A Marston Baines Thriller: Malcolm Saville’s ‘White Fire’


White

For at least two reasons, White Fire is the Marston Baines book that I find easiest to get on with. The first of these is that it is primarily set upon Mallorca, a place I have been to more often than any other outside of the UK, and of which I have the fondest memories, albeit that this is a Mallorca fifty years before I knew it. The second is that, because the subject for this book is diamond smuggling, there is no hobby-horse for Saville to ride with his usual desperation, though that hobby-horse does get a look-in, around the edges of the story.
And there’s a third reason in that White Fire turns out to be the one Marston Baines I glanced at in a library when I was young, only to hastily put it back on the shelf when I discovered a scene with kissing in it.
Apart from Marston, who has much the best front-of-house appearance to date here, and the ubiquitous Simon, we have only one other young assistant this time, a return for Rosina Conway of Three Towers in Tuscany. The book starts with her, on holiday with her convalescent mother, staying at the Blue Bay Hotel in Palma, as is, it turns out, a familiar thriller writer.
Rosina’s changed. There’s far less of the hysterics of her first appearance, though they’re not dispelled entirely, but overall she’s much more mature, despite the awful situation she’s put into. She’s befriended nine-year old William Yeats, son of rich and over-distracted steelman John Yeats. William is bored and overlooked, his father and Hugo, his private secretary, have no time to pay attention to him but Rosina does.
Except that when she takes him on a coach trip to visit the Caves of Drach (been there! done that!), the lights are unexpectedly switched off, Rosina is grabbed and held back by the woman next to her and by the time the lights go on again, William is gone. It’s as clear a case of kidnapping, and a well-planned one as well. However, practically everyone from Yates on down, via handsome Hugo, thinks she’s making it up (though it doesn’t stop Hugo wanting to take Rosina on a romantic moonlight trip and, no doubt, despatch her knickers to Ibiza by glider).
Rosina’s rather more stable in the middle of this than before, which is pleasing to see. But there’s one aspect in which she’s as she was, and that’s Simon. Despite his having dropped her pretty precipitately, and her recognition that he’s a philanderer, Rosina still loves Simon Baines and, before the end of the book, and in the face of his renewed romantic comments, up to and including Puerto Soller as an ideal place for a honeymoon (it is rather beautiful), she’s simultaneously candid with herself about his unreliability and confessing he is the only man for her.
Ah yes, Simon. Once again he’s answering his Uncle’s summons to somewhere sunny and foreign, delivered in the knowledge that his nephew has behaved shabbily to the fair Rosina, and that she’s on the spot and still besotted. But this is where duty calls, and as Marston already knows Simon is being considered very seriously for the Service, it all has to come together.
Marston’s been sent out to research the background for another thriller because, implausibly, it seems that someone is trying to establish Mallorca as a new centre for diamond-smuggling. More specifically, embedded Service Agent P4, aka half-Spanish Juan Clark, lately working as a waiter at the Blue Bay Hotel, has been missing and not reporting for ten days. Marston, who will have the not-entirely enthusiastic co-operation of the Spanish Police, is to find P4, or what happened to him, and to get a line on who’s behind the smuggling.
On the surface, that’s it. We’re talking criminal enterprise, not threat to Britain and, oh yes, the world. But I said there was a hobbyhorse round the fringes and whilst Saville doesn’t overdo it this time, it’s still there, if not totally expressed. According to Stephen Biggar’s Foreword, quoting from one of the writer’s sons, throughout the Sixties Saville was obsessed with the Chinese Menace. Mao Tse-Tung’s ‘Great Leap Forwards’ was intended to transform China into an industrial country which would overtake England, and industrial diamonds, intrinsic to manufacturing machine parts and armaments, are a vital part of this threat… process.
So disrupting a new source of smuggling would protect Britain from the Yellow Peril.
Nevertheless, the book is superior to its predecessors in letting that motive be intimated early on, rather than declared, and then not pounded into the ground. I suspect a degree of editorial pressure to dial it down. Already, the series was not fulfilling expectations as to commerciality There had been no paperback editions, and there would be none until the GirlsGoneBy reprints over half a century later.
So Marston, both with and without Simon, pursues P4’s whereabouts and what clues he has left to be discovered. First Marston, and then the pair, find themselves in dangerous situations involving a hot-headed motor-cycle rider, Carlos, who goes on to commit the first onstage murder of these books. The problem, which ties into Saville’s approach to the series, is that both are raised as chapter-ending cliffhangers, only for the following chapter to leap elsewhere and the outcome of the risky situation to be described, offhandedly, in retrospect.
Though he’s been summoned to assist his Uncle, Simon spends most of his time supporting Rosina, who’s being treated as the criminal here. Yates holds her responsible for his son’s disappearance. Rosina holds herself responsible but doesn’t sound as if she’s going to sue for damages. Everybody seems to think she knows more than she’s telling but only Simon is able to lead her to the one additional piece of information she can recall that might provide a lead.
But there’s a great deal of the usual frustrating responses. Yates, as many rich people do in fiction, decides that the Police are useless and that they’re not trying because they’ve taken longer than thirty minutes and failed to get William back, not to mention that they haven’t dragged Rosina off in chains to be interrogated. Marston’s supposed to be helping Yates too but, just because he isn’t at Yates’ beck-and-call twenty-four-seven, is written off as useless too, Simon, who hasn’t bowed-and-scraped once is a boor and Hugo tells both of them to get off the island because they’re not wanted.
Whilst Marston tracks down P4 and the nerve centre of the new cutting and polishing industry, Simon takes Rosina off for a day that he wants to solely devote to his own selfish leisure, leading up to a snogging session or four. Swimming and sunbathing is to be the order of things, he thinks, and throughout the book Rosina is in and out of her (colour never specified but I think white, for purity) bathing suit and bathing cap.
But she’s determined to get to the bottom of things by checking the industrial building at Pelacor – a slip of memory for Manacor, did no-one have a map to consult? – where Hugo had been seen sneaking around and then getting deliberately left behind to explore the Caves of Drach and find William.
This all works, against Simon’s will. William has been removed and is saved by P4, offstage, when the conspirators are rounded up by the Police, equally offstage. Simon and Rosina find his half-mad gaoler, force the truth out of him and get him to show them almost all the way out before he pushes them into the underground lake. They’re in no real danger as Marston is at hand but nevertheless Rosina saves them both before bending in for the kiss at which a single-digit version of myself rapidly shut the library copy and went looking for something more his style.
There is an unusual twist to the coda. By now, we know Yates is a successful diamond-smuggler, and that William has been kidnapped to coerce him into selling out his organisation to the new conspirators – who have Hugo working for them – for a pittance. William’s the son of a baddy, who’s been at this operation for something like a decade. As soon as he’s rescued, William disappears with Daddo, not to see Rosina again but, most inexplicable of all, despite his long and serious criminal career, Yates will go free in exchange for returning all his reserves. That’s right, steal for ten years but escape punishment for returning your ill-gotten gains or, more realistically, what’s left of them after ten years spending.
It’s a foreshadowing of Kevin Smith in Strangers at Witchend. Even though William has a seriously offstage mother somewhere, his father can’t go to prison because he’s got a son to look after. Good and evil, Black and White, both become meaningless in the face of the appalling prospect of a broken home.
As for Simon and Rosina, it’s all lovey-dovey. She’ll meet him in Puerto Soller for any reason (so once Sixties freedom can seep in, that’s the dirty weekend sorted: no, seriously, it will never happen, not even with the ring on the right finger).
But I still like the book for Mallorca, places I’ve been and places I love. It’s better than I now have come to expect, but let’s talk more about that at the end.

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