Friday, May 13, 2016

The Spy Fiction of Edward Phillips Oppenheim

The career of E. Phillips Oppenheim can seem an object lesson is how the toased authors of bestsellers can fade into utter obscurity, while relatively little-read auteurs come to enjoy an enduring fame. In his day, he was spectacularly popular--enough so as to get away with immodestly dubbing himself "the prince of novelists." Yet today he is so little known that, apart from seeing him mentioned in Moonraker (and just as quickly forgetting him that first time I read the book) I never heard of him until I started digging into the history of the thriller genre--and even after that I wound up having to work out how he fits into it for myself. Not only is it the case that one can roam the Internet for a very long time without finding a really worthwhile review of even his least obscure books, but (as David Stafford pointed out) even scholars whose business it is to know about people like him generally don't seem to have done their job here.1

That said, just how did he fit into the genre's history? Fleming's mention of him in Moonraker affords a clue. The reference occurs as Gala Brand (the one Bond girl Bond doesn't get to bed) considers the book's hero:
Well, at any rate she had put [Bond] in his place and shown him that she wasn't impressed by dashing young men from the Secret Service, however romantic they might look. There were just as goodlooking men in the Special Branch, and they were real detectives, not just people that Phillips Oppenheim had dreamed up with fast cars and special cigarettes with gold bands on them and shoulder-holsters.
Phillips Oppenheim, one of the first writers to take up the modern spy story in its formative years at the start of the twentieth century, can safely be credited with having brought to the genre the glamour with which it is associated. Rudyard Kipling's story of Kimball O'Hara's wanderings through India in the company of a Tibetan holy man has color and charm, and Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands gave us our first "clubland" heroes in Carruthers and Davies . . . but neither is exactly a tale of high living. By contrast, in a book like The Double Four (1911) the international intrigue is thoroughly set within a world of Edwardian luxury--of well-staffed mansions and chauffeured motor-cars, of fine dining and nights at the opera, where it seems everyone is wealthy, titled or a celebrity, and often all three, and there is about the whole a sense of his offering the reader a glimpse of those high and seductive places virtually certain to be forever beyond their reach. Likewise, he afforded the reader a style of conflict characteristic of this kind of glamorous tale, in which hero and villain dance around each other in recurring meetings mixing murderousness and gentility (quite apparent in that novel's duel between Peter Ruff and Bernadine).

All of this, reminiscent of the sorts of adventure that had usually been set in safely distant historical periods (like Dumas' The Three Musketeers), carried through the genre tradition to Fleming's distillation of it in the '50s when he created his stories.

Striking, too, is Oppenheim's affinity for Gothic touches, on full display in what is perhaps his best known book, The Great Impersonation (1920). We get a protagonist given up for dead who has curiously and belatedly returned from the tropics, and may be someone other than whom he claims to be; we get a mansion with a mad woman in it, and haunted woods outside it. (And this, too, seems to have carried through the British spy novel tradition to a greater degree than appreciated, all the way up to Fleming's novels, which can appear surprisingly saturated with it, particularly in You Only Live Twice.)

Of course, all this sort of thing is more of interest from the standpoint of the genre's history than as an indication of his books' value as an actual reading experience--and it has to be admitted they have their limits there. It is not for nothing that the spy novels by writers like Kipling, or Joseph Conrad, or W. Somerset Maugham, have been so much more enduring. The books were conceived as shallow entertainments, and were not always well put together on that level. (The plot twists are often laughably hokey--as with the final reveal of who the protagonist is and how he came to be where he is at the end of Impersonation.)

And of course, Oppenheim's books have dated, in style and content. They are slight in their handling of the organizational and technical detail that for many is an integral part of the spy story's appeal, and those who have felt Fleming's books were disappointingly short on action (as I did when first coming to them) would find these even less impressive on that score. There is, too, the steeping of the tales in the headlines and prejudices of the day--standard to the genre, of course, but managed with differing levels of aplomb, and clumsier here than in many another tale. In The Double Four, for example, one episode's big reveal concerns what really caused the sinking of the Maine, which cannot but have a different and lesser impact on today's reader (with the event more distant and the mystery more or less cleared up), while the tales are replete with the cliche of the Edwardian version of right-wing hysteria. Time and time again we get a scheming and bestially aggressive Germany, a decadent and perhaps unreliable France, pacifists and socialists as foreign-controlled traitors poisoning the body politic with their creed, and an England saved in the end by its amateur gentleman-adventurers (material a contemporary reader is apt to find either grating or ridiculous).2

Still, if Oppenheim is trashy, he does not waste our time pretending to be anything else, and he is not without his measure of skill. His knack for atmosphere makes his evocations of high life and Gothic absurdities far more effective than they would be otherwise, while his ability to keep us turning the pages puts that of most of today's bestselling writers to shame (admittedly, a reflection of the fact that writers in his day were allowed to be brief). And the result was that while I looked at his books for research reasons, I ended up enjoying them a good deal more than I had expected.

1. This was in his 1981 Victorian Studies article "Spies and Gentlemen." As far as I can tell, however, things haven't changed much since, Oppenheim (and the others to whom Stafford referred) not much more likely to get acknowledged.
2. Admittedly, this is one case where things haven't changed very much.

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A History of the Spy Story, Part II: The Life of a Genre
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A History of the Spy Story, Part I: The Birth of a Genre
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From Screen to Page: Reading Ian Fleming
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