Friday, April 6, 2012
Drink to Yesterday
DRINK TO YESTERDAY – Manning Coles (1940)
TO AN OLD GENTLEMAN
WHO LOVED HIS ROSES
When I opened the cover of this book, I casually noted the dedication page, and was brought up short to find that just such a man plays a key role in the novel. Some biographical sources have pondered whether the old gentleman actually existed and whether one of the authors might have encountered him under the circumstances described in the novel. It's an interesting and intriguing theory, and another reason I enjoyed the book. In fact, I loved everything about this novel, starting with the chapter titles: "Time of our Tribulation," "Salus Populi Suprema Lex," "Our ’Orace Says," "Let the Bright Seraphim," and "For All Your Sins," among others.
Young Bill Saunders is drafted into England’s intelligence service during World War I by his old school master, Tommy Hambledon. Hambledon and Saunders set up shop in Cologne, masquerading as an uncle and his nephew running an import-export business. Soon Saunders has wormed his way into German society and makes the acquaintance of Max von Bodenheim, a brilliant, bitter man consigned to a wheel chair who contributes to the war effort by acting as a German agent. Saunders allows himself to be recruited by von Bodenheim and is soon acting as a double agent, with primary loyalty to Britain. However, he becomes increasingly drawn to von Bodenheim and the people he meets in Cologne. Surprisingly, for a book published in 1940, Drink to Yesterday contains a compassionate and objective view of the German people, including its soldiers and spies.
Germany isn’t the only place where Saunder suffers from divided loyalties. Impulsively he marries a young British woman he meets just before leaving for the continent. Unable to speak of his work to her, he becomes increasingly disengaged and their marriage suffers. Saunders is called upon to do many things in the service of Britain and all of them test his moral compass. He does his duty, but with an increasingly detached attitude which will damage his life.
Drink to Yesterday is a stunning book, by turns funny, ironic, and sad. Its author, Manning Coles, is an entry in my Persons of Interest catalogue at Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge. Coles was actually two people: Cyril Coles, involved in British intelligence during both world wars, and Adelaide Manning, who worked for the War Office during the WW II. They met by chance as neighbors and soon formed a writing partnership that lasted decades. I'm pleased that there are 25 other espionage novels by this duo. I'll be reading them all.