Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Berkeley Gray's Miss Dynamite

Miss Dynamite was one of the early Norman Conquest thrillers by Berkeley Gray, appearing in 1939. The last of the more than fifty Norman Conquest novels was published in 1969.

Berkeley Gray was actually British author Edwy Searles Brooks (1889-1965), who had been an unbelievably prolific contributor to Amalgamated Press magazines such as Thriller. By the late 1930s, inspired by the success that thriller writers like Leslie Charteris (who had also written stories for Thriller) were having in the hardcover market, he decided to tackle that market as well. Which he did with conspicuous success.

Norman Conquest might seem at first glance to be a rather obvious clone of Charteris’s hero Simon Templar, The Saint. In fact Brooks had been writing action adventure stories for decades and had already created several heroes of a similar type. He had also written Sexton Blake stories. The truth is that all the great British thriller writers who came to prominence in the interwar years borrowed from their predecessors. Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond thrillers owe something to John Buchan’s Richard Hannay books, as do Dornford Yates’s Richard Chandos thrillers. Simon Templar is in some respects an amalgam of Bulldog Drummond and Bruce Graeme’s Blackshirt. In the late 30s John Creasey’s The Baron would draw on The Saint and his forebears for inspiration. 

Norman Conquest does have some very Saint-like characteristics but there are some subtle differences. The Saint is a risk-taker but his risks are carefully calculated. The Saint does not undertake an adventure without careful and elaborate planning. He is always in control. Norman Conquest on the other hand pushes risk-taking to much more reckless extremes and he does not believe in planning things out. He improvises, sometimes successfully and sometimes disastrously. Conquest is a much more out-of-control hero than Simon Templar. He’s clever, brave, determined and resourceful but at times he’s lucky to get away with his desperate gambles and excessively bold bluffs.

Norman Conquest, like Simon Templar, is a crook who happens to be (mostly) on the side of the angels. He has no moral qualms about relieving other crooks of their ill-gotten gains.  Simon Templar gives most of the proceeds of his dubiously legal adventures to charity while Conquest tends more to the belief that charity begins at home. He is however unfailingly generous and more than willing to ensure that innocent victims of crime are amply compensated. Conquest sees himself as a medieval knight-errant born several centuries too late.

In Miss Dynamite he stumbles upon a vast criminal conspiracy. It starts in a very trivial manner. His car has broken down and he has befriended a tramp. He then has a rather unpleasant encounter with an officious police sergeant. Norman Conquest is not a man who is overly fond of authority figures who throw their weight about but the incident seems too trivial to worry about. A few hours later the police sergeant is found murdered and the tramp is arrested. Now Norman’s instinctive sympathy for the underdog kicks in. He is sure the tramp was a perfectly harmless and pleasant fellow, not at all the sort of fellow who goes about smashing in the skulls of police officers. As far as Norman is concerned the whole thing just doesn’t pass the smell test. There is something more going on here and he has a hunch the answer, or part of the answer, may be found at the Hall, the residence of Sir Hastings Trevor and his daughter Primrose.

Conquest is generally speaking an astute and naturally suspicious sort of chap but he does have one weakness. Given that he sees himself as a medieval knight-errant that means that he has a duty to rescue damsels in distress. He convinces himself that Primrose Trevor is such a damsel in distress. This proves to be a rather serious error and it will lead to other even more serious mistakes.

One thing the Norman Conquest stories certainly have going for them is a wonderful sense of exuberant energy, combined with the author’s ability to take a series of thriller clichés and blend them into an extraordinarily fast-moving and exciting adventure tale. There are secret passageways, hidden doors, an armoured headquarters vehicle, fast cars, various ingenious mechanical contrivances, there are plenty of narrow escapes and there’s the exactly the kind of vast criminal conspiracy that thriller readers adore. Conquest faces death from the air, poison gas, death underwater and just about every imaginable danger that an adventure hero could possibly encounter.

As an extra added bonus Miss Dynamite features one of the great fictional evil spider women, as deadly as she is beautiful. There’s also an intelligent, courageous and faithful heroine. 

Norman Conquest is a fine devil-may-care hero, insanely brave, cheerfully reckless, who faces danger with the obligatory store of wise-cracks and impetuous defiance. 

There are also some amusing thriller fiction in-jokes. The unfortunate murdered police sergeant was an Edgar Wallace fan who was apparently trying to emulate the exploits of Wallace’s heroes.

The Norman Conquest series hit the ground running with the superb Mr Mortimer Gets the Jitters in 1937. The early Norman Conquest novels are splendid examples of 1930s British thriller fiction, worthy in every way to stand beside the best work in the genre. Miss Dynamite is non-stop high-octane entertainment. Very highly recommended.


  1. Great review, thanks! This is why this site is such a favourite of mine - it gives me reviews of books I'm interested in but which are so rare I barely even dare to find. Conquest, in particular, has been of interest to me for some time. Where do you manage to get them from, may I ask?

  2. Brooks had written over six million words of Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee and other such adventures and created Waldo the Wonderman, a sort of superman who started a villain and reformed to nearly knock Blake out of his own adventures and book, but he was fifty years old and the publisher decided he was old hat and Brooks found himself with no career at all.

    It's in that context he created Norman Conquest, 1066, who shared the pages of Thriller with the Saint and the Toff. Brooks career was off an running and the series continued until his death in the sixties and even beyond to one book finished by his widow and son. Conquest even starred in a movie played by Tom Conway (NORMAN CONQUEST).

    In addition to their energy the books also tend to feature Bond like gadgets employed by Conquest and his attractive girlfriend Pixie who he will marry without the complications that caused for Bulldog Drummond. His tendency to headlong plunges into danger at times make him almost too energetic a hero though.

    When I was collecting these I had very little trouble acquiring them, often in dust wrapper, and some were printed in paperback in Canada as well. Like most books that sold well in their day they aren't terribly hard to find even today. They are well in line with the best of the gentleman adventurer school represented by Charteris and Creasey.