First published in the UK 1931
This edition 1952, Penguin Books
Despite my (possibly unfounded) belief that they’re going to turn to dust, I still like to p-p-p-pick up a green Penguin every so often. This one came with one of the blurbiest blurbs I’ve ever read:
[Williams writes] … Serious, mystical books containing visionary, descriptive passages of great beauty and great power; yet their form is the form of a thriller, and their characters are flesh and blood figures in an ordinary world.
Chapter one describes three men discussing what to do with the crown of King Solomon, stolen from an ancient Persian family, which apparently allows the user to teleport in space and, possibly, time. So much for ‘flesh and blood figures in an ordinary world’.
The MacGuffin in the story is the magical stone at the centre of the crown. It is first revealed as a way to transport the user through space and time, then as a way to read minds, heal the sick, control people, and defend yourself. If you attempt to break a piece off the stone, it splits into identical two copies of itself, a characteristic which soon leads to a proliferation of stones.
Soon, all manner of people and factions are after the stones. The Persians want them back. An American airline magnate sees them as a commercial threat. The unions see them as a threat to employment. The sick see them as a cure. The government wants to keep them out of the hands of the general public.
The heroes are an interesting mix for the 1930s. Lord Arglay, the Lord Chief Justice, is a fairly conventional choice for a protagonist – learned, detached, wry sense of humour, likeable – but he is supported by a Muslim character, the Hajji, and the key character is his secretary Chloe Burnett, a dreamy young girl. Arglay and Chloe have an odd relationship reminiscent of one of Dickens’ slightly inappropriate pairings:
Chloe opened the door for the Chief Justice, and stepped softly aside, as a secretary should, that her employer might enter. This careful subordination had always pleased Lord Arglay, and after the occurrences of the last few days gave him an increasing joy, as if it were part of the habitual ritual that surrounded his office, but much more delightful, more dear, and in some way more delightful than the rest.
The villain of the piece is Sir Giles Tumulty, an ‘abominable’ man who first of all gets hold of the stone by underhand means, and then leads the scientific research into its properties.
‘I sometimes think… that I’m the only real scientist in this whole crawling hotbed of vermin called England.’
He proceeds to test the stone’s properties on anyone that takes his fancy, including condemned prisoners, and manages to trap an innocent laboratory assistant named Elijah Pondon in a time loop. Not only is he evil, he’s not above a bit of common-or-garden nastiness as well – accusing the saintly Chloe of sleeping with Arglay.
Sometimes the narrative is extremely reminiscent of H. G. Wells. A lot of this lies in the names: Elijah Pondon. Mr Theophilus Merridew, General Secretary of the National Transport Union. Lord Birlesmere. Professor Palliser. But the plot also runs on Wellsian lines. In the chapter entitled ‘The Miracle at Rich’, a small town is transformed when a stone cures the ills of two elderly women. Overnight the town is besieged by invalids, and serious unrest is threatened when the stone is removed. It has the feel of parts of The Invisible Man.
There are a few flashes of wit (‘Can you move other people with it, or is it like season tickets?’), but they are buried beneath piles of (I think) turgid prose.
‘He has foreknown that which he is now experiencing?’ Lord Arglay asked.
‘I think so,’ Ibrahim answered. ‘But though he knew it i do not think it is now within his memory, nor will be until he reaches the end. For to remember the future he must have foreknown the memory of the future, and yet that he could not do without first foreknowing it without memory. So I think he is spared that evil.’
You could randomly rearrange all of those words and make as much sense. And there is page after page of this stuff.
The thing is, I thought I was on fairly safe ground writing this book off as an obscure piece of silliness, second-rate science-fiction burdened with too much writing. Then I looked on Goodreads and guess what – people seem to love this book. So don’t take my word for it.
Finally, a very odd occurrence: When I scanned the cover in, none of the black type appeared. Either it has been disappeared by the stone, or there’s a reflective quality to Penguin’s ink – has anybody else experienced this?
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.