Thursday, August 4, 2022

The Mystery of Max Saltmarsh

“It was a wonderful June morning when I stood under the Ritz portico, watching the traffic go by and wondering just what a man like myself, back from seven years in the East, could do in this present-day London to find a job.”

Sounds just like the beginning of a John Buchan thriller, doesn’t it? It isn’t: but it might just be the next best thing. It's the opening of Highly Inflammable (1936) by Max Saltmarsh, and it certainly lives up to its promise. "Does a high-powered intrigue thriller step up your pulses?" enquires the dustwrapper flap of the Little, Brown & Co American edition. "Then your expert eye will spot this one as superior. You'll find yourself spellbound  in the grip of this tale of international intrigue and crime in modern Istanbul."

Contemporary reviewers  were quick to invoke Buchan. The Bookseller called Highly Inflammable the best thriller since Greenmantle. The crime writer Nicholas Blake (pen-name of the poet C. Day Lewis) said in The Spectator, “a disciple of Mr Buchan and does his master credit . . . Mr Saltmarsh has infinite verve and inventiveness.”

The book certainly follows the Buchan formula very closely. The ingredients are all there: a young Scot returned to London from abroad, jaded and at a loose end; a mysterious advertisement and a seedy employment agency; sinister encounters with ugly customers; a global conspiracy affecting the entire world order; a resourceful and well-connected Scottish compadre.

The plot revolves initially around an attempt by the Soviets to rig the oil market and hold the West to ransom. To thwart this, our hero is commissioned to destroy a Russian pipeline in the Caucasus, working with an agent in Istanbul. But all is not quite what it seems, and he also crosses paths with several memorable villains and a criminal organisation involved in the drugs trade, the white slave trade and other nefarious pursuits. The author perfects the pace, the twists, the dry humour and above all the tone of the Buchan yarn.

Max Saltmarsh was the author of three other thrillers, all (like the first) published by Michael Joseph, in a short period in the mid-Thirties. After Highly Inflammable there was Highly Unsafe (1936), The Clouded Moon (1937) and Indigo Death (1938). 

But who was Max Saltmarsh? Scott Thompson at the excellent Furrowed Middlebrow blog, devoted to early to mid 20th century women writers, kindly identified the author as:

‘Marian Winifred Saltmarsh, nee Maxwell, 13/10/1893-1975
Born Scotland. Married Ronald Victor Saltmarsh, who died 1948, circa 1930 (no marriage registration yet found). Died Maidstone, Kent.’

And that is pretty much all we know of her. Her first book is dedicated to ‘E.M.M.’ and ‘R.V.S.’, “for without them it could never have been written”. The latter is no doubt her husband, and we might guess the surname of the first was Maxwell, her own family name, so perhaps the initials are those of a parent or sibling.

The only other slight clue we have is that her second novel, Highly Unsafe, is dedicated to “Sir Thomas and Lady Segrave, My First and Kindest Critics.” This suggests they were either close friends, or relations. Segrave, born in Tralee, Ireland in 1864, was a naval officer knighted in 1923. His second wife was Violet Beatrice Fox, twenty-one years younger than him, who had been a clerk in the Ministry of Shipping, where he presumably met her. They lived at Ascotts, a country house on the Surrey/Sussex border.

Highly Unsafe begins with a motor rally event, the “Penzance Trial”. A relation of Thomas Segrave was Henry O’Neil de Hane Segrave (1896-1930), the son of a cousin, who was a pioneer in land and water speed records.  A local history website ( says: “He was famous for setting three land speed records and the water speed record.  He was the first person to hold both the land and water speed records simultaneously [and] the first person to travel at over 200 mph (320 km/h) in a land vehicle.”

It seems more than a coincidence that Max Saltmarsh’s book about fast cars is dedicated to relations of the pre-eminent speed champion of the day, but quite how this all links up is not clear. 

It does seem surprising that such an accomplished author wrote four well-received thrillers in quick succession in her mid-forties, but with apparently nothing before and nothing after. Unless, of course, she continued under another pseudonym still to be discovered.

(Mark Valentine)


  1. She lived in Frinton at the 1911 census, with her mother Elizabeth Margaret Maxwell - so you are correct about the EMM. She is an only child. Her and her mother were both born in Dumfries. No mention of the father, although EMM is said to have been married for 22 years. Doesn't get you very much further, I'm afraid...

