In a twist this year I didn’t really ask for books, mostly because I buy so many at book sales that the only ones I seek out brand new are Nancy Drews. My mom knows my tastes, however, and picked out a few treasures for me at the Bookbarn: two Mary Roberts Rineharts (Tish and The Red Lamp), and a book called A Splendid Hazard. I also just received a few mooches (on the right): a Honey Bunch book, and the first two in the Polly Brewster series (the third is still on its way). And, as evidenced by the inclusion of a picture, I finally got a new camera!
With older books you never know what you’re going to get, and I started A Splendid Hazard with no hint as to plot save the cover illustration by Howard Chandler Christy. As charming as it is (and from an actual scene), it doesn’t tell the half. Harold MacGrath spins a wonderful yarn that I quickly found myself unable to put down. I had been reading it while we were on vacation, and on the ride home was cursing myself for my inability to read in a moving vehicle.
“There would be something more than treasure-hunting here; an intricate comedy-drama, with as many well-defined sides as a diamond.”
It begins with a chance meeting at Napoleon’s tomb between a young American war correspondant, a German man down on his luck, and a retired American admiral and his daughter. None of them really knows who the others are, and they go their separate ways untouched.
A year later Fitzgerald, the journalist home in New York between assignments, is mysteriously summoned to the house of Admiral Killigrew and his daughter Laura. Meanwhile Karl Brietmann has applied to be the admiral’s private secretary, a post below his station and abilities, with some seeming ulterior purpose. Perhaps, Fitzgerald suspects, it is related to the mysterious noises in the chimney. When an old letter is found telling of a secret treasure buried on Corsica, the group and several friends with whose pasts also intertwine with the story set sail for the island, never dreaming that danger awaits them. The only one who knows the truth is renown butterfly collector M. Ferraud, a French secret agent, but he is reluctant to show his hand in the hopes of saving someone from destruction.
MacGrath is fantastic at building character and suspense. Breitmann is a man of many mysteries. He is proud, noble, and desparate, and the reader is unsure as to what his purpose really is. As another character remarks, he is either “a great rascal or a great hero.” Even the romantic entanglements of the characters are left unresolved until the end of the novel.
You can almost feel the hand of fate at work here, for every character has some prior connection to the others. In fact, the entire book seems to take place on a grand scale. People live nobly, and love passionately, and all seem tinged somehow with something larger than life. Everything feels grand and important, but in a good way. I’m not sure I can quite explain it. I do think these characters would be fascinating to know. And, yet again, one of the heroes is a journalist. For some reason, to me it always seems the most romantic profession, other than the navy, because of the sheer amount of experience, wits, and personality that it entails.
I loved this book so much, and not just for the plot and characters. MaGrath has real skill as a writer. A Splendid Hazard has no pretentions at being great literature, and yet he often has an elegant turn of phrase that brings people and situations to life with a vibrancy. It almost reminds me of A Room With a View. For example, take this description of Laura:
She was one of those happy beings in either sex who can amuse themselves, who can hold pleasant conversation with the inner self, who can find romance in old houses, and yet love books, who prefer sunrises and sunsets at first hand, still loving a good painting.
Technically I finished this on January 1, and it feels a little silly to say I’ve found one of my favorites of the year, but I honestly could sit down and reread this from cover to cover. I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more from Harold MacGrath. It seems he had several bestsellers in the early twentieth century (this is from 1910), many of which are available on Project Gutenberg.