The Lone WolfJuly 23, 2010
I was predisposed to like Louis Joseph Vance because he was found dead in his apartment in December 1933, burnt to a crisp from the waist up. Apparently there were suspicions that he’d just…gone up in flames one day, and spontaneous human combustion is, like, my favorite thing. Or, at least, I find the idea of it pretty entertaining.
But I think I would like Louis Vance even if he hadn’t spontaneously combusted. The Lone Wolf is the first book in a series about a gentleman burglar type, and while it wasn’t quite what I’d expected, I very much liked what it turned out to be instead.
Apparently Michael Lanyard, AKA the Lone Wolf, is considered a precursor to Leslie Charteris’ Saint, Simon Templar. If the resemblance is a strong one, a lot must change in the later Lone Wolf books. Simon Templar generally seems like an adult; Michael Lanyard barely ever does.
At the age of four or five, Lanyard is brought to Troyon’s, a Parisian inn, and left in the care of Madame Troyon, very much the wicked stepmother type. Marcel, as he is known (he’s given the name of Lanyard much later), acquires some of his cat-burglary skills in avoiding her. He also reads voraciously, prowls the streets of Paris at night, and steals from the guests at Troyon’s, one of whom, an Irishman named Bourke, turns out to be a famous thief. Bourke takes Marcel to America and makes him his apprentice.
The story picks up again about ten years later. Bourke is dead, and Lanyard is a successful burglar known as the Lone Wolf. He returns to Paris after two thefts in England and finds that his identity has been discovered by a sort of extremely violent international crime syndicate headed by a consumptive American named Bannon. They’d like to make Lanyard join forces with them, but he really doesn’t want to, so apparently they decide to kill him instead.
It’s kind of a mess, this book. And I think I like it better that way than I would if it wasn’t.
Take Lanyard, for instance. He doesn’t really know who he is, he grows up spending half his time as a servant and the other half as a petty thief, and his mentor’s main piece of advice to him is never to make friends or fall in love.
I think Vance means for this to have made him cool and hard and distrustful. And it sort of has, but Lanyard mostly just reads like someone who doesn’t really know how to have feelings like a normal person, but tries really hard anyway. His attempts to give up crime, too, make him seem like someone who doesn’t have much of a moral compass trying to pretend that he does. And I don’t think Vance intended that, but it kind of works, and makes a fairly flat and unconvincing romance storyline into an intriguing piece of characterization. Also sometimes Lanyard becomes irrationally angry about stuff that doesn’t seem terribly important. I like to think he’s sort of unhinged.
And then there’s the plot. It kind of feels hastily patched together, and as if Vance didn’t know himself how things were going to turn out. Does Lanyard have a moment’s respite from being chased? Let’s set something on fire and have one of the villains toss a newspaper through a skylight in order to let him know about it. And hey, we haven’t really gotten acquainted with this Wertheimer guy yet; let’s promote him to be Bannon’s second in command. Also, let’s make him thoroughly delightful. And then let’s bring some airplanes into the story — that’ll be fun.
It’s all very haphazard,and threads of the plot are constantly being abandoned, which sort of makes it more exciting, because you never know what’s going to happen next, or if what’s already happened has any relevance at all. Usually in adventure novels, everything is telegraphed well in advance, but not here — Vance is apparently not a big fan of foreshadowing. Add that works both ways — I kept thinking Vance was going to explain who Lanyard really was, or why Bannon hated him so much, but he never did.
I love it when books are simultaneously pretty good and kind of terrible. I would have liked more information and more structure, but if I’d had them, I probably wouldn’t feel as if I’d just been on a wild adventure through the streets of Paris myself. I do genuinely wish, though, that Bannon had spontaneously combusted.