Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Sydney Horler's The Man Who Walked with Death
Englishman Horler (1888-1954) wrote 158 books. He was very popular in his day although critics hated his books. Since his death he has fallen into obscurity. In his 1971 book Snobbery With Violence Colin Watson was particularly scathing about him. As far as I’m concerned if Watson hated his books so much they can’t be all bad.
The Man Who Walked with Death is a wartime spy yarn and like so many such tales it is characterised by a tone of hysterical patriotism and paranoia.
This is one of a series of books featuring British spymaster Harker Bellamy, some of which also feature Bellamy’s ace agent Tiger Standish. Bellamy himself remains in the background for much of The Man Who Walked with Death but he is after all a spymaster rather than a field agent.
The book begins with an odd proposition being made to a man named Lorimer. An American intelligence agent named Tarleton wants Lorimer to impersonate him. This should be easy since the two men look remarkably alike (an excessive reliance on coincidence is something for which Horler has often been criticised). For some reason the proposal makes Lorimer uneasy and he refuses.
Shorty afterwards Lorimer is set on by a gang of thugs and while attempting to escape. He wakes up in hospital to find himself accused by British Military Intelligence of being a German spy named Schwarz. He then finds himself recruited as a British spy. He’s having a confusing if adventurous time.
Fortunately adventure is no stranger to Lorimer. Before the war he was a noted explorer well known for his expeditions in the jungles of Africa.
Lorimer has to pose as a German spy who is posing as an American. He thinks his deception is working but he can’t be sure. He thinks that his cook has her suspicions, and he has his own suspicions about her.
British Military Intelligence is trying to break a German spy ring which includes some very prominent people. There really was at this time (1940) an obsession that Britain was riddled with German spies.
This spy ring is planning a coup that will win the war for Germany overnight. It’s certainly an audacious plan. The spy ring is headed by a wealthy industrialist. He is not actually an Englishman. The idea of an Englishman turning traitor would have been too upsetting in 1941 so Horler goes to great lengths to make it clear that all of the German spies are really foreigners. This particular individual happens to be a close friend of the British Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is not called Winston Churchill in this novel but obviously that’s who he is and Horler’s hero-worship of Churchill gets a tad embarrassing at times.
Lorimer is an amateur spy. He’s brave and resourceful but he isn’t always aware of what’s really going on.
There’s an intriguing subplot about a German resistance movement trying to overthrow Hitler. The movement is led by followers of Ernst Röhm, the Nazi SA leader liquidated in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. This adds a rather bizarre touch.
Horler was not a great writer but he was nowhere near as bad as his reputation would suggest. I’m not much of a fan of wartime spy thrillers but if that sub-genre does appeal to you then you might enjoy The Man Who Walked with Death. I think it’s worth a look.
I’ve also reviewed a couple of Horler’s Tiger Standish thrillers, Tiger Standish and Tiger Standish Comes Back. They’re trashy but quite entertaining.