Thanks to Mr Cornflower for the recommendation to read Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, a Buchan-esque thriller set substantially in Dorset, a place of deep lanes and private coombes – very much the area where I am lucky enough to have a cottage, in fact. Rogue Male was published in 1939, but has a gung-ho cheerfulness about it, in spite of its dark matter, which smacks of Richard Hannay and the years before and after the First World War.
The main character – “hero” is not quite the right word – narrowly fails in an attempt to assassinate a foreign head of state. We don’t know why he wanted to kill this particular dictator until almost the end of the book; at the beginning, he protests that he was acting independently and not on behalf of his country, and this turns out to be true. But it means that when he escapes from the country in which he has been operating, he has the police of England and the secret services of the other nation both hunting him down, for different reasons (he added to his crimes by killing a man in London while getting away from his pursuers).
We never know his name, but he is well known in England, and he has once lived in Dorset, where he decides to hide up. He travels down to the country almost on auto-pilot, then realises that his unconscious is leading him to a perfect place to hide – some of those deep lonely lanes in the hills above Bridport, damp and grown over with trees, that are no longer heavily used. He finds such a place, and camouflages it until it is a snug hidey hole where he passes weeks away, with only a wild and rather ruffianly cat for company. The descriptions of Dorset are fine, and he mentions plenty of places I know – Bridport, Chideock, Powerstock, Eggardon Hill, and Beaminster – but the development of the novel comes of course with the opposition secret service discovering him. He makes stupid errors and marvellous recoveries; he endures deeply uncomfortable nights in the open and on the run, but is finally holed up in a kind of impasse by his chief persecutor.
A deal is proposed; he declines. After some days of debate – the enemy not killing him because they want him to sign a confession incriminating Great Britain – he makes a near miraculous escape, gets abroad, and changes his identity. Then, in the final pages, we learn that he is planning another attempt on the life of the dictator he so narrowly missed the first time – and finally we learn why.
The book is fun, especially if you know this part of Dorset. However, it’s pretty silly, and the plot has enough holes in it to make a colander. It is also infused with this “jolly good show, old chap” ethos which I find both irritating and already out of date – he is in a sordid life and death chase, after all, and neither side will stick at anything. But it is lively, moves fast, and is a rattling good yarn. Boys, men of a certain mental outlook, and those looking for two or three hours’ escape, will enjoy this, but I cannot imagine it will have many female readers.