‘Of course I see something. Always I see something. Am I not Hanaud? Ah, my friend, the responsibility of being Hanaud! Aren’t you fortunate to be without it? Pity me! For the Hanauds must see something everywhere – even when there is nothing to see.’
A.E.W. Mason, The House of the Arrow (1924)
In fulfilling one of the primary duties of the novelist – to tell a good story – Mr Mason is a master of the craft.
Daily Telegraph, 1924
Inspector Gabriel Hanaud is famed and feared by criminals across Europe as ‘the cleverest of the French detectives’. In other quarters, however, he’s almost as well known for his ill-advised voyages ‘on the dangerous seas of the English language’. ‘We lock the door after the horse has stolen the oats,’ he observes sorrowfully. But then again: ‘you cannot make a silk purse out of a Bath chap.’
There was a time when Hanaud was considered to be in the front rank of fictional sleuths, a character who helped usher in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction of the inter-war years. More recently, though, he seems to have fallen into neglect. Even in the 1980s and ’90s, when British television was busy reviving Roderick Alleyn, Albert Campion, Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey, he went without notice. As far as I can tell, it’s been over sixty years since his exploits were depicted on screen.
Perhaps it’s because there’s not a great deal of source material: just five novels, written over the space of 36 years. Perhaps it’s because the stories don’t quite fit the classic mould of the Golden Age. Or perhaps it’s because Hanuad was created by AEW Mason, a writer better known for his stories of adventure and romance. Whatever the cause, he’s not as well remembered as he should be.
Born in 1865, Alfred Edward Woodley Mason was educated at Dulwich College and studied classics at Oxford, where he was President of the Union. On leaving university, he became an actor in the company of actor-manager Frank Benson, but – although he appeared on the West End stage in some major work, including George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man – he never graduated beyond supporting roles.
So he turned to writing instead. His friend, the dramatist Alfred Sutro, later described how Mason fared:
He took a tiny flat in Queen Anne’s Mansion, laid in a stock of pens and ink and paper and set himself down to write a novel. He sent it to a publisher who at once accepted it (this must read like a fairy tale, but it is really true!), the book appeared, the critics were loud in its praise, and the public bought vast numbers of copies. Ever since then Mason has been the spoiled child of fortune.
Sutro may be cutting a few corners in his account. That first novel was A Romance of Wastdale (1895), which one newspaper described as ‘probably the worst piece of Lake District fiction ever written’; Mason himself was said to have been embarrassed by it in later years.
But his next attempt, The Courtship of Morrice Buckler (1896), was a moderate success, and in 1902 came his biggest triumph of all with the much-filmed military adventure story The Four Feathers.
Thereafter, his place as one of the nation’s favourite writers was secured, even if he wasn’t considered to be quite of the first water. ‘AEW Mason is not among the dii majors of English fiction, the Hardys and the Conrads and the Kiplings,’ observed a reviewer in 1928*, ‘but among the lesser constellations he is as skilled and as honest a craftsman as can be found.’
It seems unlikely that he worried too much about his exclusion from the critics’ top table. He was too busy enjoying himself. He was a keen climber, owned a yacht, and used to go shooting with George V. And there was, finally, some official recognition towards the end of his life: he became a Fellow of Trinity, his old college, in 1943.
Nor were his professional interests restricted to writing. There was also politics. He had been an election agent for the Conservative Party, but ended up being elected as a Liberal MP for Coventry in 1906. He ‘made an excellent impression with his maiden speech’, though he didn’t stand for re-election in 1910.
On the outbreak of war in 1914, he immediately joined up, even though he was over the age for military service. Enlisting in the Manchester Regiment, he went on to spend most of the war as a naval intelligence officer, undertaking missions to Spain and Mexico.
