For months I’ve been trying to get my hands on even paperback copies of certain books by William Le Queux and it turns out he is quite as hopelessly out-of-print as I suspected. Hurrah for the British Library!* I ordered and was brought a pretty selection of very ancient volumes and set quietly to work.
*You can, should you want, get one of those horrible facsimile paperbacks but they are generally unreadable and a waste of the paper they were printed on.
A Secret Service follows the trials and tribulations of Anton Prehznez, a wealthy Russian Jew, who is doing his military service when he learns his father has been sent to Siberia and his mother and sister are destitute. He is forced to finish his service and two years later races to find his family. He traces them to a small village. He arrives shortly after his mother has died of starvation, but just in time to witness his sister being flogged for insubordinance to an officer of the law (re: he tried to rape her and she stabbed him) and speaking ill of the Tzarist regime. Anton flings himself between the executioner’s final blow and his sister, and is sent to prison.
He is sentenced to hard labour in Siberia but manages to escape by running off in the night and jumping down a well. The guards concede that if he is dead he is better off than alive to see out his sentence, and leave. Anton manages to disguise himself well enough to reach the Pacific coast and is stowed on a steamer to Canada. From Canada, he goes to England, and in London he meets up with the Nihilists, a group of Russian revolutionaries who, though peaceful, seek the freedom* of their people by any means necessary.
*Both economic and freedom of movement; the latter is reflected in Anton’s escape across the world from Siberia, the terrible climate of which and vast expanse makes it essentially a prison without walls.
Although he does adhere to the somewhat floral language of his day, Le Queux is quick to establish that this story is based in reality; much of the initial prose focusses on reporting the suffering of the Russian people, the oppression of the Russian government and the clandestinity and brutality of the Secret Police, all very real at this time, displaying Le Queux’s journalist background.
Anton arrives in London declaring:
The majority of Londoners are unaware that the headquarters of the most powerful secret organisation in the world exists in their midst. (56)
Later spy novelists will take this notion and transform it into the secrecy surrounding the British Secret Service, though here Le Queux is in fact referring to the Executive Council of the Russian Revolutionists, which
holds daily council and matures the plots which from time to time startle Europe. (56)
(I love this idea of a startled Europe; I have an image of the cocked eyebrow of Europe as a plot matures suddenly under Europe’s nose. Such impropriety, Europe would think, but never say aloud.)
There are countless events and situations that arise that will become familiar within the genre. Anton’s personal evolution from a casual participant to an ardent member of the inner circle; the chases through disguises and across landscapes; the constant presence of the opposition; the danger even the slightest exposure would bring. Anton shadows his opponent even as he is shadowed.
Yet the act of spying here is regarded with severity. Spying against the people is frequently described as ‘detestible’, ‘vile’ and ‘disgusting’. It is a violation of the rights of the people, and for Anton spying, the fear of being spied upon, is precisely what needs to be stamped out for Russian citizens to be free. What he is really opposed to is the idea that the spies of the Russian Secret Police have been bought by the state to turn against their neighbours. Russia was staggering under the weight of widespread poverty and economic decay; survival required resorting to activities that, in normal times, would be unthinkable:
At such a level of morality, the prospect of a ‘paying job’ is sufficient to inspire the agents of the Russian ‘state police’ with a spirit of boundless enterprise. (79)
It’s important to note the distinction between these spies that are spied to work against the people, and Anton’s organisation that works against the state.
Unfortunately, while A Secret Service has elements of what will shape the genre, it is itself rather unsuccessful. It seems to me that halfway through Le Queux began to forget his characters’ backgrounds and motivations from one chapter to the next. Anton begins the story as a Russian Jew, but only the reader seems to remember that fact. His comrades, or at least their names, get muddled by Le Queux; their activities as a result seem largely forced and unnecessary. Anton, though he supposedly marries at the 2/3 mark, goes on to have a succession of love affairs, while his sister’s fiancé turns up three chapters after declaring his love for her with another woman. By the end of the novel, Le Queux attempts to regain his footing and brings the story back to Anton’s roots, but it’s far too late.
A Secret Service was hilarious, unfathomable and unlikely, but rarely at the right intervals.
Wrong a man, deny him all redress, exile him if he complains, gag him if he cries out, strike him in the face if he struggles, and at last he will stab and throw bombs […] Our Government manufacturers murderers. (143)
Words are an index to one’s convictions. (180-1)