Sunday, October 21, 2012

Still on the Trail of Valentine Williams

Chevalier, Order of the Crown of Belgium










In our previous post, we not only took a look at a gallery of Clubfoot covers, but also read a brief bio of mystery author and Clubfoot progenitor Valentine Williams.

That biography read:

WILLIAMS, (George) Valentine. Also wrote as Douglas Valentine. British. Born 20 October 1883. Educated at Downside School; studied in Germany. Served as a Lieutenant in the Irish Guards, 1915: Military Cross (twice wounded); with the Guards Division Staff, London, 1918-19; did confidential work for the Foreign Office, London, 1939-41, and at British Embassy, Washington, D.C., 1941-42; Member of the Political Warfare Department, Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, 1942-45; Married Alice Crawford; Sub-Editor, 1902-03, and Berlin Correspondent, Reuter's news agency 1904-09,; Journalist for the Daily Mail, London, from 1909, Paris Correspondent, 1909-13, Special Correspondent during Portuguese Revolution, 1910, reported Balkan War, 1913; First accredited correspondent to British General Headquarters, 1915; In charge of staff, Versailles Peace Conference. 1919; later Foreign Editor; free-lance journalist in North Africa and United States during 1930s; Chevalier, Order of the Crown of Belgium, 1940. Died 20 November 1946.

This biographical sketch is a bit all-over-the-place chronologically, but it does shed some light on previously discovered and questionable information.

First edition dust jacket, 1938.
The French language Wikipedia site contains an entry for Williams (under Valentin Williams), which states this: During World War II, under the guise of professional reporter, Williams accepts espionage missions on behalf of the Foreign Office and in 1942, he joined the ranks of the Political Warfare Executive until the end of the conflict.

We already know that Williams was a member of the PWE early in the war, which is listed as him having dome "confidential work for the Foreign Office" from 1939 to 1941, during which time he was awarded the title Chevalier of the Order of the Crown of Belgium [pictured above, left].

He then was apparently assigned to Washington, D.C., as the United States entered the war, spending 1941-1942 in North America.  Williams then returned to Britain and spent the duration of the war back at Woburn Abbey with the PWE.

It still seems that "confidential work" and "espionage missions" would not be exactly synonymous in the case of Williams, a German-speaking reporter and author who had written about imaginary espionage carried out on behalf of the Crown two decades before.  Could it be that the French version is is simply a mistranslation from the English language biography from detective-fiction.com?  We don't know—it isn't cited as a reference, and the references cited don't contain any information similar to that.

Williams is the author of an autobiography entitled The World of Action.  The text was published, however, in 1938 and can shed no light on the activities of Williams during the war.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Clubfoot Gallery

London: Hodder & Stoughton, September 1936
   [A Clubfoot Omnibus]


The Man with the Club Foot, 1918 (as Douglas Valentine)






















The Return of Clubfoot, 1922






















Clubfoot the Avenger, 1924
























The Crouching Beast: A Clubfoot Story, 1928


The Gold Comfit Box: A Clubfoot Story, 1932























The Spider's Touch, 1936





















Courier to Marrakesh, 1944


Brief Biography (found at http://www.detective-fiction.com/valentine-williams.htm)

WILLIAMS, (George) Valentine. Also wrote as Douglas Valentine. British. Born 20 October 1883. Educated at Downside School; studied in Germany. Served as a Lieutenant in the Irish Guards, 1915: Military Cross (twice wounded); with the Guards Division Staff, London, 1918-19; did confidential work for the Foreign Office, London, 1939-41, and at British Embassy, Washington, D.C., 1941-42; Member of the Political Warfare Department, Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, 1942-45; Married Alice Crawford; Sub-Editor, 1902-03, and Berlin Correspondent, Reuter's news agency 1904-09,; Journalist for the Daily Mail, London, from 1909, Paris Correspondent, 1909-13, Special Correspondent during Portuguese Revolution, 1910, reported Balkan War, 1913; First accredited correspondent to British General Headquarters, 1915; In charge of staff, Versailles Peace Conference. 1919; later Foreign Editor; free-lance journalist in North Africa and United States during 1930s; Chevalier, Order of the Crown of Belgium, 1940. Died 20 November 1946. 
 
 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

"In an arm-chair a big man in an overcoat was sitting. He had a heavy square face and a clubfoot" — Desmond Okewood







Having examined the credentials (such as they are) of author Valentine Williams as an agent of espionage himself, we move on to somewhat of an oddity in his fiction, I should think.

