While Simon Templar (the Saint) might be the most famous fictional example of the criminal turned crime-fighter he had several illustrious predecessors. One of the more notable was Michael Lanyard, known as the Lone Wolf. This character featured in eight books by Louis Joseph Vance published between 1914 and 1934. The False Faces was the second book in the cycle, appearing in 1918.
Louis Joseph Vance (1879-1933) was a popular American writer until his tragic accidental death.
The hero of this series is Michael Lanyard, English-born but raised in sordid and disreputable circumstances in Paris. As a young man he turned to crime, with great success. As the Lone Wolf he became the most glamorous and most famed jewel thief in Paris. His early life is covered in some detail in the first novel in the series, The Lone Wolf. He runs foul of a shadowy underworld organisation and finds himself hunted both by his fellow criminals and by the police.
He eventually abandons the life of crime but as we will see in The False Faces it is not so easy for a man to escape his past.
Given that it was written during the First World War it is not altogether surprising that The False Faces is a spy thriller rather than a crime thriller. Lanyard is now working, on a semi-official basis, for the British intelligence services (his criminal career being overlooked in view of the potential usefulness of the skills acquired in the course of that career). He has been gathering intelligence behind the German lines but now he has a new task, a task that requires him to take passage on the steamer Assyrian en route for New York. It is 1917 and the United States is still neutral but a declaration of war seems likely at any time.
It soon becomes apparent that German agents are also aboard the Assyrian. Lanyard is given a document by a young Englishwoman named Cecilia Brooke. This occurs in slightly puzzling circumstances. A man has been murdered, another is critically injured. Lanyard is inclined to trust Miss Brooke but he cannot be entirely sure of her. On the other hand he has sworn to hold on to the document for her, and one cannot betray a promise to a lady.
The body count on board the Assyrian starts to rise alarmingly. There may well be a whole battalion of German spies aboard. Worse is to follow - an encounter with a U-boat. The pace of the story starts to accelerate as Lanyard undergoes a bizarre series of adventures. He is increasingly convinced that he is being dogged by a figure from his past and this sinister figure may now be a top German secret agent.
The action (and there is no shortage of it) takes place on the high seas, under the sea, in a remote cove on the American coast and in the night clubs of New York. Lanyard is facing a deadly enemy who will stop at nothing but our hero is equally implacable since he has a personal score to settle.
Vance was a writer who clearly believed the wartime propaganda that not only the whole of England but the whole of the United States as well was infested by thousands of German spies. The level of hysteria is extraordinary, even by the standards of wartime spy thrillers. There are traitors everywhere. No-one can be trusted! In New York alone there seem to be hundreds of German spies.
Every German character is the book is totally and irredeemably beastly. They are all brutal vicious murderers. German soldiers bayonet babies. Literally. The extent of the fear and hatred of Germans expressed in this novel is astounding. You expect jingoism in a wartime spy thriller but Vance goes breathtakingly over-the-top. The Kaiser doesn’t actually appear in the book but he does get a few mentions. He was apparently the most blood-soaked butcher in history.
Not only are all the Germans in the novel evil. They are also, without exception, stupid and insane. Really insane, as in barking mad insane. This is a bit odd because on the one hand we’re expected to believe that the Germans have a vast and ruthlessly efficient system of espionage and sabotage that is a mortal threat to the survival of every country on the planet, but on other other hand we’re also expected to believe that all Germans are so crazy and so stupid that they could not possibly be a threat to anyone.
There’s also a romance sub-plot, as Lanyard falls for the charms of the courageous and beautiful Miss Brooke.
Jingoism aside this is a rousing tale of adventure, packed with action and excitement, and told with energy and panache. At times the reader’s credibility may be stretched a little - at least one of the Lone Wolf’s narrow escapes from certain death pushed the bounds of luck and coincidence very far indeed. That really doesn’t matter; if anything it adds to the book’s appeal.
While the Lone Wolf is the kind of hero who became very popular in the interwar years the style of the book is more reminiscent of the pre-First World War era. The combination of a slightly Edwardian sensibility with the dash and frenetic nervous energy of the thrillers of the 20s and 30s actually works quite well. Michael Lanyard is an indefatigable and brave, and very resourceful, hero. His old-fashioned manners are rather charming, and rather amusing given that he is a thief by profession.
The early Lone Wolf books are representative of a fascinating and important stage in the development of the classic thriller novel. They don’t compare with the works of a master like John Buchan but they’re still very worthwhile.
The False Faces provides plenty of entertainment. Recommended.