I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.
I read this for O-2: Mystery with a Number in the Title
The Three Couriers – Compton Mackenzie, 1929
I was going to read The Greene Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine (1927) in order to overcome my resistance to mysteries written in the 1920s. I feel reluctant because they are too long and wordy. Beyond 200 pages, I find it hard to tolerate overly Dickensian characters, barely recognizable social situations, and casual prejudices of racist eras. Shades of the self-fulfilling prophecy, by page five of The Greene Murder Case, I was fed up with Van Dine’s 17th century English prose style that brought to mind Raleigh and Browne. I also could not get past the supercilious manner and affected speech of the profoundly irritating series detective. As critic Odgen Nash wrote at the time, “Philo Vance | Needs a kick in the pants.”
Still committed to reading a novel of the Twenties, I was lucky enough to have fall into my lap the 1929 spy mystery The Three Couriers by Compton Mackenzie. A prolific writer before and after his work in the secret world during the Great War, Mackenzie portrayed spying not so much as a clandestine fight against the Germans and Turks but as a running contest against His Majesty’s army and navy authorities and embassy and consulate employees that put the “dip” in “diplomat.” Stationed against his will in Greece, our hero, the unfortunate Waterlow, has to put up with endless French machinations and the never-ending nincompooperies of his own agents, both British and Greek. When he finally succeeds in counter-espionage, his masters and betters utterly ignore the vital intercepted message. “This is a Charlie Chaplin war” he mutters as he bravely moves on to the next fiasco.
In The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), Chesterton makes a case for the futility of espionage, an ironic theme Somerset Maugham was to exploit in the Ashenden stories. But it could be that Mackenzie was the first to write a spy story as a black comedy of errors. The Three Couriers does not have much plot. However, the incidents and set pieces are hilarious as the hapless spies move in on the couriers. The characters are Gogolian grotesques. One wonders if he involuntarily stored these outrageous impressions in his head and wrote to get shut of them.
It seems that Mackenzie had written earlier novels based on his Intelligence activities. Extremes Meet, was published in 1928, but as a Wodehousian light comedy, it was out-sold by the release of Somerset Maugham's ground-breaking novel as collection of short stories Ashenden, which came out the same year. Critic Anthony Masters says, “Mackenzie was considerably annoyed at being overshadowed in this way.” So in 1929 Mackenzie published The Three Couriers, another story based on his spymastering exploits. A comedy with more of a satirical bite, it sunk with few traces until this review on this unique blog that you are reading this very minute.