A portrait survives of him in his later days, from the Manchester Guardian in 1938:
Mr Mason himself is a tall, spare man, with a mane of white hair and an eyepiece that is so much a part of his aristocratic face that at first sight you are not aware of it. He wears a navy blue, double-breasted suit with a suggestion of naval uniform about it. He has the sort of features that HR Millar loved to draw – eagle nose, high sweep of forehead, a touch of eighteenth century elegance in the fine sharp chiselling. He is infinitely courteous, with a laugh by a schoolboy.
He died in 1948 at the age of 83. Of his thirty-odd books, the obituaries singled out two major contributions: he was ‘the author of The Four Feathers and the creator of Inspector Hanaud of the Paris Sûreté’.
Gabriel Hanaud made his debut in the Christmas 1909 edition of The Strand with the first episode of a serial The Murder at the Villa Rose (retitled more demurely At the Villa Rose when published in volume form the following year).
The serialization got good notices. ‘Powerful’, ‘splendid’ and ‘masterly’, said the critics; ‘The Murder at the Villa Rose is fulfilling the anticipations expected from such a writer as it becomes more enthralling chapter by chapter.’
It’s still a good read. Set in France (though most of the main characters are from England’s leisured classes), it’s the story of a murder committed during a séance, and incorporates a convincing account of how fake mediums work – not just the trickery involved, but the careful creation of atmosphere. Unusually for detective fiction, we discover the identity of the killer two-thirds of the way in, leaving the remainder as a full telling of the crime, more thriller than murder mystery.
The story’s strong, but, as Mason himself put it: ‘All the great detective novels are known by and live on account of their detectives.’ And Hanaud, as he evolved over the books – ‘the great M. Hanaud’, as AG Macdonell called him – is one of the best.
Mason believed that ‘the best detective novel ever written is the first volume of Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecocq taken with the last chapter of the second volume’, and he was also an admirer of the memoirs of Marie-François Goron and Gustave Macé of the Sûreté. With these examples in mind, he set out to create:
a French detective, who should be first of all a professional; secondly, as physically unlike Mr Sherlock Holmes as he could possibly be; thirdly, a genial and friendly soul; and fourthly, ready to trust his flair or intuition and to take the risk of acting upon it, as the French detective does.
The result is a superbly preposterous man. ‘His vanity is colossal,’ an exasperated Englishman expostulates, and he does indeed have a monumentally high opinion of his own abilities. ‘I, the great, the incomparable Hanaud, am after them,’ he declares, as he sets out on the trail of the criminals.
This much, of course, is a comic exaggeration of the self-regarding Holmes. Likewise Hanaud’s self-proclaimed ‘artistic inclinations,’ which prevent him from revealing his discoveries too early. ‘I have an eye for dramatic effects,’ he shrugs, when challenged on the subject.
Physically, though, Hanaud is, as intended, very different to Holmes. ‘In his morning suit at his breakfast-table he looked like a prosperous comedian,’ we are told. He’s ‘a big, rather heavily built man’, but surprisingly agile when he’s spurred into physical action. ‘For a cumbersome man he is extraordinarily active. A heavy, clever, middle-aged man, liable to become a little gutter-boy at a moment’s notice.’
The mood swings are characteristic: ‘A minute ago Hanaud had been the grave agent of Justice; without a hint he had leaped to buffoonery, and with huge enjoyment. He had become half urchin, half clown.’ In short: ‘There was at times something elephantinely elfish in M. Hanaud’s demeanour.’
He’s also capable of great tenderness. He can be ‘so kind and so human and so gentle’, particularly when rescuing women. As one of those he comforts says: ‘I feel as if I had a big Newfoundland dog with me.’ At other times, there are different canine comparisons to be made: ‘Hanaud’s look, very bright and watchful and more than a little inhuman, was just the look of a good retriever dog when his master brings out a gun.’
He laughs ‘inordinately’ at his own jokes, he smokes pungent black cigarettes, taken from a blue pack (not a cigarette case), with the occasional cigar after meals, and he has a very un-French attitude towards food, taking just a quarter of an hour for lunch. And then there are those ‘dreadful distortions of the English language’.
