Antony Melville Ross’s ninth book Lohengrin (1986) is a spy thriller set during the Second World War. It’s a tense and believable read but has been out of print for some time, which is a pity as it’s a competent suspenseful story about the incredible yet true Double-Cross System, when the British security service actively ran and controlled the German espionage system in the UK.
We’re introduced to the highly attractive Claire Helier who is ‘a favourite of London society and an orphaned daughter of an ancient house.’ She is recruited into MI5’s ‘Beautiful Bitch Brigade’ who helped suborn identified German spies. Her target is Frank Pelham, a man who has been allocated the codename Lohengrin. Claire’s controller is George Pemberton, whose earlier turned German agent, Parsifal, had committed suicide due to the pressure.
Claire and the security service entrap Frank, playing on his emotions. It isn’t hard for Claire, because she fell in love with him. That was an uncalled for complication. But while she loved Frank, she hid her duplicity, and he was convinced that if he didn’t cooperate with the security service Claire would be hanged. The psychological submission and attempted rebuilding of Frank is plainly detailed, and could be construed as shameful, yet in this case, as with others in a similar situation, the end justified the means. Most nights London and elsewhere was bombed. Life went on, but few knew if it might be snuffed out in an instant. The XX system was an ingenious and essential way to fight back.
At one point the daring manipulators send Pemberton with Lohengrin to Portugal and thence to Berlin. Ostensibly, Pemberton was offering to be a double agent for the Germans. This is tense stuff; he is interviewed by Admiral Canaris, among others, and treated to watch an entertainment – two Nazi women whipping a naked black marketer to within an inch of his life. The audience is in raptures over it; while Pemberton later is violently sick, wondering if a similar fate awaits him: ‘Pemberton took his second shower of the night, spending ten minutes under it as though disgust was a material thing he could cleanse from his body.’ (p239)
The narrative is tense and suspenseful, laced with humour and good observation for the period. ‘May I have the boiled mutton without spinach, please? I know that spinach is good for you, but I’ve always hated it and as I don’t want muscles like Popeye it would be a waste.’ (p185)
The subtext is about trust, honesty and being true to oneself.
The German viewpoint is touched upon. Despite being ignorant of the deception, they were circumspect: ‘We have learnt to suspect anything put out over the BBC, but the British press is a different matter. It can have a “D” Notice forbidding publication applied to it, but I doubt there is the machinery to enforce the printing of misleading information. Their reporters are too curious and freedom of the press still means a great deal to the British, even in time of war. It’s almost an article of faith with them.’ (p183)
The ending is perhaps inevitably downbeat. Maybe this accounts for the book being all-but forgotten. The title might not have helped sales either. Of the ten books by Melville Ross, seven are one word titles.
In the 1980s he was a respected author of tense thrillers. He called upon his experience in WWII in command of his own submarine, was awarded the DSC, and worked in the Secret Service after the war. He evokes a powerful feeling for his characters, whichever side they’re on. I’m certainly inclined to look up his other books.
Two Faces of Nemesis (1979)
Back Lash (1979)
Shaw’s War (1988)