Peter Talbot is a novelist whose cousin is Col. Frank Garrett, head of the British Foreign Service and a damned negligent fool who should be horsewhipped for it. It's 1940, or thereabouts, world war is raging in Europe, and Garrett has assigned Talbot to spy on the most dangerous international criminals not wearing swastikas.
Here's Patricia Wentworth telling us in her novel, Rolling Stone, how this damned fool escapade came about: Talbot "had been roped in because he had stumbled on something odd, and because he wasn’t a regular agent. The novelist is a privileged Nosey Parker. It is his job to watch people and listen to them. It flatters some, and flutters some but no one suspects him of being in with Scotland Yard or the Foreign Office."
When Talbot tells his cousin what he's stumbled onto, Garrett explodes.
“'Good Lord!' in a voice exactly like the terrier’s bark." All he'd heard was the name Maude Millicent.
“'Who is the lady— an old flame?'
"Garrett used a regrettable expression about Maud Millicent Simpson.
“'She’s beaten me twice, and I suppose she thinks she can do it again.”
“Who is she?”
Garrett showed his teeth.
“'Maud Millicent Deane—that’s how she started—parson’s daughter, and the cleverest criminal alive. She worked with the Vulture, and when we got him, she carried on with what was left of the organization...
"'If she’s in this business, she won’t get away again if I can help it. But if she’s in it, you’re up against something—all of us are. She can write any hand, use any voice, impersonate a dozen different types..." And she murders quickly and easily as swatting a fly.
What a laugh. "If I can help it...you're up against something—all of us are."
Garrett never leaves his office, or his home or club or wherever he hangs out. Talbot's strictly on his own. And apparently he's working for free! In Brussels, after stumbling onto the fringe gang member Garrett had suggested he keep an eye out for, he notifies Garrett by letter and adds, "If I fall a victim to dirt, drains or bugs, I presume that a grateful government will pay for my obsequies."
Gadzooks, the lad's on the trail of a monster too hideous for James Bond, and doesn't even have an expense account or a license to lie!
But Talbot is smart, bold, and resourceful. He finds the fringe gang member dying in a hotel room, switches passports with him and proceeds to carry out the now dead man's mission, which takes him home to London. How conveeeen-yent as Church Lady would say. But so what, as I and Yvette Banek would say, he and we are off on one helluva fine, heart stopping, heart melting romp, with murders and burglaries and midnight romances and...oh, I think I am about to feel verklempt! (I'd be fanning myself and advising you to talk amongst yourselves, but that's a tale of another horse, as my dad loved to say, the pun of which I just now after all these oblivious years have finally gotten).
I forgot to add "laughs" as one of the features. Wentworth provokes many of them unintentionally, I suspect, with British words and expressions that made me wonder if Mick Jagger hadn’t dictated the novel—or his dad or grandpa, more plausibly. But here's one I think Wentworth made up all herself: On his way to carry out a presumably Maud Millicent Simpson-ordered burglary in his voluntary undercover role, Talbot says to himself, "It would be bad enough to lurk burglariously about Heathacres in the dark, but a very bright full moon would impart an indecent air of melodrama to the proceedings."
I doubt Mick Jagger or his ancestors would say or have said "burglariously" in any context, but it does sort of roll the Rolling Stone narrative along with a hint of hilarity, what?
The romance? There's really only one. Potentially requited one, that is. It involves lovely young Theresa "Terry" Clive, who witnesses two felonies at the Heathacres estate, where's she's staying as a guest and being courted by a least one other guest. First she sees another guest sneak out at night and slip her hostess's string of pearls to a man she thinks is her boyfriend hidden in the bushes (Of course it's really Talbot lurking burglariously about). Terry sees him take the pearls, comes out in her nightgown, scolds him and takes the pearls back, returning them to her sleeping hostess's room. Talbot, of course, is smitten.
Terry next sees a mysterious shadowy form step out onto a balcony and break a window, then slip back inside. Talbot knows this is his cue. He approaches the broken window, and receives a rolled up valuable painting the shadowy form thrusts through the broken window. Talbot puts the painting into the trunk of his rented car and hightails it out of Dodge.
Things now really get hairy. Talbot figures he's being set up as a fall-guy to take the rap for an earlier painting theft in which a butler who interrupted the theft was fatally shot. He doesn't get much encouragement from his cousin in this dilemma. The Foreign Service chief doesn't do much for me, either. Here's Wentworth's description: "Colonel Garrett sat at an office table and drove a spluttering pen. He was a little sandy man with bottle-brush hair and small grey eyes which could sharpen until they looked like two points of polished steel."
I've never especially liked little sandy men with bottle-brush hair, but I can't really tell you why (If I did I'd hafta—oh, pfui).
Rolling Stone is billed as the second (and final) novel in the "Col. Garrett series" in Wentworth's canon, but why it’s called the "Col. Garrett series" is a bigger mystery than who stole the painting from Heathacres. Garrett’s presence in both novels credited to him—Rolling Stone and Dead or Alive is similar to that of the character “M” in Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. He sits back, bullies people, and lets others do the work and take the risks. I found an online claim that he was supposed to be the one working undercover in Rolling Stone. Not that this flummery was in the least regrettable. Peter Talbot did an admirable job, as did Bill Coverdale in Dead or Alive. Garrett evidently appears in at least two other Wentworth novels, in his similar stay-at-home bullyboy head-honcho role: Walk With Care and Danger is Calling, both part of the much earlier (1931 and 1933) “Benbow Smith” series. I might give them a looksee. Wentworth’s most famous (and much lengthier) series features a sleuth called “Miss Silver,” [thanks, Marty] of which I am not much inclined to check out.
Then again, Yvette Banek’s delightful reviews are very persuasive.
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]