Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Alexander Wilson’s The Devil’s Cocktail

The Devil’s Cocktail, which appeared in 1928, was Alexander Wilson’s second novel of espionage. Wilson’s own bizarre and mysterious life was in some ways even more interesting, and certainly much stranger, than his fiction.

Wilson served with the British Army in the First World War. During the 1920s he took up an appointment as a professor of English literature at a Moslem college in India (as does the hero of The Devil’s Cocktail). It is possible, but by no means certain, that by this time he had already been recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service (popularly known as MI6). By the end of the 1930s he was definitely an MI6 officer. In 1942 he was sacked, having been accused of exaggerating and otherwise falsifying reports. Wilson told his family (or at least one of his families) that his dismissal was merely a cover story and that henceforth he would be working undercover as a field agent. It is possible that he continued working for the Secret Intelligence Service until his death in 1963 and that his many personal misfortunes, which included bankruptcy and several prison terms, were all part of an elaborate cover story. It is also possible that this was all a fantasy or self-delusion on Wilson’s part.

Wilson was also a serial bigamist who had four wives and various children. The fact that he was dismissed from MI6 for exaggerating reports tends to support the theory that most of his intelligence work was pure fantasy on his part, but on the other hand given the devious nature of the world of espionage it is not impossible that he really was working undercover. 

The other factor that might support Wilson’s stories is that his espionage novels were considered to be in many ways uncannily accurate in their portrayal of the world of the professional spy and his fictional British spy master Sir Leonard Wallace was clearly based on the real-life head of MI 6 Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming, to an extent that suggested first-hand knowledge of both Smith-Cumming and MI6.

Wilson was either one of the greatest liars of the 20th century, or one of the greatest spies of the 20th century, or (possibly the most likely scenario) he was a somewhat tragic Walter Mitty figure who was genuinely unable to distinguish fact from fantasy.

Wilson’s first spy novel The Mystery of Tunnel 51 was a great success. It was followed by The Devil’s Cocktail and a whole series of further novels featuring Sir Leonard Wallace. 

One of the many mysteries surrounding Wilson’s life and career is the fact that his spy novels were critically acclaimed and hugely popular in the 1930s only to disappear without a trace subsequently.

Alexander Wilson
The Devil’s Cocktail is, as you might expect from such an author, one of the more grandiose of the thrillers of its era. Nothing else than the survival of western civilisation is at stake. Captain Hugh Shannon is sent to India by Sir Leonard Wallace, the head of MI6. Shannon will take up an appointment as professor of English literature at a Moslem college but this will be merely a cover for his counter-espionage duties. The Russians are up to something in India and Shannon’s job is to find out what exactly it is. Shannon will be accompanied by his sister and by another MI6 officer, Cousins, who will be masquerading as Shannon’s faithful valet.

On the voyage out Shannon makes the acquaintance of Oscar Miles, a mild-mannered American who is in reality a top American spy. He will also encounter a civil servant named Hudson who tries to seduce his sister. The resulting bad feeling between Shannon and Hudson will have fateful consequences. On arrival in India it doesn’t take long for Shannon  to start unravelling the Russian plot but unfortunately it becomes obvious that the Russian have penetrated his cover story.

The details of the Russian plot are somewhat fanciful, lending weight to the theory that Wilson combined an insider’s knowledge of the espionage game with an excessively vivid imagination. While the Soviets would undoubtedly have been only too happy to stir up trouble in India it’s rather unlikely that in 1928 they would have been seriously contemplating a full-scale invasion. It’s also exceedingly unlikely that the United States would have lifted a finger to help the British to defend its colonial possessions, much less been willing to risk involvement in another European war for the sake of India. It’s also rather unlikely that the Germany of the Weimar Republic would have been interested in invading India. The outrageousness of the plot is not really a problem though, and it’s grandiosity is rather typical of British thrillers of the 20s and 30s.

Wilson’s approach to the thriller genre was not widely dissimilar to that of the enormously popular Bulldog Drummond novels. There’s the same delightfully outrageous lack of political correctness, the same breathless excitement, the same outlandish but entertaining  excessiveness. With of course one crucial difference - Bulldog Drummond was a gifted amateur while Hugh Shannon is a professional spy.

The villains are deliciously dastardly. They’re not just enemies - they’re out-and-out bounders with no respect for fair play or for British womanhood. They are prepared to use Shannon’s sister as a pawn in their game, thus placing themselves outside the pale of civilised behaviour.

A major bonus is that the evil plot involves zeppelins! As far as I’m concerned you can’t go wrong with any story that features zeppelins.

Even by the standards of its day the level of political incorrectness is breathtaking. Not that I have a problem with that. For me it’s a feature rather than a bug. One of the things I love about the books of the past is that they reflect values that are fascinatingly different from those of our own day, which to me makes them much more interesting and much more exotic.

The Devil’s Cocktail has its share of gunplay, it has kidnappings, poisonings, lots of use of disguises, narrow escapes, dashing heroes who are pure in heart, perfidious villains and a gigantic conspiracy that could destroy western civilisation. In short it has everything you could ask for in a thriller. It lacks the humour that enlivens the thrillers of Sapper and Leslie Charteris and Wilson is not quite as adept at pacing as those writers. It’s still an immensely enjoyable tale of derring-do. The knowledge of Wilson’s own strange life adds a dash of extra zest. Highly recommended.

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