovered inside once the fire has been extinguished. Some solid detection and reasoning leading Haldean and Ashley to the door of archaeologist and adventurer Mr. Vaughan (I, er, don’t think we ever learn his first name) and a confusing set of results that seem to point to a man being simultaneously dead and sitting several miles away in Vaughan’s house having afternoon tea. It’s not technically an impossibility, nor is it presented as such, since our investigators admit there’s some surmise in their reasoning, but being argued towards that moment by little degrees is very pleasing and pays off neatly. Gordon-Smith writes very well indeed, and adds in lovely little flourishes like the exceptionally dense pair of constables found guarding the scene of the crime:
“He had a sort of rug or big tent rolled up on the back seat and I said it was a bit cold for camping. He laughed and said you wouldn’t find him trying it at this time of year, so I reckon it must have been a rug, after all.”
Jack’s eyes slid to the blackened body in the car. “Was the rug large enough to cover a man?”
Ashley drew his breath in sharply. “Well? Was it?”
Constable Marsh looked bewildered. “But why should a man cover himself up with a rug, sir? If he had done, he must have been completely inside it. I couldn’t see him. Why should anyone do such a thing, sir? It’d be all dusty and very uncomfortable. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Alongside some 1920s era-appropriate character work — Vaughan is automatically respected because he “got his Blue at Cambridge and won a cup at Henley years ago”, or being able to rely on a ticket collector knowing all four people who boarded a local train — there are lovely turns of phrase, such as someone’s beard being likened to “an exploding mattress” or a photographer “emerg[ing] like a Jack-in-the-Box from his black shroud”. The easy badinage between Haldean and his various friends — his cousin Isabelle, her fiancé Arthur Stanton, Inspector Bill Rackham — carried with it a sense of people who know and trust each other (“I haven’t taken out the patent” he replies when Isabelle complains that sitting and watching him think isn’t very exciting. “You can think as well.”) and so makes his “shrinking reluctance” to admit to what past he shares with Craig all the more striking.
This is revealed at the halfway mark, and is compelling from both sides: you can understand Craig’s rage, and yet also have sympathy for Haldean’s situation. Too far into a series it’s tempting to absolve your protagonist of too much blame, but a fine line is walked well here between making Haldean responsible and yet also very much the fallible hero. From here you don’t get much chance to reflect for too long, as things progress with wildly joyous abandon from a detection plot to a sort of espionage tale, with a mysterious poem possibly hinting at the need for some code-breaking, and then an Indiana Jones-esque final act where direction are followed, the bad guys pursued, and a confrontation is had. If the changes in tone can be a little jarring at times, it’s refreshing to see someone apply themselves to the various facets of a genre hybrid with as much skill as this: the detection’s very good, the filigree’d work around setting up the (possible) code is very good and — importantly — very well-justified, and the adventuring towards the end is suitably epic in its sweep.
Plus, you get descriptions like this:
He couldn’t believe there was another living soul for miles. Unconsciously he relaxed. He walked away from the shelter of the aircraft and gazed at the city in awestruck wonder. He seemed to have stepped outside of time. Around him stood what looked like a Roman street, with pillars, temples and palaces, but he didn’t seem to have gone back in time but rather forward, forward to the end of the world, when all the works of man stood deserted. As far as he could see, nothing had been built here. Everything had been carved, carved out of the sandstone. The sun was getting low and made the colours in the rock glow as if they were lit from within. White, yellow, orange, pink, crimson, green – more hues and shades than he had ever imagined – swirled in dips and waves in a silent symphony of colour. He could easily have watched the rocks until the sun went down but he forced himself to withdraw from a contemplation of the eternal and back to practicalities.
…and a sort-of-maybe Agatha Christie reference that’s a bit subtle for once, and a superb evocation of the romance of an era where it was possible for distant lands to be found unspoiled, and for the possibilities of such places to tug at the soul. It’s enough to make me want to jump in a one-engine plane and fly out into the middle of the desert myself. But, like, in a good way.