Having read England Their England, a 1933 novel suffused with memories of the war, I wondered what A.G.Macdonell had been writing during the twenties. A search in the more shadowy corners of wonderful Abebooks produced a copy of The Seven Stabs, which he wrote under the pseudonym of John Cameron.
It’s a detective story of considerable complexity and ingenuity, written in the pleasant and jocular style which was the twenties’ favourite way of dealing with murder. The murder happens, as so often in books of the period, during a country-house weekend party. There is a plethora of suspects and motives, which Scottish Inspector Fleming has to try and sort out. Interestingly, he’s helped by Von Hoffman, a jovial colleague from Berlin, who has an inordinate appetite for beer. Macdonell/Cameron has a certain amount of fun with Von Hoffman’s Germanness:
He bowed and clicked his heels in military style, a trick which always helped to break the ice with strangers in England by making them smile inwardly.
The plot revolves around the politics of Baltania, one of “the little cluster of republics which have been chipped off the vast block of what was once the Russian Empire, and which nestle, side by side, along the shores of the Baltic Sea..” Baltanians are represented as having ferocious and incomprehensible political passions, in contrast to the English, who may be concealing dark financial or sexual motives beneath their polite facades, but are resolutely unpolitical. The politics of small European nations are a plot excuse in all sorts of English thrillers during the twenties – early Agatha Christie, Buchan’s Castle Gay, some of Dornford Yates’s thrillers, and plenty more. Maybe the writers are trading on their readers’ curiosity about the question “How did a silly little squabble in Sarajevo lead to all that?”
Anyway, the book’s ending is very ingenious. You’re lulled into thinking you’re ahead of the detectives, and then wham – a new twist shows how wrong both you and they were.
Sir John Squire thought Macdonell was wasting his talent writing books like this, and urged him to write from his own experience. The result was England Their England – much less neatly contrived, and less consistent in style – less professional, finally, but with flashes of genius. This book isn’t exactly a work of genius, but I might look for a couple of his other ones. Apparently there’s one about poison gas…