THE MAN WHO KILLED (1907). By Claude Farr.
THE SKYLINE bristles with domes and minarets. The muezzin ululates, calling the faithful to evening prayer. The waters of the Bosporus lap against pilings beneath tile- roofed villas. It is sundown in Constantinople, time for intrigue.
The master of these materials was Claude Farrym of Fr,ed,eric Charles Bargone, man of action and man of letters. A naval officer, he ended his wartime tour of duty in 1919 as captain of a corvette. He sailed everywhere and tried everything, as witness his notorious short- story collection, Opium Fumes.
As a writer he commanded both popular success and respectability. His 1905 novel, The Civilized Ones, won the Prix Goncourt. Thomas the Lambkin, his adult pirate novel (if that isn't an oxymoron), was among the dozen or so of his books to be translated into English; demand for it was such that it went into a third printing. In all he published 22 novels and many more volumes of stories, drama, and memoir. In 1935 he was elected to the Academie Francaise.
I learned of The Man Who Killed (1907) while browsing through the old Fawcett Premier paperback, Dictionary of French Literature, in which an unnamed contributor summed it up as "the perfect novel of adventure." Indeed it is.
Farrts stage for the entry of the Marquis de Sevigne, a 46-year-old French diplomat and sometime soldier. In his first few days at his new post, he has leisure to wander about the city, revelling in the purely Turkish neighborhoods and contemning all European excrescences. Turkey, the French ambassador explains, is being ruined by exploitative outsiders, who elbow their way in, enrich themselves by lending money at interest (a practice forbidden to strict Muslims), and make off with the profits. The country is prostrate under its national debt. "These dogs of Turks," the ambassador remarks, "they only know how to ride and to use their swords. And when one has borrowed two cents of them they have not the sense to claim four!"
Making the obligatory rounds, the chivalrous marquis encounters an intolerable situation. Sir Archibald Falkland, English director of the Ottoman Debt, is subjecting his beautiful wife Mary to severe psychological cruelties. He has taken his mistress into the residence and relegated his wife to the status of a hanger-on. He proposes -- and all the world is privy to the idea -- to divorce the wife, marry the mistress, and keep the 6-year-old son. Lady Falkland adores her son and resents her humiliation. She responds eagerly to the marquis' overtures of friendship.
YET THE MARQUIS is as much a part of the problem as of the solution. He and Lady Falkland meet regularly for conversation and walks about the city. Though entirely innocent, these rendezvous could play into the hand of Sir Archibald, who is not above hiring spies. It hardly helps that Sevign,e falls in love with Lady Falkland or that she is 20 years younger than he. Then comes a development redolent of Ford's The Good Soldier. The harried Lady Falkland forfeits her high ground in a moment of impassioned weakness. The time has come for Sevigne -- a man with unalloyed Breton roots and "the brain of a Celt of the year 1000" -- to act. His solution is quixotically Turkish.
A complex and appealing character, Sevigne exhibits both the cynicism of a Graham Greene protagonist and the naive magnanimity of the eponymous brothers in Beau Geste. The novel ends with a double surprise that Hitchcock might have put to good use. Along the way the reader enjoys such superbly antiquated examples of high- minded behavior as this. When Sevigne first finds himself alone with Lady Falkland, she is crying, and he averts his eyes. "Before a woman who weeps," he philosophizes, "a man who is neither her friend nor her lover can only be blind."
With its straightforward first-person narration, surehanded character miniatures, and generous use of the full oriental palette, The Man Who Killed is a book that stirs the blood without clotting the intellect.
Note on Availability: "The Man Who Killed" was published in 1917 by Brentano's, in a good translation by M.C. Schuyler. This edition occasionally turns up in second-hand bookstores. The original, "L'homme qui assassina," is written in Farr French; the book is available in Le Livre de Poche but may have to be special-ordered.