Sunday 13 December 2015

Pawn in Jeopardy by Adam Hall

This is the second in my rather random sequence of reading the Hugo Bishop novels by Elleston Trevor — originally published in the 1950s under his pseudonym Simon Rattray, then reprinted in the 1970s under his other pseudonym, Adam Hall. The previous one I've discussed is Rook's Gambit aka Dead Circuit (1955).

In Pawn in Jeopardy (originally published as Dead Silence in 1954) we are once again in the world of psychologist turned detective Hugo Bishop, his rather intriguing middle aged female sidekick Vera Gorringe, his incredibly convenient police chum Inspector Freddie Frisnay and — best of all in my view — his Siamese cat the Princess Chu Yi-Hsin: "The fawn cat moved her head, watching the chess board. It was a plaything of hers. She let the larger animal play with it." 

The larger animal is of course our hero Hugo Bishop, whom the Princess regards with a certain detached amused disdain which rings very true. And her observations of the human world are always fun: "The Siamese stared at Bishop with huge eyes. She was listening to the tiny man shouting in the black shape of the telephone. It always interested her."

As with Rook's Gambit, the female characters are a lot more interesting than the male ones; at least the author certainly seems more interested in them. "There's something lovable about your icy calm," the femme fatale tells Bishop. "I feel like an unemptied ashtray," declares the exhausted heroine at one point.

And, as before, there are excellent descriptions of the world and physical things: "Above the streets the sky was just a wide flat glare." Or a train passing in the night: "All the small pounding world of a few hundred strangers had come and gone, with a whistle, into the hill." And here is a laboratory bench with a Bunsen burner on it: "The Bunsen burned on with a long-drawn never-ending breath." And I liked this, "The heat of his hand had left a moisture-smudge on the black Bakelite [of the telephone]."

People are memorably evoked, as well: "A porter, as worn-looking as the steps and as Victorian as the building, was reading an evening newspaper behind a low mahogany desk." Or, here, a delightfully succinct account of a weary commuter: "A trilby hat, a tired face, a newspaper under an arm." 

The minor characters and dialogue are very good in Pawn in Jeopardy. Possibly Rook's Gambit, which was a slightly later book, showed an increased confidence and sophistication in the prose, but Pawn in Jeopardy has the edge in freshness and energy.

And the story is superior here, too. The McGuffin in Rook's Gambit was a death ray. It was a fairly convincingly evoked death ray, but I still couldn't take it seriously. What is at stake in Pawn is an apocalyptic secret discovered by arctic explorers on a polar expedition. Knowledge of the secret is deadly, and the explorers are being bumped off one by one. I half expected Trevor to cheat the reader, and kill the final explorer without ever revealing the secret. But he provides the revelation and it's an effective one. Full marks to him.

I don't know if the police procedure is accurate, but the terminology he uses ("action-calls" and "location-calls") is very convincing. Of course, for all I know, the author could be making it all up. He came up with some convincing sounding poisons which don't exist — tripentacyn and fluocyn (although there is a topical corticosteroid called fluocin). More importantly, there's an exciting, well written car chase and the book displays commendable pace and suspense.

I started to read these Hugo Bishop novels as amusing curiosities, quaint period pieces, purely because I liked the later Adam Hall spy novels. But I'm beginning to see they actually have a value and validity of their own. The author does lose some points for this, though:
"he moved the safety-catch of the revolver." 

Revolvers don't have safety catches.

(Image credits: The cover of the New English Library edition — the one I read — is from eBay. The blue American paperback is from a little known bookseller called Amazon. The British hardcover reprint is from ABE. The audio book, same as the US paperback, is from AudioBookerz. Sadly I couldn't find the cover art for the original 1950s Boardman edition of Dead Silence anywhere on the internet. It would have been glorious, I'm sure.)

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