    1. That's very helpful, thank you, Philip.

    2. I can't resist this kind of puzzle... have now tracked her down on the 1921 census, where she's listed as Marrian Winefrid (sic) Maxwell, aged 27 years and 8 months, now living with her mother Elizabeth Margaret Maxwell (63y 8m) at 2 Eton Villas, Hampstead. Elizabeth is still given as married - not widowed or divorced - although no husband's name appears, again. Perhaps he was away a lot... There's a bit more on Marian's birthplace - now given as Maxwelltown, Kircudbrightshire.
      Marion (sic) also appears in the London Gazette in 1919 where she seems to have received a presumably post-war MBE as Junior Administrative Assistant, Ministry of Shipping. That seems fairly remarkable for a Junior post, but perhaps worth digging into that a bit more. I think I may also have a bit more on her husband, but that needs a bit more work yet.

  2. Thank you, Philip, that's most interesting. The Ministry of Shipping was evidently the link to the dedicatees of 'Highly Unsafe'.

    1. Thank you Mark – if I may, here is some more mostly on Ronald Victor Saltmarsh, and then I’ll leave you in peace! I think he must be the RVS born around August 1903 (he was 17 years and 10 months at the June 1921 census). There are other possibilities – a Ronald Saltmarsh born in 1895, for example – but this is the only Ronald Victor Saltmarsh I can find. In both the 1911 and 1921 censuses he lived with his older brother Horace and their parents, Albert Edward (48y 7m in 1921, born Peckham) and Harriet (49y 9m, born Greenwich), at ‘Sunnyside’, The Moors, Staines. Albert and Horace were tailor/drapers; RVS was a motor salesman at the Ford Garage, High Street, Staines. This may be significant, as we shall see. On 1 December 1926 a wireless appeal was broadcast by the BBC, ‘on behalf of a mother who is dangerously ill… [an] appeal to her son, Ronald Saltmarsh, “believed to be somewhere in Mesopotamia” to return to England immediately’ (Straits Times, 10 Dec. 1926).
      This Ronald Saltmarsh did return to England, sadly not quite in time to reach his mother. His journey made the news at the end of 1926, this version in the Western Morning News of 29 December: ‘DASH FROM PERSIA / RESPONSE TO WIRELESS APPEAL FROM DYING MOTHER / After an adventurous nine-day journey from Teheran, Persia, to Windsor, in response to a wireless call to his dying mother’s bedside, Mr Ronald Saltmarsh arrived just too late.
      Mr Saltmarsh, representative of the Ford Motor Works at Trieste, Italy, was travelling on business in Persia, when his firm intercepted the wireless appeal and cabled him to return home at once.
      Interviewed Mr Saltmarsh said he found that owing to the rainy season having set in he could not reach home by sea in less than three weeks. He thereupon began a journey which he hoped would take only six days, but which, as a matter of fact, owing to various delays, took nine days.
      He secured a passage in a German Fokker aeroplane, and flew over the mountains near the Caspian Sea to Baku, in Russia. From there he travelled to Moscow by train, and after a series of adventures, during which he was subjected to considerable humiliations by the Russian authorities, he got through to Poland, and reached home via Germany. The journey cost him £200.’
      The RVS who worked for the Ford garage in Staines in 1921 is surely the Ronald Saltmarsh who worked for the company in Trieste a few years later. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Max Saltmarsh’s novels, but perhaps this fraught return from Tehran provided some useful material?
      After that there are just a few more tantalising glimpses of RVS and/or Marian Maxwell. The index to consular marriages, available online, has RVS marrying a Maxwell between 1926 and 1930, recorded at the Athens station. Kelly’s Directories for 1937 and 1942 have RVS living at 20 Provost Road, NW3. And he makes a few appearances in WWII records, granted a commission as a Pilot Officer (Balloon) (90999) in the Auxiliary Air Force on 27 July 1939; promoted to Flying Officer, 3 September 1940; and Flight Lieutenant on 27 March 1943. After the War I can find only a passing reference to his death, recorded in the first quarter of 1948 in the district of Eton, so not yet 45 years old.
      Apart from the marriage notice I have found nothing which actually connects Ronald Victor Saltmarsh and Marian Winifred Maxwell – further digging might find something, but that’s probably far enough down this rabbit-hole for now!

  3. Thank you, Philip, for this fascinating wealth of further information about RVS, particularly the story of his dash back to England. I begin to think the biography of the two might make a good book or film in itself!