Title: The Spymaster
Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim
Oppenheim, E. Phillips (1938, 1940). The Spymaster. New York: The Sun Dial Press
Date Posted: January 12, 2017
- Phillips Oppenheim wrote more than 100 novels between 1887 and 1943, of which was 7th from last (first published in 1938, and again in 1940). He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1927 and was often called “The Prince of Story Tellers.”
The following is taken from a review of The Spy Paramount, by Michael Dirda
The young Ian Fleming read E. Phillips Oppenheim’s upper-crust thrillers, and their amalgam of opulence, cosmopolitan suavity and global intrigue almost certainly influenced the save-the-world adventures of 007. In The Spy Paramount (1935)—one of two Oppenheim reissues that kick off the British Library’s Spy Classics series—Fawley travels first class around Europe, zipping from Nice to Rome to Monte Carlo to Berlin to London to Paris and finally to a small island in the Mediterranean. He penetrates a clandestine military base and then fights his way out after discovering the secret of the “hellnotter,” a laserlike disintegrating ray worthy of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Later, on the Riviera, he plays golf with rosy, plump German industrialist Adolf Krust, who is closely attended by his two alluring “nieces,” Gretel and Nina (the former appears in Fawley’s hotel room late one night with an offer few men would refuse). Back in London, Fawley finds himself stalked by an assassin with a shaved head and skin that was “almost ivory white, unrelieved by the slightest tinge of colour.” Before the novel reaches its spectacular close, this ultra-sophisticated agent—whose motives have long been withheld from the reader—confronts the Mussolini-like Gen. Berati and the Hitler-like Heinrich Behrling and actually . . . well, I shouldn’t say more.
Today Oppenheim is remembered, if at all, as a commercial writer of no significant literary merit. And yet that most refined of British publishers, Rupert Hart-Davis, collected nearly every one of his 116 novels and 37 volumes of short stories. In their magisterial Catalogue of Crime (1971), Jacques Barzun and Wendell Taylor wrote warmly of “the old magician” and his triumphs “in the mode of high make-believe.” As early as 1915, Wodehouse, no less, noted that Oppenheim’s “easy, distinguished style, the naturalness of his dialogue, and the wonderfully expert story construction in them made his novels unique.”
His novels do, in fact, lull the reader with a breezy nonchalance and old-slipper comfortableness. Consider the opening sentence of Nicholas Goade, Detective (1929): “By the side of one of those winding byways which connect a few scattered hamlets upon the lower fringe of Exmoor with the important town of Market Bridgeford, a man stood painting an execrable water colour.” An even more lighthearted tone marks The Amazing Partnership (1914), in which a penniless young man—resigned to suicide—is unexpectedly hired to kidnap a mysterious veiled woman named Rita. The novel’s opening pages are almost worthy of G.K. Chesterton. In Curious Happenings to the Rooke Legatees (1937), a group of five people, all with the last name Rooke, are left small fortunes by an unknown benefactor. Their subsequent adventures—one involves a priceless emerald ring attached to a severed finger—prove very much in the Baghdad-on-the-Thames vein of Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1882).
And therein lies the explanation for Oppenheim’s success during his lifetime and his nostalgic appeal even now. His stories are fairy tales, glorious wish-fulfillments, soap operas set in a Mediterranean lotus-land where, in critic Colin Watson’s disapproving words, “wealthy men and exquisite women enjoyed eternally the ministrations of omniscient maîtres d’hotel and suave croupiers.” Even Martin Fawley is a millionaire who would never accept pay for his undercover work. Unlike the tawdry spies and assassins of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden (1928) or Eric Ambler’s 1930s thrillers, Oppenheim’s heroes risk their lives for a higher purpose than money. In particular, his fiction returns again and again to the dream of securing peace in our time, even if it requires blackmailing the great European powers.
Yet of all the titles in Oppenheim’s vast oeuvre, The Great Impersonation alone has solidly entered the canon of espionage fiction. Set in the run-up to World War I, it takes The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), Anthony Hope’s still-celebrated Ruritanian romance, and gives it a spy-novel twist. Two men in their late 30s meet in Africa—one is an alcoholic, down-at-heels English nobleman who has been in self-imposed exile for the past 11 years, the other a correct and deeply patriotic Prussian relegated to German East Africa because of a duel over a Hungarian princess. Though significantly different in character, the two men look physically very much alike.
By the end of chapter two, Baron Leopold von Ragastein has decided that he will impersonate Sir Everard Dominey, travel to Britain and gradually charm his way into the corridors of power. Can he pull off this improbable mummery? Can he fool Dominey’s banker, his flirtatious cousin, the old family retainers and—most important of all—Dominey’s estranged wife, Rosamund? To complicate matters further, the Hungarian princess, Stephanie Eiderstrom, is in London and almost immediately recognizes her former lover in a crowded restaurant, despite his tenacious insistence that he is Sir Everard Dominey.
Oppenheim also inserted a secondary story line straight out of Victorian sensation novels. Years earlier, Dominey reputedly killed a former rival, and this bloody deed caused Rosamund, crazed with horror, to try to murder him. An evil, hag-like servant named Mrs. Unthank—almost a prototype for Mrs. Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca—continues to fan the young woman’s hysteria to a fever pitch. What’s more, at night some spectral creature crawls from the Black Wood to howl beneath Lady Dominey’s window.
When the now rich, confident and distinctly courteous Dominey returns to his ancestral home, suspicions about his identity surface. Fragile, childlike Rosamund cannot believe he is her husband: The man hardly drinks at all. At the same time, the Princess Eiderstrom feels increasingly troubled because Dominey refuses, even when they are alone together, to drop his mask. “Perhaps,” she wonders, “you are an impostor.” Is she right? Gradually, The Great Impersonation thickens into a novel about the difficulty of knowing the truth, of distinguishing playacting from reality. But then this is a central obsession of all spy fiction.
Showing quite remarkable evenhandedness, Oppenheim portrays virtually all the book’s characters, except for the double-dealing German Kaiser, with considerable sympathy. One otherwise ruthless spymaster frets that the putative Dominey will take sexual advantage of Rosamund, while the peace-loving German ambassador comports himself throughout with unimpeachable honor and nobility. There is even a suggestion that the English could benefit by adopting some Teutonic qualities, such as soldierly self-discipline and a greater willingness to sacrifice personal happiness for a higher cause.
- Phillips Oppenheim was an essentially Edwardian writer: formal and restrained in his diction; patronizing to the lower orders and minorities; simplistic in his fantasies concerning politics, diplomacy and world affairs. Yet his books can even now deliver pleasures. If only one could still exchange a smile with a sloe-eyed countess over baccarat at Monte Carlo, shoot grouse and pheasant with cabinet ministers, thwart single-handedly the insidious plans of dictators, and actually say with a straight face, as one lecherous stockbroker does to an attractive typist: “Come and see my French water-colours.” Ah, those were the days—and in the clubland thrillers of E. Phillips Oppenheim, they live on.