The Crouching Beast is one of the many thrillers written by Valentine Williams. Published in 1928 it is one of a series of novels featuring the dreaded German Secret Service Chief Dr Adolph Grundt, known (because of a deformity to his foot) as Clubfoot.
Valentine Williams (1883–1946) had a full and varied life. He worked for many years as a journalist and during the First World War he was one of the first accredited war correspondents. He later served with the Irish Guards and won the Military Cross. By the late 1920s he had found sufficient success as an author of thrillers to make a living as a full-time writer. During the Second World War he served with the Secret Intelligence Service vetting new recruits. Since one of the recruits he vetted was a certain Kim Philby it could be argued that he was better suited to writing thrillers than being an intelligence officer!
The Crouching Beast is an example of the reluctant spy sub-genre, in which an innocent civilian finds himself (somewhat against his will) finds himself caught up in the dangerous game of espionage. The twist in this book is that the innocent civilian is a young woman. She is also the narrator of the tale.
Olivia Dunbar is a young Englishman who lives in a small German town where she is employed as a secretary to Lucy von Hentsch. Lucy von Hentsch is a popular American writer of rural melodramas who married a German, the kindly middle-aged Dr von Hentsch. They live next door to a military prison which houses German officers who have committed the sorts of offences that aristocratic young officers would be expected to commit - mostly related to gambling debts, unauthorised duelling and assorted scandalous behaviours. These officers live in considerable comfort and come and go as they please.
Olivia is quite happy with her life but it is July 1914 and storm clouds are gathering over Europe. Of course it is quite impossible that there could actually be a war, but things are unsettled. Then a young Englishman breaks into the house. He claims to be a British spy who has just escaped from the prison. It all seems very unlikely but he is undoubtedly an Englishman and undoubtedly an officer so he cannot possibly be lying - his fantastic story must be true. He asks Olivia to do him a favour - if anything happens she is to retrieve an envelope for him from a house in Berlin and pass it on to another British agent. Olivia is still inclined to think the whole thing must be nonsense but the Englishman leaves the house attempting to make his escape, a party of soldiers arrives and two shots ring out. This brave young Englishman has apparently been shot down like a dog and now Olivia must complete his mission. She is now, unofficially at least, a Secret Service agent!
It’s all rather frightening and bewildering but she cannot allow the sacrifice of this brave young Englishman to be in vain, and it has to be admitted that it is rather exciting and romantic. It becomes even more exciting and romantic when she makes contact with another British Secret Service man in Berlin, the handsome and dashing (if perhaps not quite respectable) Nigel Druce. Nigel and Olivia must find a way to get vital information to the War Office in London but there is a very large obstacle in their way - Dr Adolph Grundt, alias Clubfoot. Grundt is a remorselessly efficient counter-intelligence chief. He is merciless, cruel and sadistic. When Grundt sets out to hunt down a foreign spy nothing will stop him and he is determined to hunt down Nigel Druce and Olivia Dunbar. They take refuge in the red light district of Berlin but sooner or later they will have to make a break for the frontier and Grundt will be dogging their footsteps.
This novel is somewhat reminiscent, especially in its early stages, of the stately upper-class Edwardian spy thrillers of E. Philips Oppenheim. As the story progresses it takes on a rather less genteel and more distinctively 1920s flavour as Olivia and Nigel take refuge among dope-peddlers and prostitutes. There’s a lot of the breathless excitement of 1920s thrillers ad it has to be said that Williams really does generate some thrills. There are plenty of hair’s-breadth escapes from danger and the pacing is suitably brisk. And there is of course some romance.
Olivia Dunbar is certainly not a modern kickass action heroine. She is however brave and resourceful and also quick-thinking. She knows that she is risking her life and she accepts the risks. Nigel is a fairly typical thriller hero, brave and noble, although he’s also a reasonably convincing Secret Service agent who knows that the job sometimes brings with it some unsavoury elements.
Dr Grundt is a stock melodrama villain but he’s an entertaining and colourful one.
The tone of the novel is anti-German to a degree that verges on hysteria. One is not surprised that the author had worked for Fleet Street - the Germans are all beastly Huns, pitiless and barbaric. Even the occasional “good” German turns out to be a rabid militarist intent on subjugating the whole of Europe. The Kaiser is a “mad dog” and the personification of German beastliness. Even in 1928 this stuff must have been a bit embarrassing. It’s interesting to contrast this with Manning Coles’ Drink To Yesterday, a slightly later First World War spy thriller that is remarkably sympathetic to ordinary Germans.
On the whole though, despite the rabid jingoism, The Crouching Beast is an effective and enjoyable espionage thriller.