Sunday, June 1, 2014

Dornford Yates' Blood Royal

Dornford Yates (1885-1960) was one of the thriller writers singled out by Alan Bennett as belonging to the English Snobbery with Violence school. That in itself is enough to recommend his work as far as I’m concerned. Yates (whose real name was Cecil William Mercer) was actually an odd recruit to the thriller genre - he’d made his reputation as the writer of the celebrated Berry humorous stories. His popularity as a comic writer rivalled that of P. G. Wodehouse.

In 1927 Yates suddenly changed style dramatically with the first of his eight very successful Richard Chandos thrillers, Blind Corner, although he continued to write his humorous stories. One of the curious things about Yates’ fiction is that despite the sharp differences in style there’s a considerable overlap between his comic stories and his thrillers. Jonah Mansell is a major character in both the Berry stories and the thrillers, other characters from the Berry stories pop up from time to time in the thrillers and one of the heroes of his thrillers is married to a member of the Berry circle.

The Richard Chandos thrillers can be read as standalone novels although in my opinion it’s highly advisable to read Blind Corner before attempting the later books. Blind Corner introduces the heroes who will figure in the later adventures and provides some fairly essential backstory information on them.

Blood Royal was the third of the Chandos books. Like most of the others it’s set in Austria, or in this case in a mythical principality bordering Austria. Blood Royal was published in 1929 but in many ways it seems to belong to an earlier era and in fact it has some of the flavour of Anthony Hope’s Ruritanian thrillers such as his 1894 bestseller The Prisoner of Zenda. Yates’ principality of Riechtenburg seems a bit like Hope’s Ruritania suddenly transported to the late 1920s. The book deals with the disputed succession to the principality. Given the cataclysmic changes to the European scene that had occurred in the previous decade and the even more cataclysmic changes that would soon follow this makes the book seem a little dated. It is a little dated, but not in a bad way. In fact it’s fair to surmise that his slightly anachronistic feel was quite deliberate, that Yates was consciously looking back to an an earlier and more civilised era of benevolent princes, a world that was being swept away by unscrupulous politicians. Yates was certainly no fan of politicians. Given that within a few years of the publication of this novel Austria itself would be absorbed in to the Third Reich one cannot entirely blame him.

Richard Chandos and his friend George Hanbury are now, as a result of events chronicled in the earlier Chandos books, men of wealth and leisure. They are drawn back to Austria by ties of sentiment, having conceived a great fondness for the country in the course of their earlier adventures. So fond are they of Austria that they have been spending a good deal of time learning to speak German, an accomplishment that will prove to be crucially important in this new adventure.

Caught in a rainstorm in their Rolls-Royce (a Yates hero always drives a Rolls-Royce) they  have a fateful encounter with Duke Paul of Riechtenburg, heir to the throne of that principality. Duke Paul was in the process of being kidnapped by the sinister Major Grieg of the Riechtenburg Black Hussars. Chandos and Hanbury have stumbled upon a conspiracy to instal Paul’s cousin as Prince, the reigning prince having suffered what had been assumed to be a fatal stroke. This might be none of their affair but no Englishman is going to stand by and watch someone being kidnapped.

The conspiracy proves to be rather bewildering complex, everything hingeing on if and when the reigning prince succumbs to his illness. Soon afterwards Chandos and Hanbury encounter the beautiful and high-spirited Grand Duchess Leonie, an encounter that will be very fateful indeed for Chandos.

If an Englishman cannot stand by when a kidnapping is in progress even less can he stand aloof when a lady is in distress. Chandos and Hanbury are now caught up in a deadly game for high stakes, but such adventures are just the sort of pastimes they enjoy.

In his book Clubland Heroes Richard Usborne decribes Yates’ style (in his thrillers) as being rather biblical, and he has a point. It’s a style that works surprisingly well, lending the  far-fetched but enjoyable tale an air of gravitas.

There’s less action in Blood Royal than in the previous Chandos books but there’s also more suspense. A race against time is a time-honoured technique for creating excitement and Yates handles this element with great skill. His heroes know that time is against them but they can never be sure just how much time they have.

A thriller needs a villain and Major Grieg and Duke Johann (who is trying to usurp the throne from the rightful heir) serve this purpose well enough. More interesting than the actual villains is Duke Paul. He is undeniably the rightful heir but he is weak, vacillating, self-indulgent, selfish and treacherous. He is the man whose throne the heroes are trying to save but he is a man for whom they have nothing but contempt. The struggle to ensure his succession is very much a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. Duke Paul is a fool and a coward but he will have wise counsellors and his weakness will prove to be his greatest asset. He will rule well because he lacks the will to do active evil. Duke Johann is much more intelligent and far more competent but that’s what makes him dangerous - he does have the will to do active evil. This gives the book a complexity and a degree of political subtlety, and ambiguity, that is quite unexpected in a thriller of this period.

Yates was a man with a considerable mistrust of the modern world. He could even be described as a reactionary. But he is an intelligent and thoughtful reactionary.

The romantic subplot is equally complex. Chandos has fallen hard for the Grand Duchess and she obviously reciprocates his affections but if they succeed in their endeavours the result will be to doom their love. 

Yates was certainly a man who knew how to spin an exciting yarn and how to leaven it skillfully with romance. Blood Royal is a stylish and accomplished thriller by a writer at the top of his game. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. "...singled out by Alan Bennett as belonging to the English Snobbery with Violence school"

    I think the term "Snobbery with Violence" was invented by Colin Watson. Certainly his book with that title gave the phrase fame.