Williams's most historically noteworthy character, it seems, is Dr. Adolph Grundt, more popularly known as "Clubfoot."  Clubfoot debuted in 1918 in Williams's novel The Man with the Clubfoot, and perhaps surprisingly is the antagonist in this tale of espionage and duplicitous dealings encountered by the Okewood brothers, Desmond and Francis, during the First World War.

While Desmond Okewood recurred in fiction by Williams, it was Clubfoot, who apparently had been shot to death at close range by Francis in the final chapters of The Man with the Clubfoot (this after having been clubbed violently and left for dead earlier in the novel by Desmond) who arose to dominate the public's interest.  In our last post, even real-life notorious double agent Kim Philby recalled wishing he could have questioned Williams about Clubfoot during the pair's brief and unfortunately somnolent uneventful time together.

Clubfoot appeared in what seems to have been at least six more novels by Valentine Williams:
The Return of Clubfoot (1922), Clubfoot the Avenger (1924), The Crouching Beast (1928), The Gold Comfit Box (1932), The Spider's Touch (1936), and Courier to Marrakesh (1944).

Adolph Grundt seemed to capture the imagination of filmmakers as well.  The yarn The Crouching Beast, starring Wynne Gibson and Fritz Kortner and directed by Victor Hanbury, was released as a motion picture in the UK on 29 August 1935, and in the US on 21 August 1936.  (Interestingly, however, there is no character named "Clubfoot" or "Adolph Grundt" in the screenplay by Lawrence du Garde Peach, yet that character's name is, indeed, on the movie poster!)

The best physical manifestation of Clubfoot, a man festooned with gold teeth, comes from Desmond Okewood himself, upon their first meeting in 1918:

This man [Grundt] was beginning to interest me. His rapid change of moods was fascinating, now the kindly philosopher, now the Teuton braggart, now the Hun incorporate. As he limped across the room to fetch his cigar case from the mantelpiece, I studied him.


He was a vast man, not so much by reason of his height, which was below the medium, but his bulk, which was enormous. The span of his shoulders was immense, and, though a heavy paunch and a white flabbiness of face spoke of a gross, sedentary life, he was obviously a man of quite unusual strength. His arms particularly were out of all proportion to his stature, being so long that his hands hung down on either side of him when he stood erect, like the paws of some giant ape. Altogether, there was something decidedly simian about his appearance his squat nose with hairy, open nostrils, and the general hirsuteness of the man, his bushy eyebrows, the tufts of black hair on his cheekbones and on the backs of his big, spade like hands. And there was that in his eyes, dark and courageous beneath the shaggy brows, that hinted at accesses of ape-like fury, uncontrollable and ferocious.

This description does make Clubfoot an unlikely character to have been played by a leading man of cinema of the era (except, perhaps, save Charles Laughton), and we can see his image has even been sanitized on the poster at right.  Yet he's a wonderfully colourful character to be painted in one's mind's eye!  No wonder this oddly eccentric and delightfully paradoxical devil captured the imagination of readers.

Do you know more about Clubfoot?  Please don't hesitate to let me know—and thanks!



Saturday, September 22, 2012

"I hate newspapermen... I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are" — William Tecumseh Sherman

British hardback first edition, 1968.













Here's an interesting snippet from the 1968 book, My Silent War: The Autobiography of a Spy, by former war correspondent Harold "Kim" Philby, a Cold War double-agent known as one of the "Cambridge Spies":


As often as possible I visited Woburn Abbey, where [Reginald 'Rex'] Leeper presided languidly over the black propaganda people in PWE [in 1940]...  Woburn had been stormed by the advertisers.  Outside Leeper's own sanctum, the place sounded like a branch of J. Walter Thompson.  There were exceptions, of course: Dick Crossman, Con O'Neill, Sefton Delmer, and Valentine Williams.  But the majoroity, so it seemed, had just the sort of expertise I stood most in need of.

Harold "Kim" Philby, arguably history's most notorious double agent.
At first I was treated with some reserve.  Like all departments, especially new ones, Woburn was on the lookout for trespassers.  But they soon realized my interest in getting to know them was sincere, and that I was more than ready to accept advice.  It was clear that secret agents in Europe would engage in propaganda, whether we wanted it or not.  That being the case, it was a good policy for Woburn, as the authority responsible for black propaganda, to get a foot in the door in the shape of a cooperative instructor.  After a few visits I qualified for lunch with Leeper.  Valentine Williams, who was present, offered to drive me back to London in his official Rolls-Royce.I would have liked to talk to him about Clubfoot.  But we had lunched well and he slept all the way.


As we know, the PWE [Political Warfare Executive] shaped and disseminated black propaganda during the Second World War.  According to Philby's book, the PWE had been merged with the Foreign Office's Electra House and SOI of D-Department, so this alphabet soup of a department really was a conglomeration of people and skills.

