Our book today is E. Phillips Oppenheim’s 1910 thriller, The Illustrious Prince, which opens right away, on Page 1, with an inadvertent thrill delivered right over the heads of its contemporary readers and right to the reading cortex of its 21st Century audience. In the opening scene, a luxury liner has missed its evening tide and cannot land its passengers until morning. One unprepossessing man, Hamilton Fynes, takes the captain aside and hands him a sealed enveloped, urging him to open it and read it. Once the captain does, he immediately arranges a private slip to ferry Mr. Fynes to shore. Once there, he hires a special train to take him to London, again convincing the station-master to do his bidding by handing him a mysterious sealed envelope.
The thriller-hook Oppenheim used to snare his readers in 1910 was that shortly after Hamilton Fynes commissions that special train, he’s found brutally murdered in it.
The inadvertent thriller-hook that even as practiced a storyteller as Oppenheim couldn’t have intended was that the becalmed luxury liner is the RMS Lusitania, and five years after the publication of this novel, that ship would be struck and sunk by a German U-boat, with over a thousand dead. Our author liked to put current, recognizable up-to-date features in his novels, and in 1910 he couldn’t have guessed that the Lusitania wasn’t as permanent as a later generation would consider the World Trade Center – and the result is as quietly chilling as seeing those two boxy towers in the background of some innocent movie from the 1980s.
Of course Oppenheim had other thrills in mind when he wrote the book. He was a British-born button-down master of the well-told tale, an enormously best-selling household name with well over a hundred books to his credit, most of them very successful blendings of international intrigue and murder mystery whodunit. His stories made him rich, and the first thing that strikes a modern reader about them is how easy it is to see where all that success came from: these things are perfectly-balanced gear-works of engaging dialogue, suspenseful pacing, and even-handed sly digs at pretty much all characters equally. The usual awkward compression-wait that modern readers must endure before they become sensitized to the slightly antique phrasings of older novels is entirely absent from Oppenheim’s works – they pull in the reader in 2013 just as easily and assuredly as they did the reader in 1913.
In this case, the initial pull is that sudden murder of Hamilton Fynes, and just what Miss Penelope Morse – the penniless American niece of the Duchess of Devenham (a wonderfully stiff yet sympathetic creation who pre-dates the star of Downton Abbey by a full century) – does or doesn’t know about why Fynes met his untimely end. When the news breaks in London that she had an appointment to dine with the dead man on the day of his murder, the press begins to hound our heroine, and she gets a visit from Inspector Jacks of Scotland Yard, to whom she promptly tells a pack of lies about how she barely knew the dead man.
Eluding the journalists in a London cab-chase scene eerily like Princess Diana-style farces in our own time, Miss Penelope meets up with handsome, athletic junior diplomat Dicky Vanderpole at his London club, eager to tell him secret details about Hamilton Fynes – and yet also reluctant to do so. She confesses that she doesn’t really know how much to tell the police about the intrigues involving Fynes, and when Dicky wonders what she can mean, she offers hints that seem vague to him – and will make a modern reader’s short-hairs stand on end:
“You see, things have developed with us in the last twenty-five years. The old America had only one foreign policy, and that was to hold inviolate the Monroe doctrine. European or Asiatic complications scarcely even interested her. Those times have passed, Dicky. Cuba and the Philippines were the start of other things. We are being drawn into the maelstrom. In another ten years we shall be there, whether we want to be or not.”
Unbeknownst to Oppenheim, that maelstrom was only four years off, not ten. And the Illustrious Prince of the book’s title, an enigmatic Japanese Royal named Prince Maiyo, believes any such maelstrom might be averted, if men are resolute enough. When Miss Penelope asks him to tell her something of the future, he expresses his cautious optimism:
“Surely that is easier,” he answered. “Over the past we have lost our control – what has been must remain to the end of time. The future is ours to do what we will with.”
“That sounds so reasonable,” the Duchess declared, “and it is so absolutely false. No one can do what they will with the future. It is the future which does what it will with us.”
Reading The Illustrious Prince (with its crisp, lovely illustrations by Will Foster) for these prescient chills is a bit unfair to Oppenheim, I know, who gives his audience truly first-rate intelligent escapist fare every single time. Is the killer who claims Hamilton Fynes (and, before the reader has even caught his breath, Dicky Vanderpole as well) likely to strike again, perhaps to target our heroine, who knows more than she should? Is Prince Maiyo somehow involved, as Inspector Jacks and then no less a personage than the Prime Minister begin to suspect? Might these mysterious murders complicate relations between Great Britain and the Empire of Japan itself? All of it is played out with consummate skill, without a single creak of Old World archaism to be heard.
Like so many big-name now-forgotten bookstore fixtures, Oppenheim very much repays some tardy modern-day attention. And like so much of the incomparable richness that made up the Edwardian reading world, virtually his entire works are available in neat, clean, well-curated editions from the mighty Project Gutenberg - free and ready to download to your iPad. Good as he was, Oppenheim didn’t see that coming either.