Thursday 16 June 2016

The Prisoner in the Opal

The Prisoner in the Opal is a 1928 mystery by AEW Mason, part of a series starring Inspector Hanaud of the Surété and his friend, retired City man Mr Ricardo.

Ricardo attends a dinner party to find that a young American friend, Joyce Whipple, is among those present. After dinner, she beckons him to sit beside her. She confides that she is worried about an acquaintance, Diana Tasborough, who is staying in the South of France at the family chateau. Joyce knows that Mr Ricardo will spend the summer nearby as he always goes on a tour of the vineyards to avoid being invited to go grouse shooting. (Apparently the entire British upper class spent their summers shooting grouse. Surely in 1928 they had discovered swimming and sunbathing?)

Joyce says that Diana's letters worry her. And besides, why is she not shooting birds like a sensible person? ("Diana fished a river in Scotland and hunted in the Midlands... Deauville and Dinard had known them.") Joyce has nothing to go on – she just says that when she looks at the letters she sees horribly grimacing visages. And Diana has chucked her fiancé.

Mr Ricardo sets off to the South of France, where he has an invite to stay from the Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol. He sits in his hotel room trying to intuit whether Diana is really in any trouble and opens his eyes to find his friend Inspector Hanaud in the room. I have to say I find Hanaud an utter bore. He is, like Poirot, a stage foreigner who gets English idioms wrong. ("We must gum ourselves to our cannons!") Such characters must have been popular – on the stage, perhaps? In Mason's hands, the humour is leaden and you wish that Hanaud would just get on with solving the mystery.

Except that there is no mystery - yet. Mr Ricardo receives a letter from Diana Tasborough explaining that the Vicomte is unable to accommodate him, and would he be so kind as to come and stay with her instead? He accepts.

At the chateau, he meets Diana and her aunt; another guest, Evelyn Devenish; the local priest; and the estate's manager, Robin Webster - a striking man with prematurely white hair. Among those present is the Vicomte: "A heavy, gross man with a rubicund childish face... a mouth much too small for him... a high, piping voice." He also finds Joyce Whipple – she hasn't gone home to the States as intended.

The evening and night become more and more bizarre. Everybody seems on edge, and inimical glances and cryptic remarks are exchanged. Mason describes the scene as if on the stage – there's more emoting and exclaiming than actual dialogue. In fact, there is a sad lack of ordinary dialogue: the characters move about and occupy their time without the usual chat. They communicate with gasps, groans, ohs and ahs and significant looks – which are then deconstructed. The proceedings seem wooden and uninvolving. (You can have too much "Show don't tell".)

The party disperses, but Mr Ricardo can't sleep. He goes down to look for a book and several other guests seem to be creeping about in the dark. Meanwhile the Vicomte's house across the river shows brightly lit windows at 2am.

Next morning, Evelyn and Joyce still haven't appeared at lunchtime. Their beds have not been slept in. Then Inspector Hanaud arrives with some disturbing news, and he and Mr Ricardo (who has a useful Rolls plus chauffeur) set off to look for the missing girls.

As the investigation proceeds, several of the characters turn out to have recent, mysterious hand injuries. And why is the Vicomte painting his own garden door – and library? Large, obvious signposts point to Satanic rites, with the nobleman as the head of the coven, but revelations of the diabolic goings-on are held just out of reach. Hanaud bumbles about, always concealing his intentions from his Watson, Mr Ricardo.

The Vicomte, apart from being a dead ringer for Aleister Crowley, has very little personality and is not brought on stage often enough. Mr R could be an attractive character, but we discover too little about him. He doesn't have his own narrative voice. In fact everybody speaks as if they were painstakingly translating themselves from French. The action is of a Henry James slowness. There is very little genuine humour. There are dramatic scenes, but they are oddly unvivid – that is, when they don't happen off-stage. "He heard a heavy door slam and felt it shake the house. He saw Hanaud leap." Why not: "The slam of a heavy door shook the house – Hanaud leapt"?

Eventually we get the spicy details of the society Satanists (popular in books since the real-life goings on of Aleister Crowley and friends in the early 20th century). Yes, yes, yes, just as we suspected.

Why "The Prisoner in the Opal"? It refers to Mr Ricardo's Blavatskyan world-view that we are in the opal of mundane reality, but that sometimes it cracks and intimations reach us from the realm beyond the veil – or something. This book may be clunky and laborious, and written with a knife and fork, but I am tempted to read an early novel in which Mason pokes fun at the Spiritualists of his day.

There is plenty of the snobbery that Golden Age mystery writers are frequently accused of, but no racism. There are some nasty remarks, though, about the captain of a boat that plays a part in the plot. "He had his full share of the peasant's compassion for himself... not only the self-pity of his kind but its avarice too."

Crowley's sadly short-lived eldest daughter was called Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith. Lola Zaza and Astarte Lulu Panthea made it into their 80s (Astarte called herself Louise, had many colourfully named children, and became a naturalist). Alexandra David-Neel, pictured, is also worth looking up.

More mystery here.

And here.


  1. Well - so much to get my hopes up (including that fab picture) but then a lot to criticize. Can't decide if it's worth the effort - can you adjudicate?

  2. Read Alexandra David Neel's book about Tibet instead. She's there because she studied with the Blavatskyites as a teenager.