Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:
ARTHUR GASK – The Vengeance of Gilbert Larose. Herbert Jenkins, UK, hardcover, 1939. No US publication. First published in The Advertiser, Adelaide, S.A. in serial form commencing Wednesday 27 September, 1939. Available online at Project Gutenberg Australia.
Some of you may recall a few years back when I uncovered the career of Australian pulp novelist Paul Savoy and his main character Blackie Savoy. Let us just say that the provenance for Arthur Gask and Gilbert Larose is much better.
Before Arthur Upfield and Bony, Australia’s best know sleuth, was Gilbert Larose, the creation of Arthur Gask, a prolific and successful writer whose career ran from the 1920‘s until 1951.
While his novels are detective stories they are much closer to Edgar Wallace than Agatha Christie with the redoubtable Larose: brilliant, testy, a master of disguise, but also vulnerable and sometimes wrong. He’s no Holmes though. He’s a happily married man, and in several books he himself is on the run from police. Like Upfield’s half=aboriginal Bony, there is more than a touch of adventure that creeps into Larose’s adventures.
Most of the Larose novels I have read open in thriller country, but end in the courtroom. In more than one of them law gets a close shave in lieu of justice and Larose has a liberal attitude towards his official duties. I suppose being a fugitive from them would do that.
The books take place in Australia or in England where Scotland Yard is always happy to have the great Larose on hand.
I’ve chosen The Vengeance of Gilbert Larose because H. G. Wells highly praised this one on its appearance in the UK. Bertrand Russell was also a fan and at age 78 made the effort to meet the 81 year old Gask.
Gask was London born and moved with his bride in 1920 to Adelaide where he practiced dentistry. In 1921 he paid to have his first book published, The Secret of the Sandhills, and it was an immediate success. Into his eighties he was producing two 80.000 word novels a year and died writing one.
That much is covered in Wikipedia.
Gilbert Larose first appeared in 1926 in Cloud the Smiter (great title) and last in 1952 in Crime Upon Crime. Neither he nor Gask changed a lot over that time, but why argue with a winning formula.
In Vengeance of Gilbert Larose our hero’s task is nothing less than preventing a dictator from undermining British morale on the eve of War. Of course the real thing caught up with Gask and Larose before the book began serialization, but that means little. Larose who, as the newspaper says ‘tempers justice with expediency,’ is up to the task.
We open with a certain dictator living high on a mountain eyrie discussing events with a certain Von Ravenham, principally the problem of Lord Michael and Sir Howard Wake, influential men who have gone on to call the country an ‘insane asylum’ in print. Something must be done about this.
“No, go to that man in Great Tower street we are having dealings with. Pay him well — give him £10,000 — and there should be no difficulty. Give him part of the money down. He seems reliable and has always delivered the goods up to now.”
The deadline is before Lord Michael can sail for America and muddle the mind of the Americans as well. Add to this the Dictator himself has been studying English and plans to shave his mustache and go to England himself to supervise.
All Geoffrey Household tried to do in Rogue Male was kill him.
And we’re off.
Now there would seem to be no possible connection between the great autocrat of that lonely building upon the mountainside and an insignificant looking little convict in a prison in far off England. Yet, at that very moment Fate, like a malignant spider, was starting to weave a web whose threads were destined ultimately to entangle them both. (Prose like this is enough to make you reconsider Wells and Russell both.)
The insignificant little convict is named Bracegirdle, and he has just done six years for poaching. He’s a good enough sort and the Governor of the prison asks Gilbert Larose to give him a hand if he can. Meanwhile in Essex, Pellew and Royne are running a wine distribution business but it isn’t their first concern. As Von Ravenham shows up on their doorstep they are in a minor pickle and forced to hire a local mechanic, someone they can keep quiet and control — like a former convict. It gets worse when Von Ravenham reveals he knows they are using the business as a front for a criminal enterprise.
But he will keep quiet if they are willing to ‘shoot, stab, and strangle’ two men for him.
I love it when a plan comes together.
Now, literally, Chapter 2.
Things get more complicated for Pellew and Royne as they wait for a shipment of cocaine to arrive from a tramp steamer. They rescue a swimmer from the sea, and fear drawing to much attention if they drown him.
Meanwhile as they whisper desperately, the half-drowned man’s keen ears pick up details. His papers say he is Kenneth Bracegirdle, a ticket of leave (ex-convict) man who just happens to be what they need, a mechanic.
You’re getting ahead of me. Ex-convicts don’t have keen ears do they? But Gilbert Larose does.
Larose overhears them proposing murder, but who? In the meantime he gets the job and waits.
I can’t help wondering here if Upfield read Gask, because this is the kind of thing Bony was always doing, though in much better written stories.
Larose plays at a dangerous game, half blackmailing them to keep from being silenced while trying to get the goods on them. How long can he keep these balls in the air?
Pellew and Royne are busy types, they are also selling secret plans to the ‘Japs.’
Oh what tangled … Oh, skip it.
Eventually Pellew and Royne are arrested, and Larose ends up posing as Pellew’s brother Nicholas Bent for Von Ravenham, a replacement in that little business of shooting, stabbing, and strangling …
Before it is over Larose narrowly escapes torture, aids a young lady, evades a ticking bomb, and as Gask sums it up.
“But what a mighty part chance plays in this muddled world of ours and upon what small happenings do great events depend! But for the color of that girl’s eyes, her pretty mouth and the contours of her face—how different might have been the fate of that most baleful character in history! He might have passed away to the roaring of the guns and in that hell of carnage he had so long prepared for others, or he might, even now, be still in flight or exile. Instead, he lies in that shameful grave upon the lonely marshland, with that other murderer to keep him company until the resurrection morn.”
Household’s hero just went back to hunt him.
Okay, it’s rah rah, pre-war spirit lifting, and it is hardly deathless prose. Admittedly it is much closer to my Paul Savoy than I ever expected to find — but it is fun, harmless, and a few of the mysteries aren’t bad. Gask can write when he chooses to, and the person you think is Larose
isn’t always who you thought.
Granted coincidence and dumb luck play too great a role in the game, and it is hard to see Larose as a great detective as his detective work tends to be the being in the right place at the right time sort, and the few deductions he makes could only come about because Gask let him read the manuscript ahead of time occur. Gask and everyone else tell you he is a great detective, so he must be one, I’m just not sure on what basis.
I’ve enjoyed the ones I read, though. If it is not great writing, it is pleasant almost nostalgic bad writing. It’s the equivalent of discovering a pulp detective you never knew about. Even better these are free to download, and very few of his books are unavailable in that form.
For all that these are fast, fun reads, a step above Sexton Blake and below Edgar Wallace and George Goodchild. They aren’t dull, and Larose does grow on you in time.
As an Upfield fan I found it especially interesting, because Bony and Larose operate very much alike and Bony too has an expedient view of justice, and that at least is a sign of the great detective.