[Off topic, we also discover that while the general population of Great Britain was rationing and growing Victory Gardens, these guys were cruising around in their official Rolls-Royce's on the Crown's tab and devouring somniferously-sized luncheons while 'on the clock.']

Valentine Williams in an image from his 1938 autobiography.
Now, we know that the French Wikipédia site claims of mystery author Valentine Williams [left]: "During World War II, under the guise of [a] professional reporter, Williams accepted espionage missions on behalf of the Foreign Office and in 1942, he joined the ranks of the Political Warfare Executive until the end of the conflict." (Translation by Google Translate)

The above autobiography would seem to let the air out of the proverbial balloon regarding Williams having spent the early part of the war engaged in missions of espionage.  It seems that as early as 1940, Williams was already ensconced well enough into the PWE to have his own chauffeur-driven Rolls shuttling him back and forth to their luncheons.

By 1940 British troops were being evacuated at Dunkirk, and operations like the PWE were busy spinning the evacuation as an heroic and inspirational undertaking, not an ignominious defeat.  Williams, far from executing orders during forays of espionage in blitzkrieg-ridden Europe in the early years of the conflict, was likely at a desk at Woburn with a secretary, helping to re-write and contextualize the events at Dunkirk.

Williams, approximately 57 years of age in 1940, well-bred and well-mannered, rudely falls into a nap with a guest in his limousine after dining.  That's just not something that would be done, and Williams, snoring away, disappears from Philby's texta sleepily self-important, yet here quite unimportant, part of the story of World War II.

Was one-time journalist and war correspondent Valentine Williams, a mystery and adventure writer of the early 20th century's Golden Age of Detective Fiction, a spy during WWII?

Sadly, he appears to have been simply a tired old man, albeit experienced as a war journalist years before, living a comfortable and undoubtedly interesting life on the public dole during the era of his country's greatest challenge.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Valentine Williams: Spy?

Williams from the cover of his book The Eye in Attendance














Following up on our previous posting on Golden Age of Detective Fiction author Valentine Williams, a question remains: Is there evidence that Williams himself engaged in espionage?
We read an excerpt from the French Wikipédia article on Williams stating: "During World War II, under the guise of [a] professional reporter, Williams accepted espionage missions on behalf of the Foreign Office and in 1942, he joined the ranks of the Political Warfare Executive until the end of the conflict." (Translation by Google Translate)

References are not all that difficult to find regarding Williams's involvement with Britains' Political Warfare Executive, or PWE.  One is even on the website of amazon.com in the blurb describing author David Garnett's The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945 (2002): 
Of all Britain's secret intelligence organizations, the least known is the Political Warfare Executive, developed to conduct psychological warfare against the Nazis. The PWE's history has now been declassified by the Cabinet Office and released, 50 years after it had been completed and consigned to Whitehall's secret archives. David Garnett's book tells of how such resourceful intellects as Richard Crossman, Sefton Delmer, Leonard Ingrams, and Valentine Williams waged a covert campaign against the enemy, using such unorthodox, ingenious methods as black propaganda and "false flag" radio broadcasts. It also reveals the internal conflicts with the BBC, Special Operations Executive, and the Secret Intelligence Service. At best a handbook of how to undermine an adversary and at worst a tale of breathtaking incompetence and political infighting, this volume aims to add a missing dimension to recent disclosures of Britain's covert wartime operations.

While this text apparently describes covert operations in "psychological warfare" in which Williams was involved, this description does not seem to imply that Williams himself was involved in 'espionage,' defined by the Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition (2009) as "the systematic use of spies to obtain secret information, esp by governments to discover military or political secrets."

It seems that unless there still remain classified documents regarding the actual espionage assignments of these "resourceful intellectuals," or unless there was more to the work of these men than propaganda and radio broadcasts, especially systematic work ferreting out NAZI secrets, our evidence does not reside in this volume.

PWE's Sefton Delmer broadcasting propaganda
Espionage, especially the sort with which Williams is associated in his novels, seems to have been the bailiwick of the SOE—the Special Operations executive—with whom the PWE was apparently often at odds.  It was this organization that seems to have sported the accoutrement associated with spying, at least according to the BBC.

There were apparently committees and sub-committees, branches and spin-offs, within the 'disinformation' and black propaganda' community: The Information Research Department, the Underground Propaganda Committee, Department D/Q of the SOE, Britanova, the Arab News Agency, the Indian Field Broadcasting Units, and the Press Propaganda Department, to name just a few.  They were bound to step on each others' proverbial toes, especially given the plethora of information and misinformation being managed by all of their 'whisperers' and 'sub-whisperers.'

