Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Alarum and Excursion by Virginia Perdue - review

Every now and then, a publisher brings out a series of classic crime novels of the past. I can think of a few series of this kind that, much to my regret, did not last very long. But one of the longest and best series was the "Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction 1900-1950", edited by two Americans with a great knowledge of and love for the genre, Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor.

I have read only about twenty of the fifty books they chose. Naturally, I've loved some of the books, and wondered about one or two why Barzun and Taylor rated them so highly. These things are to some extent a matter of personal taste. But their choices, if sometimes idiosyncratic, were always interesting. An example is Alarum and Excursion, by Virginia Perdue, her last book, first published in 1944.

I was prompted to read this one by an enthusiastic review by John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books. John, like Puzzle Doctor and Curt Evans among other enthusiasts for the classic mystery, is a blogger whose judgments about a book always command respect. This is a case of a book which I didn't love as much as John did, but I can see why he, along with Barzun and Taylor, admired it.

It's an amnesia story. The hero is a wealthy businessman in his sixties who has come across a formula for a fuel that could affect the course of the war, and much else besides. When he comes round, he slowly pieces together what has been going on in his life. As ever, the question is: who can he trust? Now, I am not a great fan of stories about secret formulae, and amnesia cases are also a bit of a cliche of the genre. But Perdue does a good job of creating an unusual story-line and I agree with John and others that the finale is excellent.

This book is good but not, in my view, an absolute classic - it reads a bit like a novel by Helen McCloy, but does not have quite the same power. All the same, it's an entertaining read, and I'm glad I gave it a go. As for Perdue herself, I know little. Even Barzun and Taylor don't rate her other books. Perhaps she died just as she was getting into her stride as a novelist, which is a sad thought.


J F Norris said...

I think it's extremely atypical for a crime novel of this era. A protagonist well past middle age is not the usual choice for lead role in an action thriller. Perdue handles the recovery of his memory in a unique and imaginative manner. Also, the invention and distribution of an alternative fuel borders on science fiction. Plus, the noirish elements appeal to me greatly. No happy ending in this one. Very few women wrote books like this in the 40s. And for that alone Perdue deserves a nod.

I am flattered that you think my judgments about a book command respect. I will be on Cloud Nine for the rest of the day. Thanks, Martin!

Martin Edwards said...

Excellent points, John. On reflection, my main reservation was the secret formula. I tend to rank them alongside mysterious poisons unknown to science!

Unknown said...

I woke up at 4am this morning to finish Alarum and Excursion, having started it a few days ago. The plotting was quite unique and the ending extremely well disguised and, well, original to say the least. The combination of a condensed story time complementing recovery of a longer term memory was brilliant. Liked it a lot...