Excellence in any field deserves recognition. Ergo: this journal.
Mike Riley of Ostara Publishing got in touch recently about their latest rediscovery, Frank McAuliffe. McAuliffe was new to me, but wrote three very well-regarded thrillers in the late 60s/early 70s, one of which won an Edgar award. His creation, Augustus Mandrell, was an amoral assassin who recorded the stories of his ‘commissions’ in order to create an accurate account of his genius for posterity.
Each of the three books is divided into four interlinked stories. In the first story of Rather a Vicious Gentleman, ‘The Sealed Tomb Commission’, our antihero penetrates to the heart of a subterranean military facility in order to assassinate a Nazi war criminal. His plan is perfect, but he is dogged by misfortune and has to use all of his skills in disguise, deception and psychology to survive. Part of his plan involves persuading some female soldiers to disrobe and wrestle him. You make your own luck, I always think.
Story #2, ‘The Bullrusher Commission’, finds Mandrell disguised as a cartoonish Italian dress-designer in order to get into the society wedding of the year.
I cried out in great Italian outrage. ‘Aside! Aside! Do not touch-a me, you pail-a garbage. Arresta dis man.’
Part of his plan involves seducing one of the bridesmaids.
‘The American Mistress Commission’ finds Mandrell charged with killing all three members of a love triangle (by the members of the love triangle), and figuring out the best way to maximise his fees. Part of his plan… oh, you get the idea.
And finally, ‘The Irish Monster Commission’ sees him carefully creating a stone-age persona (who knows nothing of women – until the end of the story) to worm his way into the study of an eccentric millionaire.
So, you’ll have spotted that Mandrell’s adventures are rather tongue-in-cheek, although they are delivered in complete deadpan. The blurb describes McAuliffe as P. G. Wodehouse turned to the dark side. However, I think that honour goes to Mortdecai creator Kyril Bonfiglioli. McAuliffe reminds me more of George Macdonald Fraser (although Flashman emerged a few years after Mandrell), most notably in the slightly schoolboyish attitude to women. There’s a lot of talk of startlingly white flesh, thin elastic, and fascinating contours.
Gad, but she was put together with the soundness of lapstreak. A bulky, high, necked sweater covered her further collection of interesting mechanisms.
What I really like about this book is the structure. The stories move backwards in time (1947, 1946, 1943, 1941) and we meet a similar set of characters in each. We get to see how their often unwitting interactions with Mandrell impact their lives in various ways. Usually negative ways. And as a technique it really works – jokes get paid off in reverse, adversaries are dealt with and then created, seemingly chance mentions become significant. And, Watson-like, Mandrell drops hints about other ‘commissions’ which must appear in the other books.
All good fun.
Rather a Vicious Gentleman
First published in the US by Ballantine, 1968
This edition Top Notch Thrillers (Ostara Publishing)
Source: Publisher review copy (thanks)
Final destination: A keeper
The Big Click: Although he won an Edgar Award for his crime fiction in 1972, Frank McAuliffe never became a household name. He was, and is, loved and admired by a small but devoted cult of readers, and his out-of-print paperback volumes can command impressive prices on eBay. But his protagonist, professional assassin and master of disguise Augustus Mandrell, who debuted in 1965 with McAuliffe’s Of All the Bloody Cheek (published in French as Un Sacre Culot!), never got his big time movie franchise, never joined the pantheon of iconic antiheroes like James Bond or Mike Hammer.
Troynovant: Frank McAuliffe successfully weaves his plots back and forth in time, a feat much oftener attempted than successful. It takes a rare sense of history in an author to accomplish this with clarity and suspense. As an incidental benefit, the reader looks at the historical period slightly askance, and new aspects spring to the eye. The backward-stepping through Rather a Vicious Gentleman is a delight.