Friday, July 04, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “Watcher in the Shadows,” by Geoffrey Household

(Editor’s note: This is the 11th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Mike Ripley, noted British critic, Shots columnist, and author of the new Angels Unaware, the latest entry in his Last Laugh Award-winning Roy Angel series of comedy thrillers.)

When I interviewed Reginald Hill a while back on the publication of his 21st Dalziel and Pascoe novel, I asked him which mystery writers he admired and without hesitation he named Geoffrey Household, but with the caveat: “who, apart from Rogue Male, seems to have fallen off the screen.”

Household will, of course, always be remembered for 1939’s Rogue Male, the ultimate assassination/manhunt story and his third novel, published with remarkable prescience two days before the outbreak of World War II. (And if you don’t know why that was prescient, don’t bother reading on, for you are a lost cause and deserve to be imprisoned in a deserted badger set for a few weeks.)

But it was only after the war (a very active one for Geoffrey Household, during which he served in Field Intelligence with the eventual rank of lieutenant colonel) that this author’s thriller-writing career really took off with dozens of short stories and some 20 novels up to his death in 1988.

A series of books (all short, all written with incredible pace and mostly with rural English settings), starting with A Rough Shoot in 1951, established Household as the “natural heir” to John Buchan. In fact “Buchanesque” and “picaresque” were the two most common comments in reviews of his thrillers.

But if Buchan had had a natural leaning towards Scotland and the Scottish Highlands, Household was the champion of the English countryside and indeed all things English, as opposed to British. Yet he could never be accused of being a “little Englander,” for his view of postwar England was often through the eyes of a European or a returning ex-patriot, and filtered by his own experiences of working in Spain, South America, and America during the Depression and then in an Ottoman bank in Bucharest, Romania, in the 1930s followed by six years of military service in Greece, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq.

In 1960, Geoffrey Edward West Household, then aged 59, produced his greatest thriller since Rogue Male, a novel now almost as forgotten as that one is remembered.

Watcher in the Shadows is a triumphant return to themes that he virtually made his trademark: a man pursued by a ruthless enemy who can call on no superpowers or armed back-up but has to rely on his wits and field-craft. Once again, and quite brilliantly so, it is beautiful rural England--Buckinghamshire and the majestic Cotswold Hills--which form the scenic backdrop, and the killing ground.

I wonder how many reviewers would breathe a sigh of relief these days if presented with a novel which, in fewer than 200 pages, packs so many punches. I know I would.

Household doesn’t keep the reader waiting either; he never did. Very quickly he establishes the setting--a May morning in a quiet London suburb in 1955--where middle-aged bachelor zoologist Charles Dennim is calmly working away, writing up his notes about the behavior of red squirrels (having already covered roe deer and badgers), when the postman attempts to deliver a thick envelope through the letter box.

This postman doesn’t get a chance to ring twice, for the envelope explodes, blowing him in half and announcing the opening of hostilities between Dennim and an opponent who remains unseen and unidentified for four-fifths of the book.

But of course Dennim isn’t just a mild-mannered zoologist; he is actually the Graf von Dennim, a displaced Austrian aristocrat, member of the anti-Nazi resistance, and a willing recruit to British intelligence during the war. So he knows how to handle himself, but for reasons of pride or a twisted sense of noblesse oblige he decides to trap his would-be assassin himself without harming any more innocent bystanders.

As one character tells him very perceptively: “The trouble with you, boy, is that because you’re not friends with yourself you think nobody else can be,” and gradually we discover the reasons why Dennim is such a reluctant hero and why he turned down a medal for his war service. As an undercover agent of the British, von Dennim successfully infiltrated the Gestapo only to find himself, late in the war, posted to Buchenwald and Ravensbrück concentration camps, where he attempted against all the odds to help prisoners escape.

It becomes clear that whoever is stalking Dennim is pursing a vendetta against specific Gestapo officers who were at Buchenwald. Dennim has to flush out his stalker (he comes to think of him as a hunting tiger) and identify him without allowing his opponent to get close enough for a clear shot.

Choosing the peaceful Buckinghamshire countryside as his battleground is almost a fatal mistake, for Dennim’s anonymous hunter turns out to have just as much field-craft as he does. And Household, on familiar territory, knows how to pack in the action and crank up the suspense.

In the first 100 pages, apart from the letter-bomb, an ambush (in a badger set) goes wrong, there’s an original way of obtaining an illegal pistol (which would probably work today), a dog is poisoned after eating the veal chops destined for Dennim’s dinner, there’s a spine-tingling close encounter in a motorized hearse, and an utterly chilling moment when Dennim realizes that a missing spade has been taken to dig his grave.