One example of the depth and breadth of the black propaganda was the creation of jokes, this one created by Department D/Q for telling in neutral territories, mocking Italy's war effort: "The Italians have invented a new tank with one forward gear and three reverse gears."

It seems that the skills of Valentine Williams—his talent having been descriptive language and narrative, with a background in journalism and Reuters—were unlikely to have been put to use in espionage on the blood-stained ground of the continent of Europe during the war, especially as Williams had turned 60 years of age as the conflict progressed.

It's probably safer to assume that Williams engaged in the creation and writing of propaganda and disinformation from within England.  

Making that clearer is the fact that, while Williams would have been intent upon his "black" war efforts, he still managed to find time to write and publish a novel, Courier to Marrakesh, in 1944, something that would have been unlikely were he regularly engaged in spying for the Allies.
While the French (into whose language many of his books were immediately translated) may show a desire for "Valentin Williams" to have been secret agent during The Big One (as WWII is known in the States), there simply isn't any evidence at my disposal right now to corroborate that claim.
Unless you know differently....

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Author Profile: Valentine Williams

From the Imperial War Museums; image by Elliott and Fry, Ltd.






Shifting gears away from Clinton H. Stagg and his blind sleuth, Problemist Thornley Colton, today we'll introduce another not-so-well-remembered early-20th-century author, Valentine Williams [left], creator of "Clubfoot," among others.
Mike Grost, writing at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, posts this brief biography of Williams:

George Valentine Williams (1883-1946) was an English journalist, actor, lecturer and screenwriter. He created "The Fox" (Baron Alexis de Bahl), "Clubfoot" (Dr Adolph Grunt), Mr Treadgold the tailor and Detective Sergeant Trevor Dene. He also wrote one book under the name Valentine Douglas.
Williams was the son of G. Douglas Williams, Chief Editor of the Reuters News Agency. After being privately educated in Germany, Williams joined Reuters as a sub-editor in 1902. Williams joined the Daily Mail in 1909 and over the next few years reported on various international stories including the Portuguese Revolution in 1910 and the Balkan Wars (1912-13). On the outbreak of WWI, Williams was sent to the Western Front. He disagreed with what he called "the unenlightened and unimaginative censorship" exercised by the Army's senior commanders. He joined the Irish Guards as a Second Lieutenant in 1915, and saw action at the front in the Somme sector, where he was seriously wounded in 1916. Williams was also awarded the Military Cross. 

"Clubfoot" is actually Dr. Adolph Grundt (interestingly, 'grundt' meaning 'shallow'), the protagoinist in Williams's first novel The Man with the Clubfoot, published in 1918 under the pseudonym 'Douglas Valentine.'  ('Douglas' likely having been a family surname.)
It seems that the above biography was clipped without citation from one appearing at the website of the Imperial War Museums that reads:
Valentine Wiliams [sic] (1882 - 1946) was the son of G Edward Williams, Chief Editor of the Reuters News Agency. After being privately educated in Germany, he joined Reuters as a sub editor in 1902. In 1909, Williams became a reporter for the Daily Mail (then the most popular British newspaper and the first to achieve a daily circulation of one million copies). In this capacity, he reported on international events such as the Portuguese Revolution of 1910 and the Balkan Wars of 1912 - 1913. During the early stages of the First World War, reporters were not permitted direct access to the Western Front. Williams therefore obtained a commission with the Irish Guards in December 1915. He saw action during the Battle of the Somme, where he was seriously wounded in 1916, and was awarded the Military Cross. Williams then joined the small group of accredited war correspondents based at British General Headquarters and continued to serve as the accredited correspondent for the Daily Mail until the end of the War. After the War, Valentine Williams was in charge of reporting the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 for the Daily Mail. In addition to journalism, Williams also became a popular writer of mystery fiction, publishing a series of 28 books from 1918 until his death in 1946.
First edition cover, 1918

This relatively more complete biography [with an apparently incorrect date of birth] adds to what we know of the author, but also contains incorrect information.  The total of 28 books mentioned apparently come from a bibliography of Williams's U.K. first edition titles found at the website Classic Crime Fiction, which does not include two autobiographical works, With Our Army in Flanders (1915) and The World of Action (1938).  (There are also a handful of texts attributed to 'Valentine Williams' and may be additional fiction titles, but that also may simply be re-named editions of previous books.)
It should be noted that, besides his pair of non-fiction titles, the books of Valentine Williams are not all crime/mysteries in the truest sense.  Some are clearly espionage thrillers, as evidenced by the complete title of his 1930 text, The Knife Behind the Curtain: Tales of Crime and the Secret Service (my emphasis).
In addition to his output as an author, Williams is listed at the International Movie Database website.  His filmography includes:
1940 A Dispatch from Reuter's (story)

