Tuesday, July 9, 2024

'A Wild Crashing Outburst' - The Purple Trident by Charles Whitton

The sensational shocker The Purple Trident (1924) was the second and, so far as records show, last novel of Charles Whitton, who had earlier written The Judas Way (1923), commended in a competition run by the publisher, John Long, generally an imprint devoted to popular fiction.

A listing of the their “Latest Library Novels” priced at seven shillings and sixpence, shows the sort of market it was aiming at. David Lindsay’s Sphinx (1923) appears towards the foot of the list, but it also includes Edgar Wallace and J.S. Fletcher, Nat Gould, the voluminous author of racing novels, and a Western by Zane Grey. Most of the other authors, like Whitton, have all but vanished.

Whitton certainly throws everything at it in his second book. Adam Musgrave, a disgraced Englishman who has enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, has been captured by the Tuareg but has won the favour of the sheik, who wants to build a vast desert Empire, helped by a European military adviser. A captive 19 year old Frenchwoman is presented as a gift to Musgrave to be his bride. The story opens as he goes to her in the harem, luxuriant in the paraphernalia of the exotic East. Naturally Musgrave, staunch chap, does not take advantage of the situation, but nevertheless is enamoured of her and, after contriving her rescue and return to a French fort, promises to find her again when he has redeemed his reputation.  

If this is beginning to sound somewhat familiar, then you are probably thinking of P.C. Wren’s much more successful Beau Geste (1924), which, however, came out five months later, in October. The exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, widely reported and celebrated in the early Twenties in the aftermath of the First World War, had aroused a lively interest in desert adventures. Given the lead times for publishing, it is unlikely that Wren drew on Whitton’s book: the similarities are no doubt because both were responding to the same hot market. Even so, Whitton must have been a bit irked when Wren took all the glory.

However, his book does not stay in the Foreign Legion milieu. We next hear of Musgrave back in Blighty, where he has enlisted as a gunner at an estuary fort and uncovers spies from a syndicate called London & Pekin Airlines Limited, who are after secret aeroplane designs. They are linked up with a shadowy cabal, with even more sinister designs, who have their base, including a night club and occult temple, in a complex of nearby caves. Their symbol is the Purple Trident of the title.

The Director of this outfit likes avant-garde music (the bounder!) and performs Strogoff’s ‘Litany of the Initiation’ on a subterranean organ: ‘a wild crashing outburst which outdid the most extraordinary discord that was ever conceived in the brain of a musician of the macabre. A horrible, creepy theme, which suggested the psalmody of ghouls ravening in a cemetery. All the apostles of unclean living seemed to be acclaiming vice and moral rottenness, as the supreme virtues. Demons, gloating, appeared to scream a tigerish approval. The unseen organ was pouring forth a tuneless measure canonising wickedness and everything that was foul.’

Not exactly ‘Bells Across the Meadow’ or ‘In a Monastery Garden’ then, but it does sound rather lively. One wonders what Compton Mackenzie’s Gramophone magazine, founded the year before, would have made of it. Perhaps in some back-street bazaar or at a record fair in a minor provincial town a dusty, crackly 78rpm disc of Strogoff’s opus may yet turn up.

Whitton doesn’t seem quite able to make up his mind who the enemy is: there are swipes at war profiteers (as usual in Twenties thrillers), tycoons, Germans, Bolsheviks, Chinese warlords, cosmopolitans, jazzers, occultists, teetotallers, foppish aristocrats and the Establishment. Either he wasn’t taking any chances in pandering to his readers’ prejudices or, more likely, the yarn was written somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

After the stormy organ recital, the book takes an even racier turn, when the femme fatale responsible for Musgrave’s downfall ensnares him again, with chapter titles that include ‘The Sorcery of Lilith’, ‘The Forbidden Fruit’, ‘A Witch Irresistible’, and ‘The Serpent in Eden’s Bower’. Will our gallant if feckless Englishman free himself from her coils and return to his French maiden?

Charles Whitton seems to be unknown. This is quite a remarkable novel for its vivid, rollicking plot, yet it also aspires to a literary veneer. Each chapter has an apt epigraph from an Elizabethan or Jacobean dramatist, and not from well-known passages. Musgrave also quotes from them, no doubt to make it clear he is a scholar as well as a gentleman. It is as if Whitton is winking at his readers, hinting ‘yes this is utter tosh, but I do know fine literature too’. There’s a bit of a flavour of Sax Rohmer’s thrillers. A possible clue about Whitton is that both this book and his first have their setting around coastal Essex, suggesting the author knew the area well. A contemporary author who also set most of his stories there was the crime novelist Victor Bridges, but though his books have some thematic similarities his style is usually less excitable.

The Purple Trident is dedicated to Herbert H. Goodacre F.R.G.S. He was the author of Philip’s Practical Map-Reading Cards: A Complete Course Covering the Main Features of the Geography of the World (1912), and the editor, with others, of Bell’s Outdoor and Indoor Experimental Arithmetics (1914), which sounds a lot less fun than Whitton’s book. The breathless verve and dash of Whitton’s yarn suggest a younger man: perhaps Goodacre was a teacher of his, or they were varsity chums.  I wonder why there were only two novels: or did Whitton continue writing under another name?

(Mark Valentine)

1 comment:

  1. Ordered a copy on Tuesday night, and got a I’m sorry this book has already sold email the next day. It was the only one available online. So close… another one to keep an eye out for along with Fanfaronade, The Devil’s Tor & many others.