This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In the Spirit of Dornford Yates

            It took my sister, Susan, to remind me that although my mystery-thriller, The McHenry Inheritance, carries an inscription that it is written “In the spirit of Dornford Yates,” I have yet to write about him. Susan wanted to know who he was, so here goes.
            The literary critic Cyril Connolly once wrote, “Sometimes, at great garden parties, literary luncheons, or in the quiet of an exclusive gunroom, a laugh rings out. The sad, formal faces for a moment relax and a smaller group is formed within the larger. They are the admirers of Dornford Yates, who have found out each other. We are badly organized, we know little about ourselves and next to nothing about our hero, but we appreciate fine writing when we come across it, and a wit that is ageless, united to a courtesy that is extinct.”
            Dornford Yates was the pen name of Cecil William Mercer (1885-1960), a British lawyer, who took it from the birth surnames of his two grandmothers. In his twenties and thirties he wrote a series of high-society romance-comedies that were well received. After two decades of that, his writing took an abrupt turn.

Taking a Nap in the Wrong Place

            In 1927 he wrote his first thriller, Blind Corner. It begins with young Richard Chandos, headed back to England after a stay in Biarritz, pulling off the road for lunch, taking a nap, and waking up to witness a murder. The dying man asks Chandos to take his Alsatian dog, and in the dog’s collar is the secret to a treasure concealed near an Austrian castle.
            Chandos, along with his friends George Hanbury and Jonah Mansel, decide to follow the lead from the dog collar. In doing so, after considerable running about in the Austrian countryside, they encounter the murderer of the dog’s owner and a vicious gang, led by a man with an unusual name, intent on claiming the treasure for itself. As the book’s dust jacket says, “What started out as a high-spirited jaunt (turns) into a desperate battle for survival.”
            I dedicated my book to the spirit of Yates because it features a well-heeled young man on a holiday who stumbles across a murder, encounters a menacing gang, led by a man with an unusual name, and does a considerable amount of running around in the High Sierra countryside. I wouldn’t push the similarity any farther than that, other than to say that there is a literary tradition within the mystery/suspense genre on which my book draws.

She Fell Among Thieves

            My discovery of Yates occurred at a bookstore in London in March 1990. At the time he was out of print in America, but Perennial Books subsequently reissued a few of his titles here. His thrillers, as well as some of his comedy-romances are available on Amazon and Kindle.
            If you’re inclined to give him a try, my recommendation would be to start with She Fell Among Thieves. It has his best villain, a diabolical woman named Vanity Fair, a great story, and lush descriptions of the French Pyrenees (where Yates lived for a number of years) that will make you want to whip out your iPhone and book a flight.
            A word of caution if you go that route (reading Yates, not traveling to the Pyrenees): His politics are a bit, how shall we say this, reactionary, and some of the social attitudes are cringingly out of date. Those things are a small part of his books and, in my view, a small price to pay for the good stories and good writing they deliver.