“Wipe out Westwood!” “Westwood Won’t Wash!”
One of the most intriguing snippets that I took away from the excellent Masters of the Humdrum Mystery was that there was John Rhode book called A. S. F. which included a character named Richard Westwood.
Possibly this is only intriguing if your name is Richard Westwood.
Anyway, one trip to Abebooks later…
England is in the grip of a cocaine epidemic, seriously concerning because its use is spreading from the usual indolent layabouts to the virile young men and eminent minds that put the Great in Britain. The Home Office, led by Sir William Westwood, is unable to get to the bottom of the trade.
Some master brain was directing the cocaine traffic; the reports of every detective who had been engaged in the cocaine cases confirmed this beyond a doubt. Who was this sinister figure, and whence did he direct his plan of operations?
I haven’t checked my dates, but I don’t think the aforementioned master brain ever watched The Wire. Not even on a boxset. He’d be amazed that all you have to do to offload a package before the next re-up is to sit on a grubby sofa and vanish around the corner if the 5-0 cruise by.
Of course the dealers in The Wire got pretty clever at times, but not even close to the ‘Messenger’. Here’s how the Messenger sets up a connection.
1. Disguised as an odd-job man, he goes to his secret workshop and picks up the cocaine. He even mends an urchin’s saucepan by way of staying in cover.
2. He sees from an encoded newspaper advert using the letters ASF that he has a possible customer in Cambridge. Of course it may be a coincidence so he has to tread carefully.
3. Now in respectable clothes, he travels to Cambridge and stays under an assumed name in a local hotel.
4. He locates his possible customer by consulting a directory in the library.
5. Now disguised as an estate agent, he pops round and sees the buyer, whom he identifies by repeatedly saying everyday phrases beginning ASF, you know, like Artificem similatoremque figurae.
6. He borrows a book and does the old trick of gluing together the pages and carving a hole in the middle.
7. He leaves the book, now full of cocaine, in the hands of the local police, claiming to have found it lying in the street. The police promise to return it to its rightful owner.
And the Messenger employs similarly elaborate tricks to reach all of his clients. And he keeps all the details in his head. No wonder the police can’t sort it out.
I suspect, however, that this is no way to run an epidemic.
The Messenger has that Day of the Jackal fascinating-antihero quality as he solves the unique problems posed by each new customer, although sadly he acts as protagonist for just a few chapters. His opponent, a young man called Frank Clements from the Home Office, is far less attractive, especially as he fails to make up his mind about which of two girls he will propose to.
I suspect Rhode intended A. S. F. to illustrate the dangers of cocaine, and we see various fine young men and women brought low by the demon drug. However to modern eyes the downfall of these characters comes across as melodrama pure and simple. It just doesn’t seem realistic – and I’m pretty sure that even in 1924 the scale of drug use and its accompanying social problems was much bigger than Rhode makes out.
Anyway, what of my namesake?
Richard Westwood… had when quite a young man left England for South America, where he had settled and married a girl of French extraction… He had the air and quiet manners of a scholar… From the apparently limitless fortune he enjoyed he poured upon his only child every luxury her mind could imagine.
He’s the reclusive brother of the Home Secretary who innocently pops over to London from his French hidey-hole.
The verdict: An enjoyable, if simple, thriller. Rhode should have stuck with the Messenger as a central character. He’s an improbable drug dealer, but his tricks have a real fascination.