Berkeley Gray’s Mr Mortimer Gets the Jitters, published in 1937, introduced British thriller fans to yet another new thriller hero, a young man with the unlikely name of Norman Conquest. On the surface Norman Conquest is very much a Simon Templar clone, but appearances can be deceptive.
Berkeley Gray’s real name was Edwy Searles Brooks and he had been churning out stories in prodigious quantities for boys’ newspapers for many years. Norman Conquest is in fact a later version of a character Brooks had created twenty years earlier, long before Leslie Charteris’s emergence on the thriller scene, and in fact even before the first Bulldog Drummond novel appeared. Brooks was a writer of an earlier generation and he had seen writers like Charteris achieve success on an unprecedented and international scale. He decided that since he’d been doing this sort of thing for decades it was only reasonable that he should get a slice of the action, which is what he proceeded to do.
Norman Conquest is unquestionably a hero in the Simon Templar mould. Charteris certainly deserves the credit for recognising the potential of a new style of hero. Norman Conquest is a bit like Simon Templar on steroids. And speed.
Brooks did not quite have Charteris’s polish or style but he made up for it with sheer excess and breathtaking pace. Mr Mortimer Gets the Jitters is moderately long as 1930s thrillers go but it is in fact three adventures in one. The hero sets out to deal with one diabolical criminal mastermind only to find that he is actually up against three master criminals, and he then sets about dealing with each one in turn. As a result it packs enough action for three novels into one novel. It hits the ground running and the pace never lets up.
To begin with Norman Conquest merely intends to relieve one crooked businessman of a large share of his ill-gotten boodle. He believes that Geoffrey Mortimer cheated his late father out of his business, so now it is only fair for him to cheat Mr Mortimer out of a sum roughly equivalent to the value of his father’s business. A hundred thousand pounds (an immense fortune in 1937) would do nicely. Conquest soon discovers that Mr Mortimer is much more of a villain than he’d suspected. Mr Mortimer is in fact a criminal on a vast scale and of a very unsavoury sort. Simply relieving Mr Mortimer of a fortune is now no longer enough. Conquest has found his true calling - to be not only a daring outlaw but also a crusader against evil.
Mr Mortimer is a nasty piece of work, but he is only a subsidiary villain. He is not the Mr Big. In fact he is only the number three man in a criminal empire of vast scope and Conquest wants to bring down the entire criminal organisation. Conquest’s determination to do so grows as he discovers the organisation’s involvement in drugs and that most horrifying of all villainies, white slavery!
It might seem unlikely that one man could destroy such a far-reaching criminal empire but Norman Conquest is no ordinary man. And having relieved Mr Mortimer of considerably more than the hundred thousand pounds he’d originally intended Norman Conquest is now a very rich young man. He has also acquired a side-kick, a young woman named Joy Everard who not only wins his heart but proves to be a very valuable and capable ally.
Norman Conquest has a fondness for gadgets that makes him an early predecessor of James Bond. He also has an uncanny knack for escaping from apparently hopeless predicaments, which is just as well since he is constantly landing himself in such predicaments. In some cases he deliberately walks into traps, relying on his wits and his supreme self-confidence to find a way out before death can catch up with him.
Like the Saint he takes a great deal of pleasure out of baiting his enemies, employing a kind of psychological terrorism against them. His reasoning, which is sound enough, is that it is useful to make his enemies think that he is sublimely unafraid of them and to make them feel that they should be very afraid of him. His methods involve a good deal of out-and-out bluff, but bluff backed up with a supreme confidence that by the time his bluff can be called he will have come up with something to justify his bravado.
Mr Mortimer Gets the Jitters is a non-stop roller-coaster ride of action, thrills and wise-cracks. Maybe Norman Conquest doesn’t quite succeed in out-Sainting the Saint but he gives it his best shot and the results are hugely entertaining.
The early Norman Conquest novels are unfortunately quite difficult to come by, being long out of print and with used copies fetching rather high prices.