Coming back to Dornford Yates


I read quite a bit of Dornford Yates when I was researching post-war thrillers, but I hadn’t looked at one of his novels for quite a while. Last Saturday, though, I was in the excellent Daisy Lane Books in Holmfirth, and noticed that they had a row of Yateses, so I thought I’d take another look.
I chose Safe Custody because it looked like one of his thrillers, not one of the over-lush romances, or one of the social comedies whose prejudices tend to grate more than somewhat these days.
Safe Custody was published in 1932. My previous reading of Yates had been almost entirely based on his pre-1930 work, so this seemed a good choice.
Of the three writers celebrated in Richard Usborne’s Clubland Heroes (Buchan, ‘Sapper’, Yates) Dornford Yates was the latest to come to the thriller genre, and the least original. John Buchan came first with The 39 Steps, a picaresque roving adventure of flight and pursuit. This differed from the thrillers of the pre-war period (by Le Queux and others) in that the emphasis was entirely on action, not intrigue. It was a novel of movement (Probably Stevenson’s Kidnapped was a precursor.) Buchan was brilliant at describing physical action, and at following the moment to moment physical dilemmas of his hero. After this, other thrillers looked old fashioned. Buchan developed the formula in Greenmantle and Mr Standfast, which took the action over Europe and beyond, and added another important feature to the formula, the group of utterly loyal male comrades who stood by the hero and followed him without question. (In Buchan’s case this group was politically significant, in that it included a South African and an American, and therefore symbolised the union of the English-speaking peoples.)
After the War, when ‘Sapper’ had tried his hand at a conventional novel (Mufti) without much success, he developed Buchan’s formula. Bulldog Drummond, together with a loyal group comprised of the men who had followed him in France, faces villains whose malevolence quite exceeds any rational motivation. I’ve always enjoyed Gertrude Himmelfarb’s description of the typical Buchan villain, which applies to those of ‘Sapper’ and Yates as well:

‘He is not a fallen gentleman, but a fallen man, the personification of evil. He dabbles in black magic rather than sex, seeks not money but power, and trafficks in the secrets of the soul as much as those of the nation.’