Then Household gives us a breathing space, roughly between pages 96 and 129, where the hero is allowed some personal time and a change of venue to the Cotswold Hills, though knowing, all the time, that his prowling tiger is still out there somewhere. And so Dennim more or less lets the tiger catch him whilst out riding--a perfectly respectable pursuit for a country gentleman--and lets him get up close and very personal in an ultra-tense encounter in a traditional English country pub.

The would-be assassin is revealed as a French aristocrat, the Vicomte de St. Sabas, whose wife died in Ravensbrück. He blames Dennim, whom he thinks was a genuine Gestapo officer, and refuses to listen to his story, but instead demands his revenge. As a gentleman and fellow aristo, Dennim can do no other than oblige and so the two men, on horseback, select a quiet Cotswold meadow, mark out their distance, and then start shooting as they charge.

Virtually the last fifth of Watcher is taken up with this remarkably detailed duel scene, which has no equivalent in British crime fiction that I can recall. Goodness knows what impact it had when the book came out in 1960: that sort of thing simply didn’t happen in the tranquil English countryside. Imagine John Wayne, reins between his teeth, riding into St. Mary Meade shouting “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch” and you might get somewhere close.

I can think of no other writer who could have got away with such a scene, or indeed one who would have thought of it.

But that’s Household. He can display English humor almost as well as Wodehouse did, as in his description of Dennim’s aunt Georgina, who might easily have been one of Bertie Wooster’s fearsome aunts:
[She] had the genial, positive manners of a trim little cavalry general, retired on a pension. When she wore a bowler hat and riding breeches she could almost pass as one. At the riding school where she was assistant mistress she had been, I understand, occasionally addressed by new pupils as ‘Sir’. But never twice.
And then there is his trademark love of animals, nature, huntin’, shootin,’ and fishin,’ which permeates all of his prose. In Watcher, where hunted animal metaphors abound, the hero is asked:
‘Are animals afraid all the time?’

I answered that I did not think so--not in our sense of the word anyway--but that fear was never far from the surface, was acceptable and might even be enjoyable. Everything which preserves must in theory be enjoyable: mating, the satisfaction of hunger and the feeding of the young. A hare, for example, obviously triumphs in a narrow escape; you can see self-confidence in the easy gallop. Extreme danger is pleasurable to a few soldiers--even civilised, sensitive soldiers. And aren’t there young idiots in America who drive cars at each other down the centre of the road to see who will get out of the way first?

‘All the time, all around us,’ I said, ‘Death is making his reconnaissance.’
So, tension, suspense, thrills, humor, sympathetic characters, and a hero (and a villain) with a sense of honor, plus the odd bit of natural philosophy. What more could you possibly ask for in 192 pages of finely written prose?

For me, all Geoffrey Household’s work has that comforting English smell of cordite on a damp tweed jacket with leather elbow patches; a perfume I’ve only inhaled in second-hand bookshops--which, coincidentally, is where I have found all the Household books I now own, as sadly only one (Rogue Male of course) is still in print.

Watcher in the Shadows is quite as good as Rogue Male and demands not to be forgotten. Some years ago, whilst writing for television, I pitched Watcher to an executive producer and we attempted to track down the film rights. By that time, author Household had been dead for about five years but had already “slipped off the screen.” Eventually, a literary agent discovered that the rights had been sold to CBS-TV in America, “in perpetuity.”

The book had apparently been transposed into a 1972 TV movie called Deadly Harvest, set in the California wine-growing country and substituting a Cold War back story with KGB defectors, for the World War II revenge theme. It starred Richard Boone as the Charles Dennim character, Patty Duke, and the ever-reliable Murray Hamilton as the town sheriff.

I do not think it has ever been shown in England; for which I am eternally grateful.


Unknown said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I read this book years ago, absolutely loved it, and perversely over the years forgot both title and author. I really wish you could have seen my face as I read the review and felt the memories come back. Now all I have to do is find a copy. Again, much thanks!

Unknown said...

I just finished reading this book. It has been on my library shelf for over 40 years. I bought it at a flea market with many other books by English authors in Santa Cruz, Ca.. I must have read it when I bought it, but until I picked up again last night, I could not put it down. The best thriller I have read in years, short and to the point, without pages of useless pronouns that loses the thread of the story!!!!!
Feels as though I have been in a wet badger hole and riding an Arabian stallion. !!!

Anonymous said...

I'm just picking this up again after more than thirty years. It was referred to, I think, in world of the thriller. Your analysis I good. However neither your essay nor otters Ice read points out theextreme intensity of moral uncertainty. A quality now rare. And not just survival. It redemption and reintegration into lsociety, that is life.