Friday, May 28, 2010

The Book You Have to Read:
“Drink to Yesterday,” by Manning Coles

(Editor’s note: This is the 96th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from writer Irene Fleming of Lambertville, New Jersey. After composing a number of private-eye novels and traditional mysteries under her real name, Kate Gallison, she was reintroduced recently by Minotaur Books as the author of The Edge of Ruin, a historical mystery published under the new Fleming pen name. She is currently working on the sequel, titled The Brink of Fame.)

Drink to Yesterday begins a few years after the end of World War I with an inquest into the death of its story’s protagonist, Michael Kingston, a village garage owner who used to be a spy, traveling under the noms de guerre Bill Saunders and Dirk Brandt. The book itself is dedicated to “an old gentleman who loved his roses.” Its title refers to a toast Michael drinks, using a curiously engraved crystal goblet, which he then smashes onto the hearth just before he is killed.

In that same way, Professor Amtenbrink, an old gentleman scientist who loved his roses, once drank a toast from an almost identical goblet, immediately before Michael cut his throat in wartime Germany.

Kingston and Amtenbrink are both supposed to be fictional. And yet, in addition to Drink to Yesterday’s dedication, there are other elements of this tale that suggest it might be rooted in truth. Some of the characters--including Marie Bleuhm, the German girl Michael loved but couldn’t marry because he had a wife back in England, and Max von Bodenheim, the crippled German spymaster whose irascible wit charmed Michael even as Michael was betraying him--are so feelingly portrayed, one suspects they were based on real-life figures from the author’s past.

A decent person acting as an undercover agent must carry a terrible load of personal guilt. Some kill themselves. Lucky are those who can deal with pain by producing a work of art, the way an oyster makes a pearl.

I first read Drink to Yesterday (1940) as a teenager without any life experience, and I loved it for the beauty of the language, the understated English wit, the characters (unique and superbly drawn), the picture it offers of civilian life in wartime Germany, and the thrill of a great spy yarn. Some of the novel’s dialogue is unforgettable. Von Bodenheim has one of the best lines. Michael tries to shush him in a nightclub, saying, “There’s a lady singing.” “Is there?” Von Bodenheim replies. “I don’t think I see a lady and I’m damned sure I don’t hear singing." Don’t you love a good insult? Subtle.

In my youth I was surprised to learn that author Manning Coles was actually two people: Adelaide Frances Oke Manning (1891-1959), who worked in the War Office during World War I, and Cyril Henry Coles (1899-1965), who worked in British Intelligence. I think somewhere I read an account of how they met, how he told her over a few whiskeys about the life he led as a spy, and how she said, “Let’s write a book.”

It says quite plainly in the front of Drink to Yesterday that “All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Still, the details and the incidents seem so truthful.

Years have passed, and now that I’ve written a few books myself, I have more of an idea of how the piece of grit becomes something we hope will be thought of as a pearl. All fiction writers use parts of themselves, of their lives, even their fantasies, in their storytelling. Since the participants are certainly now long dead, I trust I won’t offend anyone if I make some wild guesses about Cyril Coles’ time in Germany during the Great War, based on what I read in Drink to Yesterday. There was a German spymaster, maybe a crippled spymaster, who had a homosexual crush on him, and whose death he compassed. There was an aged professor who grew roses, and Coles had at least a hand in killing him, too, though later events proved the old man innocent of the crime that had precipitated his death. And there was a German girl--Coles was in love with her, and she loved him in return.

There was also a colleague who lost his life in an accident in the North Sea.

How could I not believe these things in fact happened? How could I not wonder whether Cyril Coles, like Michael Kingston in the book, really participated in missions involving biological and chemical weapons, and blew up a German Zeppelin base? Drink to Yesterday presents it all so convincingly. These incidents have to have bases in reality, don’t they? And the professor. If he never existed, why dedicate this novel to him? As for Marie Bleuhm, her relationship with Kingston is presented very delicately, as a gentleman would do. Maybe she’s living with him, maybe not. No sex scenes; she sews his buttons on. Clearly she’s devoted to him, as he is very fond of her. But in his English existence, he’s married to another woman, and therefore cannot wed Marie. So he destroys her reputation.

Many betrayals. Much guilt. In a kind of atonement, Coles ultimately kills the character in Drink to Yesterday who represents himself.

The second Manning Coles book, 1940’s A Toast to Tomorrow (or Pray Silence, as it was published in the UK), has not the sense of tragedy that informs its predecessor, but rather a spirit of giddy adventure. Tommy Hambledon, the modern languages professor turned spy who in the first book perished in the North Sea during a botched submarine rescue, turns out to have washed ashore and come back to life, albeit with a stubborn case of amnesia. He was so far undercover during the war that he believes himself to have been a patriotic German. With the help of an old lady who adopts him as her nephew, he survives the crash of the German economy, joins the National Socialist Party, and rises to high position in the Nazi government--only to suddenly recover his memory of being an English spy, just as Berlin’s Reichstag goes up in flames in 1933.

Naturally, as soon as Hambledon begins communicating with the English, they realize he is an invaluable resource. He goes on to have delightful and thrilling adventures in a series of once-popular books. He avenges Kingston’s death. Charles Denton, one of his fellow spies, meets and marries a German girl much like the lost Marie Bleuhm. And for a dizzy while Hambledon even has hopes of overthrowing Adolf Hitler himself.

A Toast to Tomorrow denies all the true things we thought we knew at the end of Drink to Yesterday: that war mars people irrevocably, that the dead don’t rise again, and that lost love can never be recovered.


Evan Lewis said...

Fine review, Irene!

Dave said...

It's a long time since I read Drink to Yesterday, but what I do remember is feeling unutterably depressed when I finished it. It was so unlike the later books that one could almost believe there were different authors at work in them. That said, I enjoyed all of them, and many of the other books the pair wrote as well, which didn't involve Tommy Hambeledon.. Good review.

Austin Carr said...

Nice piece, Kate. I'll miss you at Deadly Ink this year.

Lyn McConchie said...

er, whatever made you think Bill Saunders cut Atembrink's throat? He used a sharpened bicycle spoke. That is slid under the ribs and into the heart, done fast it's almost painless, and leaves very little trace.