New Releases: The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown
Underground Reading: Another Western Round-Up

The Repairer of Reputations: In Secret by Robert Chambers

In secret - dust jacketIn Secret (1919) certainly begins innocently enough.

Mr. Vaux of the Postal Inspection Service is interrupted by one of his many minions, a beautiful blonde heiress-cum-codebreaker, Miss Evelyn Erith. Evelyn has discovered a dodgy letter, sent to a German man in New York City. With her "hazel eyes, a winsome smile, and hair like warm gold", she talks Mr. Vaux into a series of spectacular hijinks. The two break in to the German man's home, aid in his arrest and then have a merry loot for his codebook. All the while, Vaux (engaged to another frothy blonde, although she's absent for this farce), does his best not to admire Evelyn's figure and her derring-do.

This airy rom-com takes up the first quarter of In Secret. Vaux is then quickly forgotten as Evelyn finds Kay McKay, Scottish-American war hero. McKay, as Evelyn knows from her decoding of the spy's cipher (oh, he was a spy - no German is to be trusted), is a wanted man - he knows "The Great Secret". Sadly, he's currently a ruined man - captured by the HUN, McKay has been forced into alcoholism. Somehow, he still escaped from his prison camp in Hunistan, but even back on the safe Yankee shores of New York, McKay is a gibbering wreck. In the course of a half dozen pages, Evelyn gives McKay the cure - sweating the booze out of him and helping him rediscover his inner man-manliness. 

These first portions of the book form a familiar Chambers mash-up. The silly opening salvo gently pokes fun at governmental bureaucracy while watching beautiful people do slightly goofy things. All, one suspects (incorrectly) in the name of love. It is The Green Mouse or The Tracer of Lost Persons all over again; star-crossed twits finding their brides to be. Mr. Chambers then shifts gears to the drama of The Danger Mark or The Fighting Chance - harping on about the perils of alcohol and its poisonous influence on America's collective liver. As with those other books, alcoholism is not a disease, it is a factor caused by a pernicious external influence. The measure of Chambersian man (and woman) is how swiftly that influence can be shrugged off.

Of course, a childhood accident involving brandy-filled candies (The Danger Mark) is a far cry from alcohol-based interrogation techniques in German prison camps (In Secret), and that serves as a noisy warning shot before plunging into the rest of the book. Although the early pages are packed with familiar set-pieces, the rest of In Secret is something new entirely: jingoistic garbage. From August 1914, the British press spun atrocity stories of the "Rape of Belgium" and other dubious German war crimes. Partially, this was about weaving national fervor - the murder of an Archduke and the violation of the 1839 Treaty of London weren't the sort of tales that brought young men to volunteer. However, the tales of German war crimes also served a greater role - they helped win over America. And, as In Secret demonstrates, the American imagination was thoroughly ignited.

If anything, In Secret is a big bag of propaganda sweets. The core story alone is obvious enough in its intent: heroic Evelyn and Kay McKay pit themselves against a vast German horde. But beyond that, Mr. Chambers litters the book with cheap shots and denigrations. 

First, the entire premise of the book is that the Germans have been violating Swiss neutrality for a half-century. There's an entire 'off the books' Swiss canton that belongs to Germany. The Germans are currently using it to dig a tunnel under Switzerland that they will use to circumvent the French fortifications entirely. There's something of the Bond villain in this oversized plot, but the lesson ('No act too evil') sinks in. The violation of Swiss neutrality is also something the author reiterates over and over again - just in case readers need something more legalistic to hang on to.

Second, the Germans are portrayed as subhuman. Evelyn and Kay McKay are straight limbed, blue eyed, blonde haired aryans. McKay nicknames Evelyn 'Yellow-Hair', giving an excuse to remind the reader of her fair beauty on every page. The 'Hun' and the 'Boche' (WW1 slang - so weird) are noted for their 'pig-eyes and bushy flat-backed heads', 'sullen' and 'dark eyed', who speak in 'guttural noises' and rarely enter the scene so much as 'rise from the ground'. (There is, of course, a terrible irony in all of this.) The Germans themselves never speak - they grunt and shamble about voicelessly. What communication the reader gets directly from the Germans is in the form of notes - diabolical screeds that could've been penned by the sinister Fu Manchu. 

In contrast, the armies of Britain and the United States could not be more clearly heroic. Their mission is clear, their purpose is unassailable. Just to be perfectly clear of the stakes, the omniscient narrator chimes in at one point

This [is a] crusade of light against darkness, of cleanliness against corruption, this battle of normal minds against the diseased, perverted, and filthy ferocity of a people not merely reverted to honest barbarism, but also mentally mutilated, and now morally imbecile and utterly incompetent to understand the basic truths of that civilisation from which they had relapsed, and from which, God willing, they are to be ultimately and definitely kicked out forever.

Again, there is a terrible irony with the language used - this isn't about winning a 'war', it is about removing the enemy from civilisation. Granted, if the narrator is to be believed, these 'mentally-mutiliated' barbarians have already opted out of common decency. The role of the 'light' is to make sure that they are removed from the human race entirely.

