The Mystery of Tunnel 51 was published in 1928. It was the first of Alexander Wilson’s spy thrillers featuring his hero Sir Leonard Wallace.
Wilson was a fascinating and enigmatic character in his own right. He was certainly a Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) officer during the early part of the Second World War. He may have had connections to the British intelligence community before that. Sir Leonard Wallace bears a certain resemblance to Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first head (or ‘C’) of MI6. Wilson was dismissed from MI6 in 1942 but claimed that he was actually still working for them under deep cover. He may have been a genuine super-agent or most of his intelligence career may have been a fictionalised attempt to explain away his increasingly chaotic personal life.
Whether the truth about his later career there is no question that Wilson enjoyed a great deal of success as a writer of thrillers during the period from 1928 to 1940. His books then languished in obscurity until quite recently until several were reprinted, including The Mystery of Tunnel 51.
Wilson spent a good deal of time in India and it is India that provides the setting for The Mystery of Tunnel 51.
A British officer, a Major Elliott, has been carrying out a survey of the defences of British India. The plans he has made must be delivered, in absolute secrecy, to the Viceroy. Several attempts have already been made on Major Elliott’s life. Now he is on the final leg of his journey to Simla to see the Viceroy. He has a police escort and surely there is no way that anything can go wrong now. But Britain’s enemies are cunning and determine and will stop at nothing to get those plans!
Britain’s enemies are of course the Russians. Russophobia had been one of the defining characteristics of British foreign policy for well over a century (in fact it still is). The coming to power of the Bolsheviks adds an extra touch of paranoia to the plot but in fact the story is very much in the tradition of Great Game stories such as Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. The Great Game was a sort of Cold War between Britain and Russia, driven on both sides by paranoia about threats to their respective colonial empires, which lasted from the 1790s to the early 20th century. Even in the 1920s the British were haunted by the fear that someone would try to steal India from them.
When it becomes clear that the secret plans might yet fall into the hands of Bolshevik agents the local authorities in India decide to call in Sir Leonard Wallace, the legendary head of the Secret Intelligence Service. Wallace’s investigations uncover a vast conspiracy with hundreds of Bolshevik spies throughout the length and breath of India.
While this is very much a spy adventure tale the book also includes an impossible murder which requires Sir Leonard Wallace to do some real detective work.
Eventually the plot becomes a series of chases and a race against time to stop the Russian super-spy before he can get the secret plans over the frontier.
One of the things that delights me about the thrillers of the interwar years is the sublime self-confidence and optimism of the heroes. No matter how vast or diabolical the conspiracies that they encounter might be men like Bulldog Drummond, Richard Hannay and Simon Templar are never disheartened. They simply do not admit the possibility of defeat. The post-WW2 spy thriller would be increasingly populated by anti-heroes and flawed heroes, and by cynics like Len Deighton’s unnamed spy and pessimists like George Smiley. Even James Bond is, to a degree, a flawed hero - he makes mistakes, sometimes very bad ones, and he finds that being a secret agent has a price. There’s nothing wrong with the cynical pessimist school of spy fiction but it can be a bit much after a while and sometimes it’s refreshing to turn to the interwar thrillers with their cheerful, extroverted, dauntless and large-than-life heroes.
Sir Leonard Wallace is such a hero. Of course he has a sidekick, Major Brien, an old pal who lacks Wallace’s brilliance but makes up for it in grit and pluck.
Wilson’s spy fiction is very much in the old-fashioned heroic mould, though with a definite tinge of paranoia. There’s plenty of action with quite a bit of gunplay. There are car chases and aeroplane chases. Both the heroes and the villains are masters of disguise. There are secret passages and the spies know every cunning trick in the book. There are hair’s-breadth escapes from danger and there’s an abundance of breathless excitement.
The chief bad guys are evil super-villains and their henchmen are either mindless killing machines or cringing cowards. There’s no need to worry about shades of grey - the British are the good guys and the Russkies are the bad guys. That’s all you need to know. If an Englishman turns out to be a bad guy it will also turn out that he’s not a real Englishman.
While it has some of the atmosphere of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim it naturally does not have the psychological subtlety and the philosophical depth of Kipling’s masterwork. Kipling’s view of imperialism was complex and nuanced. Wilson takes it for granted that the Raj is a good thing for Britain and a good thing for India and that any Indians who oppose British rule can only be doing so because they are in the pay of the Bolsheviks. It’s only fair to point out that Kipling was one of the greats of English literature. Wilson’s aims are of course much less ambitious. He is merely trying to write a fine old-fashioned potboiler. In this lesser aim he succeeds extremely well.
The Mystery of Tunnel 51 is an action-packed yarn that delivers the goods. Highly recommended.
The second of the Sir Leonard Wallace spy novels, The Devil’s Cocktail, is just as much fun.