Many years ago, the CBS television journalist Heywood Hale Broun occasionally wrote for Book World. A colorful and flamboyantly mustachioed character, Broun — who died in 2001 — was virtually unique among reviewers of that era: He always scribbled his thousand words with a cheap ballpoint pen on sheets of paper torn from an elementary school notebook. Nothing so newfangled as a typewriter for him.
During one long telephone conversation Broun told me — I was his editor — that he loved to read old-time thrillers from the 1920s and ’30s, especially the novels of Dornford Yates. When I asked about these, he explained that they featured rich and witty young people, who zipped around Europe in a Rolls-Royce, stayed at the Ritz in Paris, dined at three-star restaurants, frequently picnicked in the romantic Austrian province of Carinthia, drank lots of champagne and regularly thwarted master criminals. While Broun recognized that these “clubland heroes” were already relicts of a vanished world of British exceptionalism, he didn’t care. He assured me that the books provided the perfect escape reading for anyone weary of all the noise and turmoil of the 1980s.
Flash-forward to 2019: One afternoon, while seeking temporary respite from our own Trumpian age of noise and turmoil, I was wandering through a used book shop when I happened upon a shelf of Dornford Yates titles. The memory of Broun’s enthusiasm popped into my head and I toddled home with a paperback anthology called “The Best of Berry” as well as several novels, including “Adèle and Co.” and “Blind Corner.”
Having adopted the pen name Dornford Yates, Cecil William Mercer (1885-1960) started out as a comic writer, his pre-World War I magazine stories revolving around a family of intermarried cousins, headed by the self-dramatizing and very funny Bertram Pleydell, nicknamed Berry. In a showy, high-flown manner — half Oscar Wilde, half P.G. Wodehouse — the Pleydell clan, both male and female, incessantly exchange teasing banter, quips and affectionate insults. Here, for instance, Berry contrasts his wife, Daphne, with her American friend Adèle:
“ ‘I like Adèle,’ said Berry. ‘She never seeks to withstand that feeling of respect which I inspire. When with me, she recognizes that she is in the presence of a holy sage and, as it were, treading upon hallowed ground. Woman,’ he added, looking sorrowfully upon his wife. ‘I could wish that something of her piety were there to lessen your corruption. Poor vulgar shrew, I weep.’ ”
While the Berry stories are effervescently silly, the novel “Adèle and Co.” adds adventure to the mix. In Paris on holiday, a half-dozen Pleydells are drugged, and family jewels are stolen. Berry takes the loss as expected: “His air was that of a saint from whom great tribulation has taken the urge to live.” However, instead of calling in the police, he and the others quickly decide to seek both revenge and the restitution of their lost property.
Much of what follows could be described as zany or madcap. After offering a night’s lodging to an unwanted visitor to his country manor White Ladies, Berry gravely adds: “ ‘You shall have the haunted room. The ghost is a large blood-stain. Your starting eyes watch it spread over the ceiling and down the walls. As it reaches your bed—.” Later, an insufferably boring tourist — who isn’t quite what he seems — invites himself to dine with the much-enduring Berry, saying “We want to get together, don’t we?” To which Berry replies, “Oh, rather” in “the tone of one who is subscribing to a suggestion that he shall be burnt alive.”
In “Blind Corner” Yates chucks any remnants of comedy to write a straight thriller in the mode of John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps” or Sapper’s “Bulldog Drummond.” After being expelled from Oxford, young Richard Chandos accidentally witnesses a murder while motoring through France. Before long, he and his friend George Hanbury have teamed up with the redoubtable Jonah Mansel — a British secret agent during the Great War as well as one of Berry’s relatives — to beat a murderous gang to Carinthia’s long-lost Wagensburg treasure. Unfortunately, the jewels are 80 feet underwater, having been sealed up in a specially constructed side chamber of a deep well constantly replenished by underground springs.
At times “Blind Corner” recalls a late-1920s version of the tongue-in-cheek British TV series, “The Avengers” (minus Diana Rigg, alas), with plenty of improbable yet gentlemanly derring-do. Once the fiendish “Rose” Noble and his gang seize control of the well, our heroes’ only hope of acquiring riches beyond the dreams of avarice lies in surreptitiously digging a tunnel to the treasure vault. At this point, the novel morphs into a suspenseful race against time: Will Chandos, Mansel and Hanbury, along with their loyal manservants, finish their tunnel before their adversaries gain access to the treasure by pumping the water from the well?
Like “Adèle and Co.” and the Berry stories, “Blind Corner” is certainly kitschy fun. It even includes the classic line, “Suddenly a shot rang out.” At its climax our heroes must escape from certain death deep underground and then, without ropes or handholds, somehow scale the 80 feet of a smooth-faced well that is rapidly filling with water. Can they do it? And how?
Yates would go on to write other thrillers, all with evocative titles, such as “Perishable Goods,” “Maiden Stakes” and “She Fell Among Thieves,” most of them featuring Chandos and/or Mansel. In one, the beauteous Adèle is kidnapped by the vengeful “Rose” Noble in a plot reminiscent of Anthony Hope’s immortal “The Prisoner of Zenda.” So if 2019 has gotten you down and 2020 is already looking worrisome, you too just might be ready to spend a long weekend at White Ladies or take a holiday in Carinthia.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.