Third, in order to keep that stakes high, Mr. Chambers makes sure that the German armies are everywhere, and no German can be trusted. Even in the cheerful opening chapters, the mysterious Mr. Lauffer, an American citizen for some years, is a foreign spy. The Swiss are not to be trusted as they are virtually German. Even their women, despite the fact that some have a 'handsome appearance' are evil to the core. Before Evelyn and McKay stomp around Switzerland, they're attacked in New York, off the coast of Britain and in McKay's idyllic Scottish home. The war, Mr. Chambers reminds, is everywhere.

Fourth, the Germans are just plain evil. Not content with the atrocities picked up from the British press, Mr. Chambers's pen carves out a few new ones. A German double-agent is tricked (they're not so bright, those Germans) into confessing her plans. Her Irish handler recovers her and takes her to a secret German rendezvous on top of "Mount Terrible" in Switzerland.

"Where the hell are you Germans?" he called out. "Come out of your holes, damn you. Here's one of your own kind who's sold us all out to the Yankees!"

Twice the girl tried to speak but Skelton shook the voice out of her quivering lips as a shadowy figure rose from the scrubby growth behind the Crucifix. Then another rose, another, and many others looming against the sky. 

The Irishman and his other traitorous-but-not-thank-God-German compatriot retreat down the mountain. Behind them, they hear only "the heavy trample of boots among the rocks, guttural noises, a wrenching sound, then the clatter of rolling stone". Mr. Chambers then switches the narrative perspective back to the Germans, lest the reader miss the point:

Two of them, burly, huge-fisted, wrenched the Christ from the weather-beaten Crucifix which they had uprooted from the summit of its ancient cairn of rocks, and pulled out the rusty spike-like nails.

The girl was already half dead when they laid her on the Crucifix and nailed her there. After they had raised the cross and set it on the summit she opened her eyes.

Several of the Germans laughed, and one of them threw pebbles at her until she died.

In an unsubtle book, this might be the most outlandish scene of all, down to the particularly ridiculous last sentence. Given more time, I suspect they would've had a picnic.

In secret - hardcoverAt least, however, the unfortunate double-agent is spared the ultimate dishonor. Every day, Evelyn wakes up and reminds herself that the last bullet is for her. Her conversation in the field with McKay, already limited, is mostly confined to "this is your bullet" and "save one for yourself". Why Evelyn is in the field in the first place is never wholly explained. Why she doesn't immediately turn around and head back to her New York mansion is also a mystery. ("Patriotism" is, of course, the answer - but Evelyn was one of the top code-breakers in the intelligence service. Isn't that a more productive use of her heroic impulses than being McKay's bag carrier in the Swiss Alps?)

Eventually, McKay and Evelyn stumble upon "The Great Secret". As mentioned above, this is the German plot to tunnel through Switzerland. It is also known from the beginning of the book - meaning that McKay and Evelyn's only goal was to confirm what they already knew. At great risk to life, limb and ultimate dishonor. Furthermore, when they do find "The Great Secret", our intrepid adventurers don't turn around and go home to report. They file their report via Bald Eagle (there's a docile one flapping around the Alps for reasons best left unexplained), and then, for no clear reason, Evelyn and McKay join the tunnelling work force. There they stay for a year, with Evelyn disguised as a man (ultimate dishonor!), before sneaking back and re-reporting their already-filed report.

One thing they do learn in their otherwise-meaningless year as German volunteers - the Germans are digging their way under Switzerland with an army of the insane. They've been rounding up the asylum inmates all through Europe and turning them into gibbering burrowers. Of course, to the side of righteousness and light, this is good news. As soon as Evelyn reiterates the not-so-secret "Great Secret", an Anglo-Yank task force goes into motion. While American planes bomb the entrance to the tunnel, the British slowly thread a pipe through a carefully-drilled hole in the burrow's roof. Then they feed in poison gas. As everyone dies horrible, Evelyn and McKay cuddle joyously - their life's mission is complete and now they can be married!

Later, mid-snuggle, Evelyn remembers the "thousands and thousands of insane down there under the earth". Yes, her beloved reminds her. But "Are the insane not better dead?". She solemnly agrees and the two continue planning their wedding. 

NYT - June 15 1919In Secret was, of course, a bestseller, much to the chagrin of the New York Times, who refer to it as "another of Mr. Chambers's recklessly galloping tales in which he takes all manner of liberties with the possible, [and] ignores verisimilitude of people, of events, of life". Contrasting In Secret with the author's early novels, the reviewer bemoans that "such deterioration... is not surprising when one recalls the rapidity with which Mr. Chambers has turned out his tales. In the end literary quality is bound to be sacrificed for quantity".

The bizarre blending of his own tropes with the pre-digested atrocity tales of yellow journalism help support this conclusion - In Secret was a shameful, paint-by-numbers bestseller, far more about capitalising on a topical issue than creating a work of lasting merit. However, as Mr. Chambers's even later works (such as The Man They Hanged) show, the author's ability to create convincing characters and tell a good story (not just a 'galloping' one) never faded - but in the period of In Secret, it was certainly stalled.


By Jared (@pornokitsch), who worries about ever repairing Mr. Chambers's reputation if he persists in writing crap like this.