Tuesday, June 4, 2013

E. Phillips Oppenheim's The Great Secret

E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) was in his time one of the most successful thriller writers in Britain. He wrote around 150 novels, including a considerable number of spy novels. He is in fact regarded by some as the father of modern spy fiction. The Great Secret, published in 1906, is typical of his work.

Mr Hardross Courage is a wealthy young Englishman whose life has been carefree and uneventful. He plays cricket for his county, he attends to the management of his estates, he serves as a local magistrate. His cousin is a rising politician but Hardross Courage has never taken any interest in politics. He has never taken any interest in a career of any sort. His wealth and social position render it unnecessary and he is by nature somewhat indolent. Everything is about to change for Mr Hardross Courage, as a result of a chance encounter in an hotel.

A desperate man, a man utterly unknown to him, hammers on his door. He tells a story that he is being pursued by men who mean to kill him. It seems unlikely, but his disheveled and rather frightened appearance lend some veracity to his story. Courage shelters the stranger in his room. Sure enough two men then break down the door. A scuffle follows, the lights are extinguished, and the mysterious stranger disappears.

He will meet this stranger again. The man goes by the name of Leslie Guest and he is a diplomat whose career was ruined by a scandal. He has dedicated the past fifteen years to  wiping out the stain on his reputation, and he has now stumbled onto a very great secret indeed. It is a secret with the potential to change the course of European, and world, history. Leslie Guest is in fact a spy and the secret he has uncovered could save England. This secret could also be his death warrant.

Fearing that death is imminent he passes on the secret to Hardross Courage. Now Courage finds himself propelled into a world of conspiracies and espionage, of treason and murder. If he fails Europe will be plunged into war.

There is a further complication, caused by another chance encounter. Courage meets a young American woman and falls instantly in love with her. The young woman is also a spy, but whose side is she on?

Oppenheim’s novels established an important precedent for spy fiction. The world of espionage depicted in his books is a world of wealth and glamour. Espionage is a game played by handsome brave men and beautiful dangerous women set against a backdrop of luxury and refinement. Spies dress for dinner, they wear elegant clothes, they dine at the best restaurants, they are connoisseurs of the finest wines.

There is less action than modern readers would expect but there is a constant atmosphere  of danger. A spy may find death awaiting at any moment.

The plotting is extravagant but reasonably plausible. International tensions had been running high for twenty years before the outbreak of the First World War. The conspiracy that Oppenheim spins is no more ludicrous than the Fashoda crisis that in reality had almost led to war between Britain and France in 1898.

The characters do not have a great deal of depth but this is after all a thriller and it does not require much in the way of complex characterisation. Modern readers unfamiliar with the period may be tempted to judge Courage as a very conventional English patriot but it must be remembered that in 1906 patriotism was not greeted by the sneers that it elicits today.

What matters is that Oppenheim manages to draw us into a rather fantastic story. The Great Secret is an entertaining tale of adventure. If you have a fondness for early 20th century spy fiction you should find this to be an entertaining read. Recommended.

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