Sometimes I buy a book and, for no good reason at all, it ends up sinking to the bottom of the heap. Over time, I forget what motivated me to buy it in the first place, and the desire to find out is overwhelmed by other, more arresting excitements. And so Tuesdays this month will be given over to these long-gestating reads.
It was TomCat’s review of The Sulu Sea Murders (1933) which first brought this title to my attention, not least for the impossible shooting of someone “kept in protective custody in one of the top rooms of [a] tower, guards posted at the stairs, with the only other way up being two hundred feet of unbroken masonry”. The mystery, beginning with Captain Hugh North “listening to the dying words of a pearl diver, George Lee, who had been shot at a dive bar”, sounded intriguing, too, and so I clearly found this copy at some point and put it aside for a rainy day. Well, that day has come and it is…an odd one.
Because, see, The Sulu Sea Murders doesn’t begin with Captain Hugh North doing anything, it begins with Colonel Hugh North receiving a message of “drop-everything urgency” telling him that George Lee “key aide to spy Arnulf Hansen” has been released from prison and is headed for the city of Zamboanga in the Philippines. Since Hansen was the “most successful (or most black-hearted) spymaster operating in the Philippine area before Pearl Harbor” it’s believed that Lee might have information about a spy ring that could prove of great importance to Uncle Sam.
How can a novel from 1933 have a reference to the Pearl Harbour attacks of 1941? Is this some terrifying piece of prescience on Mason’s part? Thankfully — or maybe, alas — no. A reference a few pages later to a 25 year-old man having been 11 years old in 1945 paints the picture more clearly, as does the confusing legend on the copyright page “Copyright MCMXXXIII © MCMLVIII by F. Vanwyck Mason”. It would seem that this book has not merely been reissued in this Consul Books edition, but has been substantially, er, updated in the process. Perhaps the spelling of the author’s name ought to have been a clue — he’s F. Van Wyck Mason on every other edition of this I’ve seen, maybe to distinguish which edition of the text is contained between the covers — but, essentially, what I was reading was not the book that TomCat read.
Thus, instead of George Lee being a pearl diver he is indeed a spy. However, he is shot, after a failed poisoning attempt, in a dive bar, and his killer’s US Army uniform brings attention to bear on the Fort Winfield base on the nearby island of Sanga Sanga. It is here that North and his trusty pilot/protege Lieutenant Kenny Trotter — who is “devoted to the point of worship of his superior, [the] tall, wide-shouldered colonel who roamed the world for the Criminal Investigation Division, United States Army” — head in the firm belief that one of the men thereon is not only in the employ of some foreign power, but also knows the whereabouts of the microfilm it is believed Lee would have had nearby as a bargaining chip or source of future income.
The 1958 text of The Sulu Sea Murders is, then, an odd bird, stuck somewhere between a Cold War spy thriller, a Pulp-adjacent record of rough-tough heroics, and a legitimate novel of character and clues. It’s steeped in the comfortable argot of its setting and characters (“Rick’s a first John. He took over Creepy Coulson’s company when Creepy did the commit last month.”) and allows the military setting, and the discontent felt by the men under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Flood, to bleed through in subtle touches that imply far more tellingly than any amount of ladling it on would achieve. The flip side of this degree of comfort is that you can play Casual Slur Bingo throughout, which may be another touch of verisimilitude but also feels oddly uncomfortable considering that you’d probably expect the earlier version of the text to contain more problematic language than this updated version.
For a relatively slight book — 135 pages, 5 chapters — Mason does good work establishing the working cast and the setup on the island. That Sanga Sanga, a missile base, “was quite clearly a minor installation, one of the few remaining Army frontier outposts in this atomic age”, is keenly felt by the wives of the officers who also share the island with the enlisted men. And so, following the attempted shooting of Mason and the actual shooting of Private Paul Laval who it seems killed George Lee, it feels perfectly reasonable that a party should be thrown in honour of their visitor:
What better way, then, to spend part of this meeting than talking to, sizing up, the people of Fort Winfield, officers and wives, any one of whom might be the evil genius who had to kill and kill to keep from being exposed to the world as the worst of all human scum — the traitor?
The hothouse environment of the sweaty island will prove the perfect breeding ground for yet more murder, including one on the night of the party which gives North the clue he needs to resolve the Lee case. One amusing moment sees a number of people laying claim to the gun with which Paul Laval was shot, and a brief-but-effective underwater sequence leads him to the conclusions he needs, and then a tense showdown reveals the culprit, their scheme, and how they had inveigled their way into life on the base so as to ensure the success of their intentions. The ending section in which North explains all this is actually quite well worked out, with a surprisingly clever use of the situation and the psychology of the people involved, even if it does come across rather more “Rick Dagless explaining the end of ‘The Apes of Wrath'” than could ever have been intended.
But, hang on, what about that impossible shooting?
TomCat’s tantalising reference to North becoming something of a fusion of “Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Thorndyke” — two of my very favourite sleuths in fiction — doesn’t apply to this version of the book: our culprit is found, commits suicide, North and Trotter debrief…and you can almost see the screen freeze-framing as they yuck it up come the final line and the credits roll over their happy faces, content in the knowledge of a job well done and a new case next week. Dagnabbit! I read this purely for its impossible crime, and for some reason that was the one element bowdlerised out of it!
Why? Who knows. Maybe that more intellectual-puzzle based element of the plot was felt out of keeping with the derring-do elsewhere, or maybe Consul specifically wanted it removed to keep the focus on the far more 1950s concerns of Goddamn Commies And Their Goddamn Commie Ways. It would have been interesting to see North apply himself to a more ratiocinative form of investigation, because he comes across like an intelligent and capable sleuth here and seeing more than one string to his James Bond-ian bow would have filled him out a little more. Still, not to be, and hopefully this stands as a warning to anyone else likely to make the same mistake: if you want to read about that impossible shooting, you need The Sulu Sea Murders (1933) by F. van Wyck Mason. Let my confusing sacrifice — and, in fairness I enjoyed reading this for the couple of hours it took me — be to your benefit.