Friday, July 18, 2014

Watcher in the Shadows, by Geoffrey Household

 Although regular readers here will know that I read a lot of crime and suspense fiction, I came across Geoffrey Household by an alternate route. I am also a big fan of the New York Review of Books imprint, and at the bookstore where I used to work, I came across a copy of Rogue Male in the  bargain bin a few years ago. Bargain bins, especially book bargain bins, are funny places. In one way, they are the receptacles of the lowest of the low. Books that can't be sold new, can't be returned for credit, the least loved of the unloved. My copy of Rogue Male couldn't even be sold as a used book, and had been reduced still further.

But sometimes bargain bins are the places where you find the best books of all. Books that have fallen out of fashion, or maybe never were in fashion to begin with. With a title like "Rogue Male", and with the picture of a dead and perhaps disintegrating wolf on the cover, this one was perhaps never destined to play well in feminist, animal loving Santa Cruz. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a gripping and intelligent game of cat and mouse which I found well worth my time.

Household's fate as a writer is an interesting one. Apparently he achieved success with Rogue Male, but wasn't able to take advantage of it. He was too busy being an intelligence officer in Rumania from 1939 onwards to rest on his laurels.It wasn't until World War II was over that he was able to begin  writing again, though judging from the long list of his books, he didn't exactly suffer from writer's block.

Watcher in the Shadows came out in 1960, and it is set in the period about ten years after the war. In some ways, it is the same sort of plot as Rogue Male is but with some interesting differences. Psychologically, it's interesting that Household makes his character an Austrian who, while working for British Intelligence, penetrated the Gestapo undercover. As the story opens, he is living in England as a zoologist studying red squirrels. The plot is set in motion by an unknown assailant who apparently wants his head. Charles Demmim is perhaps a bit too modest for his own good, in that he has never gotten around to telling the world that he was not actually working for the Gestapo, but, in fact, against them. This might strain credibility, except for the underlying thread that Dennim still feels far from guiltless about his war years. Continuing on in a very unassuming London life is all right, but there is  no forward motion in it. As one character tells him, he is always looking behind him, never ahead. Although there are very good reasons for him to be looking over his shoulder in this case, that doesn't make this observation untrue in a broader sense as well.

I always admire writers who put time and energy into making their minor characters come to life, particularly in such pure action fare as this. In this book, it is the Melton clan, who live on the shadowy side of the law but have their own kind of values, that he brings warmly to life. In Rogue Male, Household made Asmodeus the cat memorable, and in this one it is a rather spoiled Arabian stallion called Nur Jehan who provides the more comical moments to a not otherwise comical tale.

I found Watcher in the Shadows on a library book sale cart. Household's novels are not much in print now, so if I see any more on my journeys, I will certainly grab them up. You should too.

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