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The Romance of the Secret Service Fund, Fred M. White 27 March 2022

1900 anthology of short stories (first published in Pearson's Magazine), dealing with Newton Moore, top agent of the British Secret Service. (The "Fund" part is never explained, though it seems to have been in general use at the time; I think the idea may have been that Britain wouldn't want an actual secret service like those filthy foreigners, but could have a fund to pay for occasional distasteful but necessary actions.)

Like White's later The Doom of London, what we get here is a very early example of what would become a genre and a cliché in later years. This is a story of the Secret Service which came out when the actual Intelligence Branch of the Quartermaster General's Department had 13 officers for the whole of the Empire…

So one should not be surprised that the split between espionage and counter-espionage is rather hazy at times. Yes, our hero foils the plots of dastardly foreigners rather than creating plots of his own and then defending them, but sometimes he does this in Britain, and sometimes in various Ruritanias.

"By Woman's Wit" has our hero foiling the Russians' attempts to weaken and then replace the Ruritanian prince; the plan to deal with this is largely set up by the prince's wife, and Moore's part in it mostly consists of waiting for the right moment and then hitting somebody a lot.

From time to time she glanced in the direction of the Princess, and then Moore saw plainly the full treachery of that flashing smile. Nothing was lost to the eyes of the man who was a novelist as well as a man of action.

"The Mazaroff Rifle" sees Moore tracking down the stolen plans for a rifle which will revolutionise warfare.

The projectile is fired by liquid air, there are no cartridges, and, as there is practically no friction beyond the passage of the bullet from the barrel, it is possible to fire the rifle some four hundred times before recharging. In addition, there is absolutely no smoke and no noise.

Hmm. Well. Yes. A Gewehr 98 fires its bullets at twice the speed of sound, so it's not just the burning powder that makes the bang… never mind.

In any case, the thief makes a really major mistake, this leads our hero to the mastermind, and a poison-gas trap is easily dealt with by breaking the window.

"In The Express" is the gem of this collection for me: another mastermind has to be persuaded to hand over the stolen McGuffin he has in safekeeping, and this is done by Moore telling him while on a train from Glasgow to London details of how the trial of his underlings is going, even though he has clearly not been given a telegram at the stops. It's a neat trick, and I enjoyed it.

"The Almedi Concession" has one of Those foreigners, an Indian prince who becomes a drunken beast when out at play in London. But it also has a decent death-trap, so there's that.

"The Other Side Of The Chess Board" wears its plot rather on its sleeve, but is neatly done even so. (Drugs are bad.)

"Three Of Them" reveals that our hero is well aware of the whereabouts of a fiendish foreigner who should not have been allowed to enter England. So if the authorities know where he is, so as to be able to tell Moore, why aren't they throwing him out? Eh, never mind. What to my mind was an obvious piece of misdirection turns out to be the critical clue.

All right, these are stories from a more naïve age; but they are still worth reading now, and if you can enjoy the style of the day they retain a significant period charm.

Freely available from Roy Glashan.

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See also:
The Doom of London, F. White

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