Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Ripping Off the Final Veil

I first met novelist Russell James during the 2001 Dead-on-Deansgate mystery conference, held in Manchester, England, back when he was still chair of the British Crime Writers Association. Since then I have found myself now and then dipping into his oeuvre of unusual crime fiction. I rather enjoyed his 2002 novel, Pick Any Title, and found his subsequent novel, No One Gets Hurt, to be a really interesting look behind the scenes of the adult sex industry. (It’s risqué cover alone was sufficient to win the book notice among many readers.) I also enjoy James’ contributions to Crime Time magazine and his reviews in Shots.

Only recently did I bump into James again, and discovered that he has a new novel out in the UK called The Maud Allan Affair (Pen & Sword Books). The story is somewhat of a departure for this author, as he leaves behind the contemporary world of his previous works, and heads into the past. James calls his new book a “fictography,” because it is based on a real-life scandal from 1919. Much of James’ novel is set during the First World War, and it climaxes with several chapters based on transcripts from one of the most notorious libel cases of the 20th century.

In 1908, Britain was rocked by stories about how King Edward VII’s much-rumored mistress, Maud Allan, was planning to perform a striptease on the London stage. Allan (née Beulah Maude Durrant) was an “artistic dancer,” born in Toronto, Canada, in the 1870s, who’d moved with her family to San Francisco and finally relocated to Europe before the end of that century. (Her brother, meanwhile, was hanged for two murders at a San Francisco church in 1896). It was said that Miss Allan had begun an affair with the late Queen Victoria’s hedonistic son shortly after her private performance before the King at Marienbad, during which she danced naked. Now, in a London theater, she would perform her notorious Dance of the Seven Veils from Vision of Salomé (based on Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé), and would reveal everything--to the public!

Fate would take its revenge on her. A decade later, in the concluding months of World War I, Maud Allan became embroiled in one of the most shocking libel cases in memory. So scandalous was it, that for several days her trial shared newspaper headlines with worrying notices from the French war front. She had been libeled, she claimed, by a maverick right-wing Member of Parliament, Noel Pemberton Billing. In a small-circulation paper, the Vigilante, Billing had published an article titled “The Cult of the Clitoris,” which implied not only that Miss Allan was a lesbian (sufficient cause for court action in those days), but that she was associated with German war conspirators. She in turn sued Billing for libeling her as a “lewd, unchaste, and immoral woman.”

Allan presently found herself caught up in a confusion of plots and counter-plots. Among the bizarre “witnesses” called to Billing’s defense were two supposed “agents of the secret service,” one a ranting preacher and the other the notorious Lord Alfred Douglas, onetime boyfriend of author-playwright Oscar Wilde (who’d had his own unfortunate run-ins with the British legal system). Presiding over the case was a famously erratic judge. Behind the scenes, the government wanted to stifle Billing’s publicity. More importantly, Prime Minister Lloyd George had become aware that an intrigue was in the works to unseat his war cabinet and destroy his governing coalition. The respectability Maud Allan had sought so dexterously during her time in London was finally shattered when Billing’s defense exposed her as the sister of a San Francisco serial killer.

As The Times lamented after that trial’s conclusion, “No lawsuit of modern times has attracted such universal and painful interest as the deplorable libel action which terminated yesterday at the Central Criminal Court. Every well-proved canon of British fair play was frankly disregarded.”

Russell James’ fictography merges this captivating tale with that of fictional twins Daniel and Hannah Bolt--he a jazz pianist and later a soldier, she a suffragette and a nurse on the front lines of “the Great War.” Their stories and those of the real-life characters here make The Maud Allan Affair a fascinating read, in which the author tries to provide answers to questions that have intrigued historians for the last nine decades. Was there really a plot against the British government? To what degree was the secret service involved? Was Billing’s “Black Book,” which allegedly contained the names of 47,000 men and women whose sexual orientation made them susceptible to blackmail by German strategists, genuine? And at the trial, who was the surprise witness, the shadowy woman who caused a sensation and almost brought down Lloyd George’s government?

It’s all the stuff from which fictional intrigue can be sown. And author James knows how to do just that.

READ MORE:Willing to Be Thrilling,” by Carol Bishop-Gwyn (The Beaver).

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