The Czar's Spy by William Le Queux is a novel of personal cussedness versus political intrigue. It begins with the putative owners of a luxury yacht getting into a fix in Leghorn, Italy. (A foghorn was not involved, nor were any chickens harmed.) They are so grateful for the locals' help that they ask Our Hero and Narrator, writer Gordon Gregg, famous for writing novels in shorthand for speed-readers, to help them write a thank-you note in Italian. Gregg is filling in for the real British Vice-Consul of Leghorn, so while he is being entertained aboard the yacht, someone decides to raid the consular office. Hard luck: he has already drunk the good booze and smoked the best cigars. Still, they ransack the place.
Gregg, meanwhile, has encountered aboard the yacht the hastily shredded photo of a Mysterious and Beautiful Woman, whose visage (when he reassembles the picture) immediately burns itself on his brain for keeps. This proves handy later on.
Mystery follows mystery in a frankly infuriating fashion. Gordon becomes more or less used to two phenomena: people trying to kill him and people telling him that he is at the edge of an Amazing Mystery, and they could sure give him an earful if only they dared. The killers are more fun. I found myself fantasizing about a more satisfying response to one of these mystery-mongers:
Mystery-Monger: If you could only penetrate the mystery of this matter, you would find that you had uncovered a plot beyond the dreams of the National Enquirer! Of course, I have Important Secret Information that I'm not about to divulge, though I'll sure rabbit on about how much I know.
Gordon Gregg: Fair enough. Then I shall thrash you until you tell me whatever you do know. That shouldn't take long.
MM: But I'm a lady!
GG: Righto! The thrashing shouldn't take long, either, then.
It's pretty much a cheat anyway: most of them don't really know that much, and the only one who knows it all, a lady with an unforgettable face, has been the subject of a fiendish experiment to transform her into a mime. Gordon Gregg gallivants all over in search of the truth, or failing that, a hot date: England, Scotland, Finland, Russia--in palaces and dungeons, meeting the Arch Anarchist, the Strangler of Finland (not to be confused with the Wedgie King of France), and The Face.
Anyway--self-importance aside, it's not a bad yarn, though I found it odd that a couple of lethal devices seemed like practical jokes gone wrong. Still, the suspense and mystery aren't bad, especially when a dead man turns up alive and the narrator gets to fight his way out of a Finnish Bastille and bluff his way out of certain death.
The Czar's Spy is available as a free e-book and as a free audiobook.
1 year ago