Friday, April 03, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Phantom Spy - Max Brand (Frederick Faust)

With this book, Max Brand (Frederick Faust) becomes the first author I’ve featured more than once in this Forgotten Books series. Some of you may recall that the very first Forgotten Books post I wrote was about Faust’s mystery novel SEVEN FACES. Once again, instead of one of the Westerns for which he’s most famous, I’m writing about one of Faust’s mysteries, or at least an espionage novel.

THE PHANTOM SPY is set in Europe in the mid-Thirties, the era during which it was written. This isn’t a Ruritanian, Graustarkian, comic opera Europe, either. It’s the real thing, with the grim threat of Hitler’s growing power in Germany looming over everything. In Faust’s novel, however, Hitler isn’t even the real menace. The true villains are an international cabal of warmongers who think that Hitler isn’t moving fast enough and want him to go ahead and invade France right away. To further that end, they’ve managed to steal the plans for the Maginot Line and intend to present them to Hitler so that Germany can attack France’s defensive fortifications at their weakest points. (In reality, the Maginot Line didn’t pose much of an obstacle to the Germans a few years later, but Faust had no way of knowing that.) The British Secret Service sets out to steal the plans back before Hitler gets his hands on them, and the agent entrusted with the job is Lady Cecil de Waters, a British noblewoman who has offered her services as a “talented amateur” in the espionage game. (Yes, Emma Peel without John Steed is exactly what I mean.)

Giving Lady Cecil a hand is a would-be suitor of hers, wisecracking millionaire American playboy Willie Gloster, as well as a mysterious phantom spy known only as Monsieur Jacquelin who turns up when he’s most needed. Faust keeps the action moving along briskly as the characters take turns stealing the plans back and forth from each other, and in the process Willie and Lady Cecil uncover the plotters pulling the strings behind the scenes. Sometimes in his Westerns, Faust can get a little flowery and long-winded in his prose, but not here. This one cooks along in a breezy, hardboiled fashion with double- and triple-crosses, characters pretending to be other characters, fistfights and shootouts, and only occasional pauses for reflection. There aren’t many real twists to the plot – really, if you don’t figure out the true identity of the Phantom Spy early on, like when the character first appears, I’ll be surprised – but that doesn’t matter much because Faust is having so much fun, and so is the reader.

THE PHANTOM SPY first appeared as a serial in the pulp ARGOSY in 1937, under the title “War For Sale”. It was reprinted in hardback by Dodd, Mead in 1973 and then in paperback by Pocket Books in 1975, when Pocket reprinted a number of Faust’s non-Western novels. Both of those editions are available pretty inexpensively on-line. As much as I enjoy Faust’s Westerns, I’d really like to see more of his non-Westerns reprinted, especially some of the pulp serials that have never been published in book form. I believe he wrote a Revolutionary War novel that’s never been reprinted, and I’d love to read that one. There are several pirate novels, too, as well as numerous mysteries and contemporary adventures. If you’ve only read Faust’s Westerns, or if you’ve never read his work at all, give THE PHANTOM SPY a try. I really enjoyed it.


Scott D. Parker said...

Other than the pure pulp fun you describe, here's the one reason why I'd love to read this book: he wrote an espionage story about things he didn't yet know (Maginot Line). Like you said, the Germans had no difficulty passing it in 1940. And there are plenty of books since 1940 that could have had plots like this one. But to have this plot *before* it happened is gold...especially now that we know the truth.

pattinase (abbott) said...

What a nice little history. I just can't imagine being able to slip seamlessly through genres as Brand (and you) do.

Randy Johnson said...

This is one I need to find(not to mention the other one). I don't think I've read any non-westerns by Brand.