Sunday, September 07, 2014


Front Cover

 by Fred Bloseer

Philip MacDonald is justly acclaimed for THE RASP and other novels from the pre-World War II Golden Age of detective fiction.  Outside the mystery genre, PATROL (published in the U.K. in 1927, American edition following in 1928) was equally popular in its day, but probably little read now.  While the details of the story firmly place it in the realm of historical fiction for today’s readers, its geopolitical underpinnings still resonate with the catastrophic events in the Middle East that unfold daily on the TV and web news outlets. 

“A romance of the desert.”   So says the blurb on the dust jacket of the U.S. First Edition from Harper & Brothers.  I wonder how many unwary readers in the 1920s, on the strength of that description, expected to plunge into an exotic, Boy’s Own adventure story along the lines of THE FOUR FEATHERS and BEAU GESTE?  If any there were, they must have been startled to encounter, instead, a stark, unremittingly downbeat suspense novel about a doomed British cavalry patrol in the hostile Mesopotamian desert during World War I.  

Now, the area is called Iraq.  Then, it was part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, a battleground where the British Army fought the Turkish allies of Germany, with raiders from hostile Arab tribes hovering to pick off outriders and stragglers for loot and sport.  MacDonald himself served in that theater, in a war where tanks and jeeps had not yet made mounted reconnaissance obsolete, so the novel has the gritty air of authenticity.

MacDonald sets an immediate mood of danger and disquiet.  An Arab sniper has just shot dead the lieutenant commanding the 10-man cavalry patrol.  The troopers gather around the body, less distressed by the officer’s death (“Muriel’s got his,” one of them says dismissively) than by the dilemma in which the death leaves them.

Command of the troop falls to the Sergeant (no name given).  The lieutenant knew the purpose of their patrol, and where they would rejoin their main detachment, but no one else was privy to the orders.  “I know the Brigade was movin’ yesterday after we left ‘em,” the Sergeant muses.  “I know we were to join ‘em.  But I don’t know which way they were goin’, or where we were to strike up with ‘em.”

Lost and isolated, stalked by the unseen enemy, the patrol holes up in an oasis as the Sergeant puzzles what to do next.  A green recruit, Pearson, assigned sentry duty, is knifed to death during the night, and all the horses are stolen.  Tempers flare under stress, and the soldiers fight among themselves.  The Sergeant dispatches two of the men to cross the desert as best they can and bring help.  Another trooper becomes increasingly unhinged with religious mania.  One by one, the soldiers are picked off by the lurking enemy.

MacDonald relates the story in brittle, clipped sentences that have the terse style of an unadorned military report.  Death strikes suddenly and brutally.  The soldiers have disparate backgrounds -- Cockney, Irish, Jewish, and so on -- and the growing tension mostly divides them further rather than bringing them closer together in their common predicament.  There’s a fair amount of talk about women and sex.  One of the troopers remembers the prostitutes in the red-light district of one of his past billets, Bombay:    “[T]hat first one, she was Kelly’s Eye . . . All the time I kept thinkin’: bloody queer to find ‘er there . . .didn’t seem to fit like . . . Funny colour she was, too: sorta cross between coffee and lemon.  Young, too! in Blighty you’d have put ‘er down as eighteen . . . s’pose she was on’y about fourteen reely,”

As that quote suggests, MacDonald writes the characters’ dialogue mostly in phonetic dialect, a common style then.  The soldiers also slather their sentences with the British slang of the day, and with Arabic and Hindi words.  Sometimes, MacDonald represents an obscene word with a string of dashes.  All of this is not as daunting as it may seem.  MacDonald provides a handy glossary at the end of the book, and once you get into the rhythm of the dialect, the sentences flow along relatively easily.

Under the lingo and patois, the dialogue has a modern bluntness.  I was reminded of the sharp, cynical dialogue by today’s premiere war novelist, Derek Robinson (GOSHAWK SQUADRON, PIECE OF CAKE), in an exchange between the jaded sophisticate Brown and the religious zealot Sanders:

“ ‘Brown,’ said Sanders at last: his voice was controlled now; low and urgent.  ‘Brown, have you ever heard of Christ?’

“ ‘Christ? Oh yes,’ Brown said.  ‘Name’s often mentioned.’  He lay once more upon his belly  and was elaborating his design in the earth.

“ ‘Brown,’ said the low, almost choking voice, ‘He was the Son of God.’

“ ‘Not necessarily,’ said Brown.  ‘Most improbable.’ ”

There were two movie versions.  The second, released in 1934, was titled THE LOST PATROL, directed by John Ford, with Victor McLaglen as the Sergeant, Reginald Denny as Brown, Boris Karloff as Sanders, Douglas Walton as Pearson, and the cast rounded out by Wallace Ford, Alan Hale Sr., Billy Bevan, and other 1930s character actors.  The casting is good but Ford never fully captures the abrasive tension between the characters that MacDonald described.  No one talks about relations with fourteen-year-old prostitutes.  Come to think of it, that line probably wouldn’t pass today’s censors either.  

No comments: