This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
Max Brand‘s The Phantom Spy (1937) is almost spookily predictive of the events that were to occur in the years that followed its release. It is very topical, featuring mentions of most of Germany’s higher politicians, speculations on British defence capabilities and considers the necessity of spies in a peacetime that was heading swiftly to war. The spies in question are Lady Cecil and Willie Gloster. At first it seems as though Lady Cecil is a bit of a proto-Modesty Blaise. She’s dynamic and resourceful and is the first person the head of the Secret Service calls when he needs someone to swoop in and steal the only map of the Maginot Line — a line of weaknesses in border defences — in existence from German possession. And, with the help of Willie Gloster as her trusty sidekick, she does the job admirably.
Unfortunately the German Service is just as quick to retaliate and the map is swiped right out from under their noses at a reception back in London, held in Cecil’s honour for her good works.
The story from here takes a bit of a turn, as Cecil turns to a man she thinks is ‘the greatest spy in Europe’. She runs off with him, leaving Gloster to pick up the trail. We stay with Gloster as he goes through various disguises, using the Richard Hannay method of deception, to track down the maps. Gloster turns out to be a very capable spy and extraordinarily at ease adapting to the various roles he must perform. It should come as no surprise that at the very end Gloster both successfully secures the map and reveals himself as the Great Spy.
If nothing else, this novel offers a ‘ground-level’ reading of the political situation in Europe in the late 30s. While it does not attempt to reconcile political tensions or even offer an alternative to the inevitability of war, it does demonstrate how the actions of private individuals can be just as powerful as the decisions of governmental bodies. The writing style still clings to an innocence of sentiment that pervaded throughout the 1920s. For that, and for the perspective of pre-war Europe, I think it’s rather worth the read.