1935 The Crouching Beast (novel)

1933 Fog (story)

1927 Land of Hope and Glory (story)

The IMDB file on Valentine Williams also includes this information:
Date of Birth:  20 October 1883, London, England, UK
Date of Death:   20 November 1946, New York City, New York, USA
Birth Name:  George Valentine Williams 
Trivia:  Author, newspaperman and war correspondent.  His father, G. Douglas Williams, was Chief Editor of the Reuters News Agency.  Served with the Irish Guards as a Second Lieutenant during WW I. Williams was seriously wounded during the Battle of the Somme and awarded the Military Cross for "gallantry in the field".
No citations for the above information are provided.
There is a French Wikipédia article on Williams that includes the following extremely interesting information: "During World War II, under the guise of [a] professional reporter, Williams accepted espionage missions on behalf of the Foreign Office and in 1942, he joined the ranks of the Political Warfare Executive until the end of the conflict." (Translation by Google Translate)
Unfortunately, the above information is not referenced, and may not be true.  More research will be required to determine its accuracy.
At this point, however, we have some idea about Valentine Williams: Soldier, journalist, war correspondent, author, possible real-life spy, and Hollywood figure.  Next time, we'll look at some of his enduring characters, including the popular 'Clubfoot.'

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Some Context: Grost on Stagg

The first page of Clinton H. Stagg's The Keyboard of Silence.











In this posting, we'll be taking one last look at Clinton H. Stagg, at least for a while.  Here's information from a page found at the Golden Age of Detective Fiction Wiki written by a gentleman named Mike Grost.  Rather than a biography of Stagg, it describes the author's work within the context of his era, including likely influences, and it may be instructive for us to have it available here for research purposes.

Take a look:

Stagg, Clinton H


Clinton Holland Stagg was an American writer. His series detective was Thornley Colton. Stagg was killed at the age of 26 in an automobile accident in Los Angeles, California.

Mike Grost on Clinton H Stagg

 

Stagg's writings about the blind detective Thornley Colton are tentatively placed among the scientific detectives, on the evidence of the one, likable, tale easily available today, "The Keyboard of Silence". Both Stagg's mystery plot, and the detective work by Colton, seem to be based in scientific or medical facts or theories. And the story takes place in the public realm familiar to us from Arthur B. Reeve. Stagg uses the same sort of embezzlement from a bank situation that another scientifically oriented detective writer, Mary Roberts Rinehart, used in The Circular Staircase (1907). While Rinehart set her story in a country house in the days following the embezzlement, Stagg set his tale in the bank itself, right at the time of the robbery. While Stagg's plot is based on science, he is not trying to show his readers technical wonders, or push the edge of the technological envelope, the way Reeve and Freeman are.
Stagg's story also reminds one more than a little of Stagg's other American contemporaries Jacques Futrelle and Thomas Hanshew, both of whom fall among the impossible crime specialists of their time. The story does not promote itself as an impossible crime tale, but it is indeed darned hard to figure out how this crime could have been committed. Futrelle also wrote a classic involving bank embezzlement: "The Man Who Was Lost".
S.S. Van Dine was the pseudonym of
book critic Willard Huntington Wright.
Stagg's tale is also much more a full fledged puzzle plot detective story than are the works of S.H. Adams, for instance. Indeed, S.S. Van Dine clearly tagged Stagg as an intuitionist writer. Stagg was one of the authors burlesqued by Agatha Christie in Partners in Crime (1929); and this story in particular seems to be the subject of Christie's spoof. So for all its obscurity today, Stagg's work was fully known to some of the major intuitionist writers of the Golden Age. Van Dine also felt the compensating powers given to Colton by his creator were unbelievable, and that he suffered in realism compared with [Ernest] Bramah's blind sleuth Max Carrados. Christie's parody also hints at a lack of realism in Colton's treatment. I would extend these remarks to a broader criticism, that not only the treatment of blindness, but many aspects of Stagg's writing, suffer from implausibility. Still, even if implausible, it is joyously inventive, and I am looking forward to more of Stagg's fiction.


In Stagg's one sentence biography above his age is given as 26, likely because the birth year "1890" is included in The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories.  It is far more likely that Stagg was born in 1888, and that he was 27 at the time of his death.

In the near future, I'll be looking into the works of Jacques Futrelle, Thomas Hanshew, S.H. Adams, and S.S. Van Dine, as well as Ernest Bramah.

Stay tuned...