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A quantum of respect for the forgotten master

Sinclair McKay hails the pioneering novels of William Le Queux, true inventor of the modern spy novel, whose thrillers prefigured the Bond books by more than half a century

29 October 2008

12:00 AM

29 October 2008

12:00 AM

Double-dealing female agents. Secret ciphers. Car chases. Now that we have all ingested rather more than a quantum of publicity for Ian Fleming’s gaudy fictions, it might be time for the true inventor of the modern spy novel — and the original purveyor of the above-named elements — to take his bow. The name was Le Queux. William Le Queux. He is almost totally forgotten now. But between the 1890s and the 1920s, he was one of Britain’s most phenomenally popular authors.

In the dying days of Victoria’s reign, right up past the first world war, Le Queux turned out countless thrillers that gave us all the familiar leitmotifs of the spy genre. As well as the codes and the gunfight set-pieces, he also brought us the wire tap, the death ray and the lethal exploding cigar. We had Spies of the Kaiser, A Secret Service, The Czar’s Spy and The Great Plot. A few years before the advent of SIS, Le Queux saw to it that the idea of the intelligence man as heroic figure was born.

Of course, in Britain in the late 19th century, one didn’t say ‘spy’. Spying was something that beastly foreign nationals did to us. What we did, according to Le Queux, was simply throw up defensive counter-measures. In The Man from Downing Street (1904), the Foreign Secretary tells our diplomat hero Jack Jardine that he would be better off referring to himself as a ‘secret agent’. Incidentally, was this the term’s first use in popular fiction? If it was, then Joseph Conrad slightly took the gloss off it several years later by making his own ‘Secret Agent’, Verloc, a shabby pornographer.

Naturally, in that golden evening of Empire, there was much to defend. In Her Majesty’s Minister (1901), sinister shadowy powers are plotting to bring the nation into a cataclysmic war that might just involve a great many other European countries. ‘The power of England is feared. Hence her isolation,’ explained the author. Even from the start, the spy thriller was reflecting real geopolitical anxieties.

And sex was a weapon, if deployed rather more demurely than in Fleming. Among Le Queux’s many lovely ladies are Yolande, Irma, Princess Leonie of Austria, the treacherous Edith Austin and the frankly mysterious Clare Stanway, with her Irish name yet foreign accent. In one novel, we are briefly introduced to a young couple called Tony and Doris. In England’s Peril (1899), Irma is an unhappily compromised double agent, who as well as bewitching our hero, rifles through safes and copies top-secret plans by means of tracing paper.

Exotic locations? Oh yes. Paris, Rome, Florence, even St Petersburg, all feature as backdrops. The less exotic locations are equally bewitching. The opening chapters of The Man from Downing Street take place in the atmospherically drawn London suburb of Sydenham, with some fascinatingly rich detailing of the train line to Crystal Palace.

What Le Queux also set out was the genre’s delight in the incongruous and bizarre. In England’s Peril, a chap in Isleworth has his head gruesomely blown off by, it eventually transpires, an explosive cigar. In The Man from Downing Street, an agent breaks into a Kensington flat to find the remains of a half-eaten meal from a dinner party — and the corpse of one guest still sitting at the table, clearly left there as the other diners fled. In Her Majesty’s Minister, a young woman falls into a mysterious cataleptic trance — brought on, it transpires, by her having licked a poisoned envelope. In The Mystery of a Motor Car (1906), the hero is disagreeably taken aback to find a woman’s severed ear. He is then locked in a darkened room with a venomous snake.

Reading his relatively simplistic prose now — aeons out of print, irksomely, but the London Library has an excellent range of his novels in its stacks — you realise why Le Queux was such a hit among the nation’s schoolboys. Yet these books were adored by adults too, and bought in their millions. Lord Northcliffe was a colossal fan.

William Tufnell Le Queux had started out as a journalist and was also at some stage a diplomat. He often later claimed that, like his protagonists, he had extensive dealings in secret missions. Unlike Ian Fleming, he made a mistake in not sticking with the one hero. His different spy protagonists always tended to be courageous square-jawed diplomats, but with names as unlikely as their author’s, such as Duckworth Drew.

He was also on to the potential dangers of fast-emerging technology. In one novel, the villain is somehow ingeniously intercepting messages passing between Windsor Castle and Downing Street. But how? Eventually the hero clocks the significance of an address in Feltham, near Windsor, where the villain is discovered with fiction’s first ever (telegraph) wire tap.

But, then, by The Mystery of the Green Ray, things were turning serious. For it was 1916, and as Britain fought her most bloody and desolating war, Le Queux was providing rather ferocious patriotic escapism. The green death ray itself — ‘violet and orange rays passed through tourmaline and quartz’ — is a weapon that first can blind its targets, and then draws all the oxygen out of the air, thus suffocating them.

By that stage, John Buchan had muscled into the genre, with The 39 Steps and Greenmantle. After the war, Cyril ‘Sapper’ McNeil stormed in with his stupendously popular amateur secret agent Bulldog Drummond, who was a direct influence on young master Fleming. The first of Drummond’s adventures has recently been reprinted. Isn’t it about time that the equally amusing William Le Queux once more took his place on our shelves?

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