To serve as sidekick to Hanaud, Mason gives us the almost equally absurd Julius Ricardo, ‘a retired tea-broker from Mincing Lane’. (Mincing Lane, in the City of London, was at the time the heart of the world’s tea and spice trade. Given Ricardo’s age, he may well have known Paul Bultitude of Vice Versa.)
Ricardo, despite his name, is very English indeed, as prim and particular a personage as one could hope to meet. He’s also an incurable gossip, and is endlessly fascinated by behaviour that he would profess to deplore: ‘Mr Ricardo was one of those seemly people who from time to time looked in at the Lido in order that they might preach sermons about its vulgarities with a sound and thorough knowledge.’
Eminently civilized, he is fond of France, largely because of his enthusiasm for great wine. In his opinion, ‘A gentleman must have the great vintage years and the seven growths tabled in their order upon his mind as legibly as Calais was tabled on the heart of the Tudor Queen.’
Some of the other attributes of an English gentleman, however, are not always so easily apparent: ‘He shot so deplorably that his presence on a grouse-moor invariably provoked ridicule and sometimes, if his host wanted a big bag, contumely and indignation.’
Mason argued that detective fiction should not be ‘simply a conundrum and its answer’; rather, the element of detection should ‘present one facet of a story which shall seek to enchant the interest of its readers on the different ground of the clash of its characters and the diversity of their interests’. Characters should not be ‘mere dolls jerked by the author into unnatural movements and poses so that somehow they may be squeezed into the pattern of thrills and surprises which he has designed’.
He was a member of the Detection Club and claimed that, in writing his first detective fiction, he ‘followed the rules which have since been followed by Father Ronald Knox: “The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.”’ He also claimed that ‘the reader, looking back after he has read it, should be compelled to admit that the solution to the mystery was all the while there for him to see if had had eyes alert enough to see it’.
Despite which protestations, Mason cheats appallingly, withholding information to a degree far beyond what was later considered permissible in the genre. Hanaud learns something important from a chauffeur, but we don’t hear their conversation. We are told there is a significant clue in a room, but no description is given. Most heinous of all, the solution to one of the novels depends entirely upon a secret tunnel leading from one house to another – we have no knowledge of either the tunnel or the second house until Hanaud reveals them in his elucidation of the mystery.
There is also a tendency to have absurdly specialist knowledge. So, for example, a mask is discovered hanging in a tree, a horribly impressive mask: ‘It would have been a fit mask for the Wandering Jew, but for one attribute it had. It was wicked – beautiful and sad and abominably wicked – a mask, in a word, for Satan.’ And Hanaud is on it in an instant: ‘There are only two men in the world,’ he declares, ‘who can make such masks as this. One of them is in America. The other is to be found in a studio in the back of the Haymarket in London.’ It’s not entirely plausible.
‘We are the servants of Chance, the very best of us,’ is Hanaud’s own explanation of the work of the detective. ‘Our skill is to seize quickly the hem of her skirt, when it flashes for the fraction of a second before our eyes.’ Possibly, but we still expect as readers to be given a glimpse of the skirt as it swishes by, so that we’re in with at least a shout of identifying the solution.
But then these aren’t orthodox detective novels. Rather they exist somewhere between detective fiction and thrillers. There’s a need to keep some things concealed in order to heighten the tension. And there are moments when the tension really is intense: Mason is a good craftsman.
Perhaps the hybrid nature is inevitable, given the era when the series started. In 1910, detective fiction – despite Sherlock Holmes – was not held in high regard. The serialization of At the Villa Rose went down well with those who noted the contents of popular magazines, but then they always tended to be on the generous side. When the story was published in volume form, it attracted the attention of the serious critics; and their verdict wasn’t entirely positive. Here was one:
Detective stories are all very well in their way (it is nothing but a game of deceiving the reader as long as possible), but at a time when there is such a vogue for that class of work, it seems a little below the dignity of the author of Running Water and The Broken Road to expend his energies over a tale of mysterious murder that is no vehicle for his best talent.
