The Island MysteryMarch 26, 2011
Mark recommended The Island Mystery, by George A. Birmingham, as a silly, fun book. And to be honest, that kind of made me nervous. I feel like I haven’t had a great track record with silly, fun books lately. I’ve been finding them silly, but not all that fun.
The Island Mystery was a little different. I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about it or anything, but I liked it a lot better at the beginning than I did at the end, and I don’t think there’s anything about it that I’d want to change, except maybe the title, which is kind of lame and would work much better on a different book. Possible one featuring the Boxcar Children.
You know all those Ruritanian romances where the author makes up a small monarchy and plunks it down somewhere in the middle of Europe so that the hero can go have adventures there? The Island Mystery is a tiny bit like that, but really it’s about what would happen if you did plunk an imaginary country down in the middle of Europe. Because, if you think about it, the surrounding nations might be a bit upset by that, not to mention confused.
Megalia is kind of a silly country, even for a fake one. It has no particular natural resources, it’s not pretty, and its history consists mostly of a succession of kings being assassinated. Megalia’s latest king, Konrad Karl, has been put on the throne mostly so Emperor Wilhelm can get him out of the way, but Konrad Karl doesn’t like Megalia very much, so he doesn’t spend any more time there than he can help. Instead he gallivants around Europe with his lady friend, Madame Corinne Ypsilante. The thing is, Megalia doesn’t produce…well, anything, really, so Konrad Karl is perpetually short of cash. And Madame Ypsilante is a lady of expensive tastes.
His friend Gorman, an Irish MP, offers a solution in the form of William Donovan, an American millionaire, and his daughter Daisy, who would like to be the queen of something. She’s not particularly snobby or obsessed with royalty or anything — she just thinks it would be pretty cool to be a queen, and she seems to be eager to try out all the theories of government she learned about in college. Konrad Karl is a bit worried about what the emperor would think if he sold Megalia — he’s pretty worried about what the emperor will think about everything, actually — but he figures that if he sells just a tiny bit of Megalia, like the island of Salissa — population forty-something — the emperor might not notice. And he wouldn’t, probably, only it’s 1914, and the Emperor has kind of been setting up Salissa as a filling station for his submarines.
The plot is pretty obvious — I always knew what the next couple of developments were going to be — but that didn’t really bother me, because a) it was a fun plot, and b) Birmingham never tried to make a big thing out of the (nonexistent) suspense. In fact, Birmingham knowing how not to overreach might be the secret of the book’s success. There’s no hero, which means no one has to be perfect — something that tends to drag characters down. Daisy is smart about some things and silly about others, and that’s fine. Gorman is sort of pleasantly unburdened by scruples. Konrad Karl cheerfully admits to anyone who will listen that he’s a blackguard. They are what they are, and their flaws aren’t just flaws: they’re character traits.
My favorite character, I think, was Mr. Donovan. He’s one of those down-to-earth midwestern millionaire types, and he’s been diagnosed with a heart problem and told not to strain himself. And I expected that he would find, as all characters like that do, that he craves the excitement of big business, and that trying to relax would put a strain on his health, and that he wouldn’t measure up to Mr. Ellins from the Torchy books (because they never do). But no, Mr. Donovan is happy to relax and drink cocktails and use his heart problem as an excuse not do deal with stuff (and, to be fair, that’s why he invented it). And then it turns out that, when the situation calls for it, he totally kicks ass. And then he goes back to drinking cocktails. When you add in the fact that he can easily afford to buy an island in the Mediterranean, I kind of want him to be my new best friend. Honorable mentions go to Kalliope, Daisy’s totally uncivilized and extremely friendly maid, and Smith, secret agent extraordinaire.
There’s also no real villain. The worst injury in the book is sustained by a German sailor who has three of his teeth knocked out by Kalliope. At one point the Donovan/Gorman/Konrad Karl contingent takes a German naval officer prisoner, and they’re kind of sorry to hear that he doesn’t want to have dinner with them (everyone who shows up on the island is invited to dinner. It’s adorable). And Smith, the guy who seems set up from the beginning to be the most sinister of the Emperor’s agents, settles in very nicely as the Donovans’ butler, cook and cocktail-mixer, as well as turning out to be practically as cool as Mr. Donovan. And, while there are two couples, there’s no real romance either, and that’s really nice. Birmingham describes both the relationship between Daisy and her young swain and Konrad Karl’s tempestuous affair with Corinne with a sort of condescending affection that’s incredibly refreshing after a string of books full of goopy romance.
I think I would have liked The Island Mystery better if I’d had a better idea of what it was going to be like before I read it, because, as usual, my expectations messed things up for me a bit. But, while I didn’t love the book, there were lots of things in it that I did. And my fears about not being able to enjoy silly fun anymore were totally unfounded.