Friday, 27 May 2011

E. Phillips Oppenheim: Last Train Out (1941)

Described in his heyday as "the Prince of Storytellers", the name of E. Phillips Oppenheim was familiar to me pretty much only from the back covers of the Leslie Charteris novels I own in these Hodder yellow jacket editions. When I saw this one - in a book case in the garden of a cottage in the Welsh mountains containing books for sale to support education charities working in Africa - I was keen to take the chance to make my acquaintance with the author. (I would never have thought of searching for it, though; this kind of serendipity is one major reason why physical second hand bookstores are such wonderful places.)

Published in 1941, Last Train Out must be one of the earliest thrillers to describe the build up to the Second World War. Its story is built around the escape of a Jewish banker from Vienna to Switzerland from before the annexation of Austria by Germany in March 1938 to just after the declaration of war on Germany by Britain in France in September 1939 following the German invasion of Poland.

The hero of Last Train Out, Charles Mildenhall, is an upper class British adventurer, working for the Foreign Office in a role somewhere between a diplomat and a troubleshooting spy. It is he, for example, who travels to Poland to assure the leaders there that Britain and France would indeed honour their treaty commitments and declare war if a German invasion takes place. While Oppenheim's novels are publicised on the back of those by Leslie Charteris, Mildenhall resembles the central characters in books by Dornford Yates more than he does the Saint. Apart from his class background, he is more likely to succeed the liberal use of cash than to be supremely useful in a fight with the bad guys. But there are qualities Mildenhall shares with Simon Templar. Both use intelligence to work their way through a problem while not being as cerebral as, say, Holmes or Poirot; both have a personal charm well portrayed by their respective writers; and both, as a result, have a large network of friends everywhere they go who can be counted on to provide aid as needed.

Despite the soubriquet bestowed on Oppenheim, I felt there were occasional infelicities in the storytelling in the Last Train. The most noticeable is the sudden jump from the eve of the Anschluss to the eve of the invasion of Poland, with Mildenhall's activities during these seventeen months described only later as he describes them to others. Oppenheim clearly wanted to keep most of the action in Vienna and not bring in characters and activities elsewhere in Europe, but it would have made the story flow better to follow his hero's actions chronologically.

Overall, though, the characters are good, the story is exciting (if a little slow compared to more modern thrillers), and Oppenheim carefully builds up the tension towards the final scenes as the last train out leaves for Switzerland. I was pleased to enjoy reading it, and will look out for more of Oppenheim's novels in the future. My rating - 8/10.

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1952 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1423

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