Sunday, 29 January 2012

Penguin no. 410: Artifex Intervenes
by Richard Keverne

     "Child's play - mere child's play," he said in a querulous voice. "A code any fool should be able to read."
     "You've translated it so soon?" Champlin queried.
     "Translated it!" old Gambit answered with a snort. "Trivial! Elemental! Morse code. Vowels for dots, consonants for dashes. My fee - five guineas. I hardly like to take it. But I was commissioned-" He shrugged his loose shoulders.
     Guy smiled. He knew old Gambit; a drunken fellow, yet a genius in his way. There was no man in London who could decode cyphers as he could. They said of him in the Temple that he could have been a great lawyer but for his drinking habits. As it was, he made a fair income, and he had done amazing work for the Secret Service in the war.


Richard Keverne is one of those perplexingly obscure Penguin authors. There are twelve of his books published amongst the first thousand titles, suggesting that he must have been a writer of some merit, and reasonably well known at one time. Now he seems almost forgotten, and it is difficult to find out anything more about him than the small amount recorded at the back of these Penguins. Although many copies of his books are listed for sale, I could not find a single review of any of his stories, beyond a two line mention on librarything. I know only that he was born C.J.W. Hosken in 1888, lived until1950, and wrote under both names. He worked initially as a schoolteacher, and then as a journalist on Fleet Street, and he served in the Royal Flying Corp and the Royal Air Force during the First World War.

Artifex Intervenes is a collection of three short stories, and although it has proven impossible to learn anything of their history, I suspect they were initially written for publication in a magazine. Despite the green cover, they are not crime stories in any traditional sense; they are more like adventure stories, in which a law-abiding and perhaps fairly conventional member of the public suddenly finds him- or herself caught up pursuing criminals, and determined to unravel and frustrate some villainous plot. Just as he or she realizes they are out of their depth, the Scotland Yard Inspector Simon Artifex will intervene just as the title suggests, introducing himself and appraising them of the magnitude of the affair in which they have become involved. However he doesn't discourage them in their endeavours; instead he gives them to understand that they are vital, and that he is relying on their help; the criminals' plot seems fated to go unsolved and unthwarted without their assistance.

The plots are developed around crimes such as smuggling, drug-running, embezzlement, and racketeering, a crime imported from America in which wealthy people pay criminals not to harm them. A wide gulf separates the decent and the depraved in these stories, with the criminals tending to be wholly bad, stopping at nothing in their determination to succeed. And so there are both attempted and successful murders, but murders about which there is no mystery: they are carried out in broad daylight by some fleeing criminal who kills his pursuers, or they involve a staged accident in which the criminal drives his own vehicle with the intention of killing even the most minor and uninformed witness. For the most part, it is not the identities of the criminals which must be determined, but their intentions, and we follow both the investigations and the varying emotional states of Artifex and his helper, as they try to determine what has been planned, and when they should act. They are invariably successful, although their conjectures are not always correct.

It is the second of the three stories, The Mysterious Mr Brand, which is the most interesting. The fiancée of the wealthy property developer Murray Fenwick is kidnapped from her home, threatened with torture, and then abandoned unharmed in a derelict house on one of his recently purchased estates. Almost immediately polite and neatly typed letters begin to arrive threatening a more serious fate for Miss Arundel unless Fenwick hands over a substantial sum. Artifex cautions that protection simply cannot be purchased that way: any payment will trigger further threats and demands, but Miss Arundel wants the payment made, and Fenwick seems unable to think rationally with his fiancée at risk. Artifex co-opts Fenwick's capable and dedicated secretary Joan Garland to help him track down the villains, never doubting that she will assist him because of her hopeless affection for her employer. In rising to the challenge, she is protecting not just her employer, but every other wealthy man in England. The story was well told and well paced, but unfortunately the conclusion was easily guessed.

These stories read as escapist fiction for those living safe, conventional lives in slightly dull occupations, and for such light entertainment I though they were reasonably well done, written in a pleasant style, and with interesting character sketches like old Gambit in the passage above. However I felt that one story would probably have been enough, as it was much the same tale in each case: someone with no particular training or experience becomes the lynchpin of a dangerous operation, they face their adventure with courage and excitement rather than fear, and end up combating evil, thwarting criminals, and finding love.

For more on Richard Keverne: A review of Carteret's Cure at The Passing Tramp

9 comments:

  1. How interesting this author was featured in so many of the first 1000 books but yet there seems to be nothing available on him. I have a few author reference books and now I am curious to see if he is featured in any of them. Must let you know if I uncover anything juicy on him.

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  2. Great review. Keverne was a popular thriller writer in England in the late 1920s and 1930s. He was one of Constable's staple mystery authors. Like you say, however, he has really lapsed into obscurity. I have a copy of one book by him that was owned by Anthony Berkeley Cox.

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  3. tassiepenguinhunter30 January 2012 at 17:20

    I have gone through all of my author/literature reference books today and cannot find a single entry on him. Isn't it interesting that someone who has written so many novels, published by Penguin can just disappear like that. I am more curious than ever now.

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    1. But this is the lesson that you learn as you get older - fame decays very quickly, and therefore the collective memory of things that have existed is fragile, unless people actively work against this inevitability. It is sobering to look at the wall of old books and reflect on how many authors' names are unfamiliar while reflecting on what an achievement it would be to write a single book. They manage this, and in Keverne's case manage it many times, and yet sixty years after his death he is forgotten.

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    2. It is strange that there so little info available on him either online or in textbooks - perhaps his family (if he had one - we don't know) found him as dull as his books.
      But compare him to John Dickson Carr (a far better writer) - I would guess most of the information we know about him is gleaned because someone was interested enough to write a biography. Otherwise, he would be just as obscure - and still we don't know much about him.
      I have made the mistake of reading biographies of authors I really like and always found their lives rather sad.

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  4. The stories sound exactly like the standard formula for the British 'quota quickies' of the 30s and 40s, so it occurs to me that the writer may have been recycling them in the hope of one or more being picked up for the movies.

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  5. I have never heard of the writer, Karyn or even seen this book about. Glad you liked it though.

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  6. I've just stumbled upon your site via the Aust Women's Blogger group - I love it! I look forward to browsing your old posts as I get time.
    Brona

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  7. I know nothing about this author either, but I'm just about to start his The Man in the Red Hat. Which I think is a thriller. At least I hope so, thrillers of this era being a particular interest of mine.

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