‘Sapper’ borrowed a lot from Buchan (including even details like the involuntary gesture by which the disguised villain gives away his identity) but added a crucial ingredient to the formula. ‘Sapper’ does not send his heroes ranging over the countryside. Typically in one of his books, the action centres round a house. The heroes may lay siege to it, or they may be besieged (probably both over the course of the novel). Very often the story will feature a young woman who has either been kidnapped by the villains or must be protected from them. Being kidnapped is almost the sole function of women in ‘Sapper’ novels (the one exception being the lovely but deadly Irma, of course).
Buchan stuck to the novel-of-movement formula in his later Hannay novels, but adapted the building-under-siege structure in his Dickson McCunn books (each of which is named after a building that will be the centre of the action – Huntingtower, Castle Gay and The House of the Four Winds).
Dornford Yates came late to this kind of thriller. In the early twenties his most successful work had been the social comedies revolving round Berry, but these were running out of steam, rather. In 1927 he began a new series of thrillers with Blind Corner (1927); significantly, this coincided with his switch to Hodder and Stoughton, who published Buchan and ‘Sapper’. The main hero of Blind Corner is Jonah Mansel, one of the Berry gang who is an ex-soldier and, like Bulldog Drummond, brings military skills and attitudes to villain-fighting work. The book’s political stance is shown when he recruits two of the younger generation to help him, Richard Chandos and George Hanbury, who ‘had lately been sent down from Oxford for using some avowed communists as many thought they deserved.’ In the aftermath of the General Strike, this is a happy indication that the younger generation who had done much to break the strike have proved themselves worthy successors to their wartime predecessors. As time went on, Yates mostly retired Mansel as his hero, and Chandos and Hanbury became the protagonists of the series.
Safe Custody is not a Mansel/Chandos/Hanbury novel. Its hero is John Ferrers, a young man who hears that his uncle has died. He and his cousin have been left all the uncle’s considerable property, including Hohenems, a castle in Austria, but there are mysteries connected with this building. There are priceless jewels hidden in the castle, and a crook called Harris is after them. So are a pair of Austrian villains, the Count of Haydn and his loathsome priestly brother. The two cousins go to Austria, meet a beautiful girl (related to the nasty Austrians), have many scrapes, disasters and adventures, and all comes well in the end, as of course we knew it would all along (but it’s a damn near thing).
Yates’s talent in his thrillers is for what is sometimes called episodic intensification. The moment-to-moment suspense of each incident is done so well that we (almost) stop remembering the implausibility of the entire thing. He has learnt from Buchan and ‘Sapper’ how to make the reader imaginatively share the physical challenges of his protagonist.
There is plenty of incident in the book. It was first serialised in The Saturday Evening Post (as Your Castle of Hohenems) – the most lucrative serial market for any writer back in those days. The book seems arranged so that there will be at least one major incident or crisis for each serial instalment.
Perhaps because he knows he has the reader hooked on incident, Yates is very cavalier in providing other things that might be expected from a novelist. Plotting is a matter of one-damn-thing-after-another; his favourite device for moving the story along is Chandler’s fail-safe, a man coming through the door with a gun. The alternative is for the hero to be hit over the head and rendered unconscious.
Characterisation is remarkably thin. John Ferrers’ cousin and companion has no individuality whatsoever. Of the three crooks, two are merely ciphers; the Count of Haydn hardly comes into the story, and the unpleasant English villain, Harris, has only one noted characteristic, an accent that marks him as lower-class. Only ‘Holy’ Haydn, the vile priest, has any individuality, and he has an over-the-top hypocritical viciousness that makes him memorable but not exactly nuanced or credible.
Rather notable to a modern reader is the fictional presentation of Stiven, the cousin’s manservant, who accompanies them on the adventure. He follows them into grim situations without comment, obeys orders unquestioningly, and is given the boring jobs to do, such as standing sentry or guarding prisoners for lengthy periods. He eats separately from the posh characters. He is a feudal dream of what a servant should be (as are Mansel’s servants in Blind Corner and other books). Drummond’s gang followed him because that is what they had done in France; in Yates’s books servants follow because that is what they are supposed to do. I don’t think Stiven is ever thanked for his contribution.
Also a perfect-dream character is the lovely Lady Oliva Haydn, the book’s love-interest, the embidiment of yates’s idea of ladylikeness. Of course Ferrers falls for her; of course she falls for him. Yates has thought of a fairly good twist though, which keeps them both steaming with desire, but prevents them from ripping each other’s clothes off till the final chapter.
One thing I noticed about the book is the absence of the thing I always look for in books of the period. There is no mention of the Great War. Yates’s twenties novels are full of war references, especially when Berry and co. are giving his just deserts to a war profiteer of dubious nationality. Mansel has the ex-soldier’s moral authority when he goes villain-hunting. But this book, though it is set in Austria, does not even hint at the topic. The rich uncle had lived in the country for several decades, but there is no mention of what must have been his awkward position as a Briton in Austria during the war years. Is this just another example of Yates’s authorial carelessness, or has he decided that people don’t want to hear about the War any more? Or is it because he is delivering what is essentially a Ruritanian fantasy novel? Eliminating the War is by no means uncommon in fiction of the time. Priestley’s The Good Companions is an example. Dear old Jess Oakroyd thinks of himself as ‘the travelled man’ because he has been ‘down South’, and contrasts himself with the other men in the Bruddersford works who have never travelled. In reality, a goodly proportion of such men would have been to France or Belgium to fight – but that is kept out of the novel, because it would spoil the fable of Jess’s adventure.
Back to Yates. Reactionary, snobbish, unrealistic – this book has all of Yates’s faults. But it has his main virtue – readability. I gather that in 1949 he wrote a sequel, Cost Price, in which Chandos and Mansel join in with Ferrers in further shennanigins about the Hohenems jewels. When I come across a copy, I shall probably read it.


  1. janevsw
    Posted August 13, 2017 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    The only Dornford Yates book I have ever read featured someone being operated on for appendicitis in a four-poster bed in a castle. It wouldn’t be ‘Blind Corner’, would it? That particular episode is all I remember ….

    • shackec
      Posted March 3, 2021 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

      You may be thinking of “Perishable goods” where the hero has a bullet removed from his abdomen. This takes in a castle with four poster beds

      • janevsw
        Posted March 4, 2021 at 12:58 am | Permalink

        Ah! Thank you for that. It does sound like the sort of confusion I would get into.

      • shackec
        Posted March 4, 2021 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

        Pleased to help. If you like a good adventure story I suggest you read it again. There is a free download on “Faded Page” I believe. Regards Charles

  2. janevsw
    Posted August 13, 2017 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, that should have been ‘Safe Custody’, not ‘Blind Corner’!

  3. Posted September 14, 2017 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    I came across this blog because I wanted to know about a picture of Leavis. But I then came across this page. You may like to know that we came across a very full collection of Dornford Yates books in a junk shop at the western end of Bognor Regis town centre. We bought two: I did not read, but my wife rather liked them.

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