As The Double Four opens country squire Peter Ruff is summoned to Paris to meet with the mysterious old woman heading the titular organization, with which he has previously been deeply involved. At the meeting he finds the leader on her deathbed, from which she tells him that he is to be her successor--a charge he is reluctant to accept, though it is also clear that he has no choice in the matter. Afterward he is promptly set up in London as grandee Baron De Grost.
Over the course of the story we never get a comprehensive image of just what the origins, purposes and activities of the Double Four are, but it is quite clear that it was at least in part a notorious criminal organization, that it has since distanced itself from such activities, and that its primary concern is now espionage. By and large, this espionage seems to be conducted on behalf of the alliance of Britain and France, against Germany, and it is this which occupies Ruff's time--in particular, his successive battles with German agent Bernadine, the Count Von Hern.
The luxurious atmosphere, the genteel but ruthless and ultimately deadly duel between Ruff and Bernadine, are classic Oppenheim--and so are the plentiful melodrama, hokey plot twists and right-wing propaganda of yesteryear. Less familiar to me was the book's structure. A collection of short stories turned into a cut-up novel, the book is not just loose, but essentially episodic--between the first and last tales Ruff and Bernadine fighting out some issue to a conclusion, and then the book simply returning to them at the outset of the next battle. In fact, the order of several of the stories in the middle could have been rearranged without the reader's experience being compromised.
The fact that the book does consist of so many short bits was initially a bit jarring, so much so that I was tempted to charge them with being more thinly sketched than they should have been. (Like every other reader of my generation, I suppose I've simply--for better or worse--become used to taking my spy fiction in doorstop-length doses.) Still, it was a light, quick read with a pronounced retro interest, perhaps not so satisfying as The Great Impersonation but also suffering from less of that book's weaknesses as well.
The Spy Fiction of Edward Phillips Oppenheim
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