This podcast was written for a miniseries on Thrillers for Gentlemen, looking at the kind of thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal, and that was written about men of a certain generation who understood the value of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules.
This time, I was exploring a writer I hadn’t heard of until a friendly 1950s thriller fiend alerted me to his existence. John Welcome is a forgotten star of the gentlemanly thriller. He wrote several novels, and also seems to have been the editor of collections of thriller short stories; in the sporting mode, and from the card-playing scene. He was a lawyer, and hunted a lot (on horseback, for foxes), and so, in his first novel, Run for Cover (1958), the hero, Richard Graham, is also a horsey man, who rides in races and in hunting, and plays cards almost professionally. It’s a rather self-conscious first novel, with some quite excruciating passages in which Graham practically shows the reader his library list as proof that he’s the right kind of chap. But once the story gets going, and the writer gets into his stride, this is a really entertaining thriller that begins in London, flies to Paris, and then gallops about in the south of France. It’s a definite scamper through the maquis, you can practically smell the rosemary crushed underfoot among the pine needles as Graham runs for cover, again and again and again. But it’s not a survivalist thriller at all, unlike a Household novel, or even a Bond. There are scramblings about on the outsides of buildings, but Graham, an ex-Commando and ex secret service agent, is terrified of rats, insists on having decent meals with drinks, and sleeps in hotels and pensions at night, rather than bunked up in the heather.
Here’s the plot: Graham gets into the London train, and finds himself sitting opposite an old friend (that’s a borrowing from John Buchan’s The Island of Sheep, for a start). The old friend is a publisher, and gives Graham a manuscript to read for his opinion. Graham is a bit surprised to see the name of the author, Rupert Rawle, because he saw Rawle shot and killed during the war. Moreover, he has particular reasons for wanting to know about Rawle, because Rawle tried to kill him, and also stole his girl, which was a terrible betrayal, since Rawle was also his hero, and his best friend. Graham takes the manuscript back to his London flat, leaves it there while he nips off to the bank and his club, but when he returns, it has gone, stolen through an opened window. And he hasn’t had a chance to read it. But he calls up his old secret service contacts to tell them that Rawle may be alive after all, and is told to leave it alone. Nothing daunted, he tries to alert a French former colleague, goes to Paris, and is told to leave it alone. Not one to take a hint, he gets onto Rawle’s trail, and is launched into a mystery that brings him back to Jacquie, the girl who dumped him, who also tells him to leave it alone. At this stage, it might be easy to give up reading the novel. Welcome writes cagily, constantly holding out hints of secrets that are influencing Graham’s actions, but the details of which we are not told. This is a bit maddening, and I’m still not sure what got me over that sticky first part, when the story and its importance need to be established, but when the writer seems to be doing more to drive the reader away by being secretive. Perhaps if you like secrets you won’t find this annoying at all, but I do prefer my plot on a plate before I start.
What kept me going were the characters, and how they lived, which is why I rate this novel very highly as a thriller for gentlemen. It is totally steeped in the gentleman’s way of life. Clubs: naturally, every man has one. One also has a London flat. Since Graham rides horses as his occupation, but is yet not a jockey, he obviously has private income. His flat’s living-room is packed with cups and trophies that he’s won at race-meetings. He takes the Sporting Times, The Daily World (which is a cover for The Daily Mail), and The Times. He employs a stockbroker. He’s not married because he’s still carrying a torch for Jacquie who ran off with Rawle, or whom Rawle bagged: it’s not clear which one carries the blame.
I like Graham, because he’s a competent and conscientious sort of chap, and he isn’t put off by people telling him to leave things alone. So naturally, as soon as he got on the plane to Paris, I was rooting for him. He also knows his way around Paris (a good sign), and is happy to drink champagne cocktails in the afternoon while waiting at a café thinking that somebody important might yet show up. And someone does. Trouble is, it’s the wrong someone, someone with a gun, and Graham is grabbed by the enemy. The enemy are thugs and a large foreign mastermind, and a gunman who cannot miss. We can tell that Jacquie is probably a bad ‘un because Graham mentions that her English is not quite perfect. (Bad sign for a gentleman’s girl.) Graham is beaten up severely, dumped at his hotel in a very bad state of repair, and told to go back to England. This he does, and then immediately flies back to the south of France to conduct his own investigation, and pursue Rawle to the death.
Graham is the kind of thriller hero I like, who fools the enemy by acting meek, and then does something unexpected, expertly carried out. He has pots of money with him, smuggled in and out of France in his pockets so he doesn’t have to get bogged down by Customs (this is definitely a thriller hero’s behaviour, since Dornford Yates’ crowd did this all the time, but it is not, strictly speaking, the conduct of a gentleman). Graham hires a car and zips off along the south coast of France, looking for something important and plot-relevant which is merely a McGuffin. The rest of the novel is concerned with him evading capture, escaping cleverly, deceiving and outwitting and taunting his captors, doing some damage to other people’s cars, shooting perfectly and casually, and displaying his perfect knowledge of the south of France’s highways and byways. Also of their hotels and cafes: it is extraordinary how many small villages he goes through where he is still on perfect best friend terms with the owners, no matter how many years have passed since the war and his presumable activities with the Résistance. Pretty nearly all of his meals are perfect. He hands out 5,000 franc notes for information, he gets hidden by innumerable allies, and he has a triumphant game of canasta that lets him nobble the scary gunman, against all the odds.
As in Moonraker, you do not need to understand the rules of canasta to survive the ten or more pages of what might otherwise be deeply tedious card-bore hell to understand that Graham is a great player. His playing is clever enough to make the bad man think Graham is hopeless. Acting stupid is a great skill, and it’s fun to watch it unfold. I’ve never played canasta, but even I could sense the points of tension and near-missery that we need to appreciate to enjoy this scene properly.
A gentleman has to be skilled in cards: this is a long-established fact from the eighteenth century, and it is so interesting that in the 1950s this still held true. Why cards? The demonstration of having a lot of money to lose at will? Graham loses no money in these games (though Bond wins a lot in his.) As an indication of skill at a game of chance, a pointless art? The ability to accept the responsibility of debts of honour? I do think it comes down to the money, but in Run for Cover there is also a strong sense that a man who can play cards well is likely to be a great winner of the game against life. He’s not a chancer, but a deliberate player of the odds, who knows how to accept good luck and bad luck, and play his cards as well as he can.
Graham does have a rather good bit of good luck in this novel, when he runs into another woman. His interactions with the not-quite perfectly accented Jacquie have left the reader feeling ruffled: why is he still mooning about after her, when she is so obviously a tart with no heart? So he’s on the run in the south of France, in a rather fetching disguise of a crew-cut, a pair of shorts, a sailor hat and a striped jersey. I laughed out loud when I read that: what a ludicrous caricature of a Frenchman’s disguise, but perhaps in the 1950s this had not yet reached caricature status. He’s had a night out sleeping in the woods, and he hears voices arguing. A couple are squabbling over a car that won’t start: the man (English) is clearly useless, since all he can do is make threats about their chauffeur who hadn’t serviced the car properly, whereas the woman is bored of this, and wants him to go and get help. So the woman is left in the car, alone in the woods, and Graham strolls over to see what’s up. He fixes the car, she realises he’s English and now knows instinctively what she’s dealing with. She offers him the use of her husband’s shaving kit, and then feeds him from the hamper in the back, and then, before we’ve can blink, they’re all over each other. At least she pulls the hood of the car up for a little privacy, but we are asked to assume that thriller heroes having wild outdoor sex with strange Englishwomen happened all the time in the south of France in the 1950s. No doubt they were up to date on how gentlemen should behave.