The Branded Spy Murders was the fifth of F. Van Wyck Mason’s twenty-six Hugh North spy thrillers. The first of the Hugh North books appeared in 1930 and the last in 1968.
Francis Van Wyck Mason (1901-1978) was a prolific and extremely successful American writer of detective fiction, spy thrillers and historical fiction. He published some 78 novels altogether.
The Branded Spy Murders appeared in 1932. Captain Hugh North is a U.S. Army officer assigned to G-2, Military Intelligence. He has been sent to Honolulu to try to retrieve a desperate situation caused by the failures of two other American intelligence officers. These were brave and reliable men but they proved to be no match for one of the deadliest and most seductive of all female spies. Even Captain Hugh North himself will find it difficult to resist her lethal charms.
Somehow Captain North will have to avert a war between the United States and Japan. A complex conspiracy is afoot to push the two nations into war. A series of incidents has been engineered in China and these have raised tensions very dangerously indeed and now a Japanese cruiser squadron in on its way to Hawaii. It is intended as a goodwill visit but in the present overheated atmosphere the fear is that the visit could be misunderstood.
The first problem facing Hugh North is to discover the identity of those behind the plot. This will not be easy since Hawaii is swarming with intelligence operatives - there are American, British, German, French, Japanese and Soviet spies all active in the islands and there are private interests represented as well.
There is also a dead girl, found floating in the water near the Honolulu mansion of an American steel magnate. The dead girl was a spy, but which of the intelligence services was she working for? Who killed her, and why?
There will be more murders before this case is solved. Anxious as he is to solve the murders Hugh North is considerably more anxious to avert a war that neither Japan nor the U.S. really wants.
Van Wyck Mason liked to set his spy thrillers in exotic locations and in this book he uses the Hawaiian setting very effectively indeed. We get to see a glamorous side to the islands but we see the seedy sleazy side as well. Hugh North’s investigation will lead him to luxurious mansions and expensive restaurants but it will also lead him to some very low dives in parts of Honolulu that respectable tourists avoid - a sordid world of brothels and cheap bars.
Also impressive is the way Mason makes use of the very real tensions that existed in this part of the world at the time. The Japanese had overrun Manchuria in 1931 (the so-called Manchuria Incident) and by 1937 they would be embroiled in full-scale war in China (the so-called China Incident). The idea of a war between the U.S. and Japan was by no means totally fanciful. And in 1941 it was in fact Hawaii where the spark was struck that plunged Asia into all-out war.
You might expect the Japanese to be cast as the bad guys but things are not that straightforward. It’s possible that both the Japanese and the Americans are being manipulated.
Compared to other spy thrillers of the interwar years there’s a surprising touch of cynicism (the conspirators would be quite happy to start a full-scale war as long as there’s a profit to be made) and there’s a good deal of emphasis on the use of sex as a tool in espionage. There’s no actual sex but there’s an enormous amount of sexual tension, sexual jealousy, and sexual betrayal. There’s not a huge amount of action but there’s plenty of suspense and plenty of danger.
Hugh North is a dedicated professional spy in an era when most literary spies were enthusiastic amateurs. In some ways he has more in common with postwar spies like James Bond than with his contemporaries such as Bulldog Drummond. In fact the tone of the book really does to a certain extent anticipate the Bond novels.
And the glamorous and deadly female super-spy Nadia Stefan could quite easily be a Bond girl.
The Branded Spy Murders is a taut and exciting spy tale with some fine plot twists. Hugh North is an interesting slightly flawed hero - he’s a brave and brilliant officer but he does have his weaknesses and he does make mistakes. The novel has a memorable femme fatale. When you add the exotic setting you have all the ingredients for a very superior piece of spy fiction. Very highly recommended.