It is disappointing to find that this is simply a detective story, a poor substitute for that to which Mr Mason has accustomed us. Nothing of the delicate character drawing that marked The Four Feathers or Miranda of the Balcony, none of the carefully thought out scenes and dramatic situations.
Even those who were more enthusiastic could be faint in their praise: ‘If perhaps it was a little below the dignity of Mr AEW Mason to turn his attention to “detective” fiction, it must be allowed that in At the Villa Rose, he has done it exceedingly well.’
It took The Scotsman to recognize that he was trying for something higher: ‘Mr Mason has not only wound a coil of mysterious and seemingly inexplicable circumstances around a murder and its detection. He has clothed the puzzle with deep psychological interest, and given it literary form.’
Despite the success of At the Villa Rose, there was no immediate follow-up, no suggestion that Mason saw Hanaud’s adventure as the start of a series. But two developments in 1920 changed all that.
The first was a stage production of At the Villa Rose, with the famous actor-manager Arthur Bourchier taking the lead role of Hanaud. Opening in London, it later toured the country and was revived regularly well into the next decade. Mason himself wrote the adaptation, and the reviewers were unanimous that the third act, at least, was a masterpiece of dramatic tension. ‘One remembers nothing of its kind quite so exciting,’ wrote one, ‘since the interrogation scene in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.’
The stage version proved popular enough to prompt New Century Pictures to buy the rights for a movie that was released in 1921. ‘A splendid picturization of the famous book,’ promised the adverts. ‘One of the most brilliant detective stories ever written and an enormous success on the stage. Acted and photographed on the Riviera and Mediterranean Coast.’ Teddy Arundell became the first man to play Hanaud on screen; he was to be followed by Oskar Homolka, Keneth Kent, Dennis Neilson Terry and Austin Trevor.
The second event of 1920 that transformed the situation was the publication of Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which featured Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who bore more than a passing resemblance to Gabriel Hanaud.
Encouraged by the success of the play, and perhaps stung by Christie’s even greater success, Mason published the second Hanaud story – The House of the Arrow – in 1924.
By then, the status of the detective novel was much higher than it had been in the pre-war years. The new book was critically acclaimed. ‘It is a treasure of a story,’ proclaimed a reviewer. ‘One of the best we have read for years.’ Hanaud is ‘a personality which will take rank with the great detectives of fiction,’ wrote another. But there was also a recognition of the new times. It is ‘a detective story of the first water,’ said a critic, before adding: ‘It need fear comparison with none other of the season’s mystery stories – except, perhaps, the work of Miss Agatha Christie.’
Again for The House of the Arrow, Mason wrote a theatrical adaptation, and again Arthur Bourchier was lined up to play the lead, but it seemed an ill-omened production. Bourchier died before it opened, and his place was taken by Dennis Eadie, who didn’t last much longer – he contracted pleurisy and pneumonia and died of cerebral meningitis, leaving Edmund Gwenn to take up the role.
Further novels followed: The Prisoner in the Opal (1929), They Wouldn’t Be Chessmen (1934) and The House in Lordship Lane (1946). Hanaud and Ricardo also made a cameo appearance in another of Mason’s novels, The Sapphire (1933).
Of these, the best by far is The Prisoner in the Opal, first serialized in Pall Mall in 1928. It saw the return of Ricardo – who had been absent from The House of the Arrow – and who had evidently been missed. ‘A few of my friends clamoured for the reappearance of Mr Ricardo, and I had a tenderness for him myself,’ Mason noted later. Over the course of a long novel (more than three hundred pages), it is the endless competition in pomposity between Hanaud and Ricardo that keeps things ticking along.
Their relationship also provides a comic counterpoint to a wonderfully sensationalist story about Satanism in the French wine-growing country of the Medoc, a theme that allows Mason to indulge in some delightfully Gothic prose. Here are Hanaud and Ricardo with a beautiful young woman, who had been liberated from an underground cell: ‘The noose with its short foot of rope promising slow torture and dreadful disfigurement dangled from the hook. But they laughed beneath it so that the walls of that deep-sunk, sinister chamber rang with a joyous sound which they could hardly have heard before.’
