Saturday, September 12, 2020
Van Wyck Mason’s The Fort Terror Murders
Hugh North is in the Philippines and at a dinner party at Colonel Andrews’ house there is much excitement among the officers and their ladies. The excitement concerns the deserted and half-ruined Spanish fortress, Fort Espanto (“Fort Terror”). According to local legends there is treasure hidden somewhere in the fort, treasure that once belonged to the Jesuits before they we unceremoniously expelled from the fort. A fabulous treasure. That was centuries ago. Since that time many have sought that treasure, and they have all died. For the fort is haunted by ghosts - jealous, vengeful ghosts. Now two people claim to have discovered the secret of the treasure’s location.
Hugh North isn’t concerned by ghosts but by much more prosaic evils. The treasure will belong to Senorita Inez Sarolla and her family, and to her fiancé Lieutenant Bowen. Most of the young officers are by no means rich. A junior officer’s pay is not generous. Impoverished young officers and their ladies are not immune to jealousy or to greed. Such a treasure is likely to excite similar emotions even among the senior officers and their wives. It is clearly a potentially dangerous situation and those legends of mysterious deaths and disappearances do not reassure him - they could suggest temptations to weak-minded men (and women).
A party of a dozen or so officers and their women set off for the fort at dead of night to join in the fun of the uncovering of the treasure. The treasure hunt ends disastrously, with one man dead and another who simply vanished. Since Hugh North is an officer with the Intelligence and Criminal Investigation Department of the Army he takes charge of the case.
The tragic events occurred in total darkness within the vast bulk of Fort Espanto. It had originally been a monastery which was converted into a modern fortress by the Spanish in the late 18th century. Much of the original monastery remains. It could of course be riddled with secret passageways but while plans of the fort exist no plans of the original monastery survive, and any secret passageways would have been built into the monastery. There is no way of knowing if they exist or where they might be.
And since the events occurred in darkness no-one is sure where anybody else was at the time.
The clues are particularly puzzling. Two rosaries, both very unusual, and a cryptic message scrawled on a note. Hugh North believes that these clues contain a cypher, but it’s a fiendishly complex one.
But greed is not the only unhealthy passion at work here. There is also lust. Several illicit and intersecting love affairs seem to be approaching crisis point.
While the Hugh North novels are spy thrillers they also include definite murder mystery elements and this particular book is more or less a pure murder mystery. It’s made more interesting by being set in the tropics, which in the 1930s was synonymous with mystery, intrigue, madness and forbidden passions. The vast decaying fortress and the fact that the keys to the location of the treasure lie in the distant past add some gothic touches.
Of course mysteries set in ruined monasteries that include hidden passageways, and passions unleashed by life in the tropics, are deeply unfashionable today. And when you add notions of military honour it becomes even more unfashionable. To me that makes the book all the more appealing. Nobody writes books like this any longer, and that’s very sad. Van Wyck Mason was very very good at writing such books.
Hugh North is also a very old-fashioned hero. Although occasionally his methods can be ruthless (he deliberately and rather callously misleads a key witness) he is essentially a man of honour who does his duty. That’s not to say that he’s a dull square-jawed storybook hero. He’s capable of action but mostly he relies on his brains rather than on brawn. His approach is patient and intellectual.
If you love both golden age detective fiction and spy thrillers then Van Wyck Mason is the author you’ve been looking for all these years. In the pre-war Hugh North books he provides plenty for fans of both genres. The Fort Terror Murders is a bit unusual in including no actual spy thriller elements but it does have the sort of exotic setting that spy fans love. And it does have cyphers. Even cooler, it turns out that solving the cypher is not quite enough to solve the mystery - there’s an extra fiendish twist.
This one throws in assorted gothic and pulp elements as well - not just secret passageways but legends of ghosts and fiendish murder methods (such as murder by cobra). You have to remember that in 1931 Edgar Wallace was at the peak of his popularity so it made sense for Van Wyck Mason to throw in the kinds of things that Wallace fans enjoyed.
The Fort Terror Murders is gloriously entertaining. Highly recommended.
All the early Hugh North books are good. If you want more of a mixture of detective and spy elements then I’d recommend The Budapest Parade Murders or The Singapore Exile Murders. If you want a great spy story (and yes it does have murder as well) then check out the excellent The Branded Spy Murders.