THE PRISONER IN THE OPAL
A.E.W. Mason was a marvellous weaver of plots and a writer who never fails to hold one’s interest with every page. Four Feathers is, perhaps, the novel for which he is most famous; but, of the many of his books that I have read, I derived the greatest enjoyment from those in which Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté is the principal. The rich, pompous Englishman, Mr Ricardo, provides the author with the perfect vehicle for his sense of humour as Ricardo solemnly corrects Hanaud’s amusing misquotations of our catch English phrases.
In addition to his writing Mason led a very active life. From 1906 to 1910 he was the Liberal M.P. for Coventry; in 1914 he was a Captain in the Manchester Regiment; in 1917 he transferred as a Major to the Royal Marine Light Infantry, and in 1943 he received the distinction of being made an Hon. Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford.
The present story is set in the Medoc, which produces the finest Clarets shipped from Bordeaux. Mr. Ricardo, who prides himself as a connoisseur, has been invited to stay at one of the great Châteaux for the vintage. It happens that police business also requires Hanaud to go to Bordeaux at the same time. Soon, following numerous mysterious happenings, a young woman guest at the Château is murdered and Hanaud is called in to solve a most gruesome crime. Investigation reveals that the beautiful victim was sacrificed at a Black Mass. Need I say more?
Here are all the twists and turns of brilliant detection, of which Mason was such a master, with the additional interest of a most sinister satanic background.
To my sorrow I never met Mr Mason, but it was only by the narrowest fluke of bad luck that I not only missed doing so but also missed enjoying an hour or two’s private conversation with him.
In 1947 I bought a delightful leather-bound set of his books and wrote to him asking if he would be kind enough to autograph them for me. I was then living at Lymington, and I received a reply from his secretary that he would be pleased to do so if I would bring them to his flat, 51 South Street, Mayfair, when I was next in London.
I was going up the following week, so wrote giving the date and saying I would bring the books along about twelve o’clock. I also arranged to lunch with my mother that dry. She was then a widow, living out at Wimbledon, and I fear I was not a very good son as I rarely went there to see her. But it must not be thought that she was a lonely woman. She had my sister living permanently with her and many friends – not only from her younger days but also a second crop garnered when, a few years after my father’s death, she married an ex-Lord Mayor of London, Sir Louis Newton, and so became one of the Mansion House set.
At twelve o’clock on the day appointed, I duly took my set of books to 51 South Street, and a copy of my own The Launching of Roger Brook – the first of the series which had just been published – as an offering to the distinguished novelist. His secretary met me at the door, took the books and said
‘Do come in, Mr Wheatley. Mr Mason is so much looking forward to your lunching with him.’
It emerged that she had sent the invitation to me at Lymington and I had missed it by a post. What in the world to do? The temptation to lunch with the great man was almost overwhelming, but I had not seen my mother for several months so felt I could not possibly telephone and let her down.
The opportunity never came again, for Mr Mason was already a dying man. But a few weeks later I had a letter from his secretary, telling me of his death and that my Roger Brook was the last book she had read to him, and that he had enjoyed every word of it.
It is pleasing to relate a similar circumstance in the case of a more illustrious personage than that of this famous writer. In the thirties I had been told by my friend, Sir Louis Greig – who for many years was gentleman-in-waiting to King George VI when he was the Duke of York – that I was His Majesty’s favourite writer.
Thereafter, through Sir Louis, I used to send with my humble duty a copy of each of my books as they were published, for the King’s acceptance, and in return received many gracious messages. He honoured me, too, when the war came by commanding that he should receive personal copies of all the papers that I wrote for the Joint Planning Staff of the War Cabinet, on such subjects as ‘Resistance to Invasion’. It so chanced that in 1952 my fourth Roger Brook novel was the last book to be read by His Majesty before he died.