And here is the room where the Black Mass is celebrated, ‘an abyss where loathsome creatures pullulated in a slime,’ a room that contains a blasphemous altar-screen: ‘On one panel nude figures holding hands danced wildly back to back; on the other, deformities with white fat human faces to turn the heart sick, crawled and swarmed in a house of pain.’
‘The Prisoner in the Opal should serve to thrill the most jaded devotee of shockers and to content the most exacting of Mr Mason’s own admirers,’ wrote the reviewer in The Times, and others agreed. ‘This is Mr Mason on his own level, and sometimes well above it,’ in a story containing ‘horrors which are theatrical but thrilling’. Those were the general conclusion, along with the insistence that Ricardo must not be omitted again: ‘Julius, of course, must come back. He is an excellent foil to his eccentric friend.’
For many readers, the relationship between Hanaud and Ricardo continued to work in later years. ‘The two have matured to the most successfully funny hunting couple in all crime fiction,’ said the Observer, when reviewing They Wouldn’t Be Chessmen.
But others were pointing to the inherent artistic flaw in detective series: the lack of character development, and the consequent danger of repetition. ‘With Hanaud, as with other established detectives, mannerisms grow tedious,’ complained the Manchester Guardian. ‘Is there no English idiom which he will not malapropose? It is doubtless commercially sound to maintain an established detective in constant practice; commerce and art seem still to be an ill-assorted couple.’
From Christie onwards, writers who specialized in detective fiction made a virtue of this. The very familiarity of the central figures became the selling point, while the other characters existed merely as servants of the plot. With Mason, a non-genre writer for whom crime was merely a lucrative sideline, this was more troublesome. The repetition does eventually become intrusive.
‘Mr Mason’s figures “won’t be chessmen” in another sense,’ read that Times review. ‘They insist upon being human beings, not mere pawns in a mystery tale.’ But you can sense that Mason doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with the constraints of the format.
Even with so few books, the stories quickly become formulaic, with common elements running through them. Not just the small-town French settings, and the repeated emphasis on gambling and casinos (very glamorous and exotic from a British perspective), but also plot devices: Hanaud, for example, tends to make errors of judgement halfway through his investigations, often resulting in further murders.
Further, the characters are drawn from a small pool: all upper-middle-class at least, even though some of them – normally beautiful young Englishwomen – may have fallen on hard times and be in straitened circumstances. And those beautiful young Englishwomen in straitened circumstances are liable to be abducted and subjected to extreme terror. So frequent are these incidents that it’s hard to avoid the impression that rural France is frankly no place for beautiful young Englishwomen to find themselves in straitened circumstances. To be fair to Mason, however, in The Prisoner in the Opal this role is taken instead by a beautiful young American woman. She is, needless to say, in straitened circumstances.
Even after Mason’s death, Hanaud didn’t lack for enthusiasts. In 1974, At the Villa Rose was reissued by Bodley Head with an introduction by Hugh Carleton Greene. The same year Sphere brought out The Prisoner in the Opal in its Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult series. (Wheatley’s introduction centred on the fact that his own work was admired by Mason, as indeed it was by George VI – never knowingly out-bragged, was our Dennis.)
More recently, Radio 4 broadcast dramatizations of The House of the Arrow in 1984 (adapted by Alan Downer, with Richard Pasco as Hanaud) and At the Villa Rose in 1999, with a script by David Benedictus and with Andrew Sachs as Hanaud.
That latter is the most recent sighting of Hanaud in other media. Happily, however, the books are still available. And, I would suggest, The Prisoner in the Opal, at least, is very much worth your time.
* This is the earliest example I know of what I believe is called the Football Plural – as when a commentator refers to, say, the top top players: your Ronaldos, your Messis, your Neymars…
more on AEW Mason:
also available in the neglected novelists series: