27 JANUARY 1939, Page 30



THOUGH I have not read many of Mr. McFee's novels, I remember, years ago, reading and reviewing Captain Mace- doine's Daughter, and pointing out how greatly the author was indebted to Conrad. I also remember that Mr. McFee was very much annoyed. That particular yarn was spun by

Spenlove, Chief Engineer, and it may be only in the Spenlove tales that the Conrad influence is marked. But Spenlove tells

the story of Derelicts, and again, both in manner and technique,

the resemblance is there. I do not mean that Spenlove is a mere echo of Marlow : he has a similar loquaciousness, a similar method of approaching his theme from several angles, moving backward and forward in time, treating it philo- sophically with mingled irony and sympathy; but he has also a personality of his own; in fact, I think he is the most living figure in this book.

Ostensibly he is telling Mrs. Colwell the story of Captain Remson, whom she had met casually, and about whom she is curious because he married a friend of hers and then dis- appeared; but at the 'same time he is telling a good deal about himself. Most of the yarn is spun during a cruise in the Caribbean, the remainder at Mrs. Colwell's house when they return. And really she could not have discovered a better informant, for Spenlove is an incorrigible busybody, with an insatiable interest in other people's affairs, and a remarkable faculty for penetrating to the hidden motives that inspire their actions. His memory too is prodigious, so that, since he is a born story-teller, he can weave a rich and continuous narra- tive out of chance meetings, reports, gossip, legend. It is Spenlove really, not Remson, who makes the book, and certainly he enjoys his task. Now and then Mrs. Colwell becomes a little impatient; he lingers so over psychological subtleties, tasting them on his tongue as it were, when what she wants is just the inside story, without elaboration, of Captain Remson's desertion of her old friend, the Countess Paula.

"And he thought himself entitled, this old Spenlove, to spin it out ! He was like an old sailing ship, making long tacks to reach port, the gear groaning and the hulk leaking. He looked old as he sat watching her with folded arms."

It occurs to her that unless they voyage round the world together he will never reach the end of his tale.

It must be confessed that he does take his time over it, there

are so many points to be made, and not a character is suffered to cross the scene without a special illumination. Spenlove is interested in them all, but Mrs. Colwell isn't; and sometimes she thinks him cynical, and sometimes absurdly romantic, and always he holds her with the glittering eye, the fascination, of the Ancient Mariner. Indeed, he fascinates her more than the plutocratic Colwell ever can have done, but that does not

come into the story.

Not all the portraits are equally convincing. Mrs. Colwell I could see, and Rhea Candleby, who aroused a sympathy in Mr. Spenlove of which Mrs. Colwell very femininely dis- approves. Ottilie, too, is there—with whom Remson hides himself in the tropical wilds—and the fair-haired young German, Stamm. But Charley Mallot I found colourless, and Remson himself is conceived somewhat on the lines of the familiar romantic hero handicapped by his personal sense of honour. Nor do I think the episode with Dobbeny in New Orleans would have had quite the overwhelming effect attri- buted to it : after all, Remson had been to a public school.

I have left out of account the more external aspect of the story. The War is in it, and Remson's particular war job is to localise, somewhere in Honduras, a German wireless station that is blotting out authentic messages. This, however, which would have been made the centre of an ordinary adventure story, is not what most interests Mr. McFee: his novel is a romance, but it is essentially a psychological romance.

Challenge to the Night also is romantic. Again the tale is

narrated—this time to a little group of listeners and chiefly by the hero, Tom Ludlow, himself. But the book is a first novel, and we need expect nothing of the elaborate and

masterly technique of Derelicts. I think here the straight- forward, historic method would have been better, for

though two of the listeners are old friends of Tom's, the third, a woman, he has met only once before, and he is hardly the type to have poured out his soul to a comparative

stranger. It is the story of a swift and overwhelming love, con- ceived at first sight, The scene is the South Sea Islands; the plot one of the oldest in the world—the characters being a heroine in captivity, a cruel guardian, and a knight errant, who, of course, is Tom himself.

Yet the story is modern. Tom is in the Government Ser- vice; Rosana is married to the murderous Drekmann, who has escaped, with his fortune, out of Herr Hitler's Germany,

and holds her a prisoner on the rarely visited island of Take- muna. Moreover, there is a further complication in the shape

of Gabriella, a child of eight, the daughter of Drekmann and Rosana. Materials are here for a thriller, but Mr. Lewis has conceived it as a novel of passion, with a tragic ending. And

that is how he should have left it, for when the curtain is

briefly raised to provide a more or less consoling peep into the future, it comes as an anti-climax, weakening the effect of all that has preceded it. There are other faults—the "My dear boy " refrain in Old Jay's conversation, the conventional picture of Tom as a schoolboy—but the book has colour and animation, while fortunately it contains a pleasant German to set against the evil Drekmann.

Mr. Norman Collins' Love in Our Time is a more perfect piece of work. The writing is good, the characters are real,

and the story completely convincing. Mr. Collins gives us no exotic background, no romantic adventure, only a picture of very ordinary suburban life, very ordinary people. It is the tale of Gerald and Alice, who get married in circumstances that make this just possible so long as there are no children. Yet the position is precarious, for the house has been furnished on the hire system, and there is nothing left over to meet extra expenses. Luck goes against them, unexpected claims arise, and it seems there is going to be a baby after all. This is the situation—one in which sordid financial worries cast a blight upon everything, spoiling tempers and exasperating nerves. Yet Gerald and Alice struggle on. A way out occurs to them and they almost take it, only at the last moment their better natures saving them. It is Mr. Collins' belief in the better natures of his characters that gives his book its distinction and its dramatic interest. We are acutely anxious about what is going to happen to Gerald and Alice because we feel a lively sympathy with them. In its naturalism, in its economy, in its humanity, this really is an admirable novel. And it ends on the right note—not unhappily, though the struggle is still there; but hope and goodwill are there, too.

Poet's Trumpeter is not realistic, it is a satire verging on the fantastic. Sefton-Smith, retired after 45 years' service in

the Post Office, is the poet; Mary, his maid-of-all-work, is the trumpeter. Sefton-Smith has been writing poems all his life, though he has never succeeded in getting one accepted. His wife and son and daughter regard his efforts with unconcealed contempt : Mary has learned the poems by heart. Except Mary, Professor Bevington is the only person who believes in Sefton-Smith's genius; but later the Right Honourable Holland Jardine, M.P., who happens to hear Mary reciting one of the poems at her Girls' Club, becomes a third and very influential admirer. Through Jardine, the new poet becomes known. He is taken up by the Press, he becomes famous, presidents of Poetry Societies and Literary Societies flock in, there are interviews, there is the keenest competition for his work. Jack and Ivy, the son and daughter, in the light of all this publicity, and dazzled by the cheques that are pouring in, throw up their jobs and even break off their respective engage- ments; but Mary is forgotten. Then, in a fire, the poet and his works perish. Except for a few published in newspapers, the greatest poems of the age exist now only in the tenacious memory of Mary. The novel is an amusing comedy of intel- lectual snobbishness, and its irony is not greatly exaggerated. The weak point is the genius of Sefton-Smith. Mr. Valentine prudently quotes only a single line from his poems—" I love Aileen! I love Aileen! "—yet perhaps it would have been wiser to have kept even this a secret.