The Prisoner in the OpalSeptember 13, 2011
Some authors have only one great book in them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also write a lot of other books. I think of A.E.W. Mason as one of those. The Four Feathers is a masterpiece. It’s the only proper adventure novel I can think of that is also successfully introspective and, you know, intelligent, and…”if you want any whiskey, stamp twice on the floor with your foot; the servants understand.”
But anyway. I adore The Four Feathers, but I’m never quite sure whether it’s my favorite A.E.W. Mason book, because there’s also The Prisoner in the Opal. And The Prisoner in the Opal is indisputably one of the ‘other books,’ but I love it.
I think Mason’s detective, Inspector Hanaud of the Surete, is as direct a predecessor of Hercule Poirot as you’re going to find anywhere — he’s tremendously full of himself, he uses psychology to solve crimes, and his behavior seems calculated to offend the English people with whom he comes into contact. He first appears in At the Villa Rose, in 1910. It’s not so great. I haven’t read any of the other Hanaud books, but I have high hopes for the one titled They Wouldn’t be Chessmen.
So, there’s Hanaud. He’s moderately entertaining. But The Prisoner in the Opal isn’t really Hanaud’s book — it’s Julius Ricardo’s. Mr. Ricardo is Hanaud’s English friend who serves as our introduction to the Great Detective, and whose job is mostly to ask leading questions so Hanaud can display his genius more easily. But Mr. Ricardo doesn’t fade into the background the way most of those sorts of characters do. Mr. Ricardo gets to be the main character. And he’s not very bright, and he’s pretty full of himself, and he’s peevish and thoughtless, but he’s also a vivid, fully realized character. Lately I’ve been noticing that a lot of authors think that making fun of characters is the same thing as writing funny characters. It’s part of the reason I had so much trouble with Myrtle Reed, and it’s the reason I hate almost every comedy show on television. A.E.W. Mason skates pretty close to the line, but he’s got enough affection for Mr. Ricardo that he’s almost always on the right side of it.
Mostly, though, it’s the delightfully silly mystery that keeps me coming back.
The story begins when Mr. Ricardo encounters Joyce Whipple (“a name as pretty as herself”) at a party. She knows he’s planning to go to Bordeaux, and she wants him to stay with their mutual friend Diana Tasborough. Joyce is worried about her because when she reads Diana’s letters, she sees drowned faces sloshing around under the text. And you should be very impressed by A.E.W. Mason, because I’ve had this book for years and I’ve read it at least five times and it’s only just occured to me that the person one should really worry about when one hears that is Joyce, not Diana.
So Mr. Ricardo goes to Château Suvlac and finds Diana oddly distracted, her friend Evelyn Devenish kind of scary, her vineyard manager Robin Webster oddly precise in his speech, and Joyce, unexpectedly, present. Then someone turns up dead, and Hanaud shows up and finds all kind of things that are unutterably beautiful and sad and also indefinably evil.That’s one of my favorite bits, actually–where they find this mask with purple lips and it’s unutterably beautiful and sad and indefinably evil and one of the policemen puts it on and creeps everyone out, and then afterwards everyone keeps sneaking looks at him to make sure he’s not some kind of mysteriously evil being that was revealed to them by the mask. It’s pretty hilarious.
The whole thing is kind of silly, but there are occasional flashes of insight to remind you that yes, this is the guy who wrote The Four Feathers, and he’s kind of brilliant. My favorite part — other than the business with the mask, and Mr. Ricardo’s visit to the “extra special supermummy” — is this quote from towards the end, when Hanaud shows Ricardo some letters that the murder victim wrote:
“Whenever I have finished a letter to you, I begin another. I notice all the little things that happen, and sift them out into things which may amuse you, and things which won’t. And every little thing which will, I write down at once, whether it is a book I am reading or some queer-looking stranger who comes into the restaurant, or some funny story, so that in two days I have a great long letter written to you. And all your begin ‘Darling, since the post is going out in half an hour I am writing a line to you in haste’…”
It’s so economical. It works as a letter, and it works as a description of all the letters; it makes clear the relationship between the two characters and it humanizes the letter-writer. And also it’s pretty poignant.
I really do think Mason only had the one great novel in him, and this isn’t it. But he was a pretty good writer a lot of the time, and I don’t think it’s just my affection for this book that makes me think it’s worthwhile.
The Prisoner in the Opal was published in 1928, so it’s not as freely available as one might wish. But you can preview it at Google Books, and if your country’s copyright laws allow, you can legally download it at Project Gutenberg Australia.