Dornford Yates (1885-1960)
The Pleydell family went to Paris for a holiday in the 1930’s and were having a fun time, when one evening a friend that they had met in one of the clubs dosed their champagne with sleeping powder and stole all their jewelry and a string of pearls with a long, honored history. The pearls belonged to Jill, the Duchess of Padua, Jonah Mansell’s sister, and a cousin of Bertram Pleydell, known familiarly as “Berry”. The friend’s name was Casca de Palk, and was suspected even though he pretended to be unconscious like the others. After lamenting for a while, they all decided to pursue the thief: Casca had run off to southern France, near Pau. Consulting some of their sources in the Surete, Berry discovered that the jewels would probably be offered to a fence, the most likely being one that lived in Chicago. They investigated and found out that a man named Wokely, a known agent of the Chicago dealer, would be arriving in Tours from America in the next few days. Traveling to that city, it was discovered that Wokely would be meeting Palk in a certain hotel room almost immediately. Realizing that the building next to the hotel was empty, Berry and Boy (his brother-in-law) broke into it one night, climbed to the roof, and saw Casca talking to Wokely, presumably about selling the valuables. In the process, they both got soaked from a passing rainstorm, and accidentally slid down into a gutter filled with mud and tar. Covered with goo, they returned to meet the others. A certain amount of derision ensued; after some more inquiries, the crooks are traced to a small town near Pau in the northern Pyrenees.
They drive down in two vehicles, a Rolls and a Lowlander (Rover, maybe?) and have fun chasing their enemies through western France, and being chased themselves. At lunch one day, in a rural cafe, they are accosted by a giggling, maniacal male figure who attached themselves to the group and wouldn’t be dislodged until Boy and Berry take him for a ride across 100 kilometers of wasteland into a forest and leave him there, using trickery and deception to leave him stranded. Later they find out that this person was named “Auntie Emily”, a notorious hired gun who liked to shoot people.
After finding a hotel near the border, they encounter Casca again, and engage in a road race, chasing him and his colleagues up and down a rolling highway, through fields of grain and cow pastures. In a hilarious episode, Berry manages to follow Casca and Wokely away from the car, after a flat tire, into a patch of woods, where he sees Casca drop a small leather bag into a hollow tree. Berry creeps into a ditch and crawls through a slimy muddy bog, while being tormented by black flies and hornets, in order to get close enough to overhear the conversation between the two. But he’s still too far away to pick up any information. After they leave, he investigates the hollow stump in which the bag was dropped and discovered that the pearls are in it. After retrieving them he returns to the ditch. Delicately throwing his coat over the hornet nest he found there, he carries it back to the stump and drops it in. From a distance the Pleydells observe Casca, covered with stings and mud, running madly over the grassy fields, waving his arms and yelling obscenities.
After more episodes resembling the above, the Pleydells and Auntie Emily and his cohorts have a final rendezvous at the Spanish border. Casca has made arrangements to sell the rest of the jewelry to Wokely and his companions, the exchange to take place on a local mountain top. Berry and Boy get there first and find out about another road leading to the trysting spot and they make plans to foil the bad hats. They dress up as old ladies and drive up the road just ahead of the felons’ car. But they want to stay well ahead of them, as they have a surprise planned. The previous day, they had found a large pine tree overhanging the road, and had partly cut it through so it could be shoved down onto the road in a few seconds. So they wanted to stay ahead a certain distance so their car could pass under the tree before it was used to block the road. So, just before the two vehicles get to the ambush spot, Berry, driving, starts screaming and waving his arms and allows the car to reverse direction, shooting backwards and forcing the following auto into a ditch. Then he re-engages the transmission and drives back up the hill, past the tree, which is felled across the road thus trapping Auntie Emily and company. All goes as planned: they arrive at the top, discard their attire and have a shoot-out with the belated criminals, gain possession of the remaining jewels, and escape via the Rolls which has been parked on the alternate road they discovered earlier.
I’ve read a few of Yates books and like them a lot. He has an approachable writing style and a vivid imagination. His descriptions drag the reader into action and he has a gift for brilliant evocation. Describing the Pyrenees: “a screen of unimaginable beauty, of dreamy spires and shadowy battlements, of peeping domes and keeps and galleried belvederes, rising and falling in disarray and exquisite as to make architecture seem an art not so much lost as never yet acquired.”
The Pleydells are the chief characters in Yates’ short stories and in two novels. Most of the action in these occurs in France. He has an additional sequence of novels that has to do with another set of friends who have adventures in the Balkan regions. If one’s taste leads to car chases in old open touring cars, gunfire, mysterious caverns and tunnels, remote Bavarian villages, thwarting villains and rescuing maidens, these books should prove quite satisfactory.
I should mention Berry’s extraordinary and brilliant repartee: his ability to express himself in superbly brainy and picturesque language, that he humorously and ironically uses to complain about the various mishaps that occur to him is amazingly funny, and better than any of that sort of thing that i’ve ever read.