The Riddle of the Straits (Harry Edmonds, 1931)

During a great storm, Bill Parslow’s lorry breaks down by a canal and he thinks he’ll stowaway on a barge for a free, dry ride to the city. It’s this chance act that leads him to playing a central role in the outbreak of… well, the Second World War. (Bear in mind, this was written before the actual Second World War began and is set in the then-future year of 1935.)

The barge is smuggling machine guns out of England and, via a roundabout route, to a small island in the Indian Ocean. The British Empire is already on the brink of collapse and India is clamoring for independence. Russia intends to exploit this and to play on the growing animosity between the Hindus and Muslims to establish India as a satellite Soviet republic, thus claiming an expansive warm-water coastline from which to further expand the Soviet Union in accordance with the New Five Year Plan.

What follows is at once complicated and very simple. Thanks to Bill, Russia’s plot is discovered in time to preemptively destroy their Indian Ocean base. However, Britain’s increased scrutiny of India includes close inspection and turning away of merchant vessels, which riles American arms manufactures, who have been selling arms to Indian insurgents. A series of mistakes, which are frankly too convoluted to explain here, lead to an American warship that had been escorting a merchant convoy to open fire on a British cruiser, leading to war being declared between the US and UK.

As far as the narrative goes, the USSR takes a backseat now to the bloody naval war that plays out in the Atlantic. The US and UK are fairly evenly matched and both sustain great damage. The British get the upper hand in the end, but the US maintain a blockade that effectively cuts-off all imports to the island. When pushed to the point of starvation, they suddenly remember the Channel Tunnel — that embarrassingly expensive white elephant just completed that year — and food comes pouring in through France.

I’ve left out Japan and the Falklands, but suffice to say, they’re involved, too. Hitler gets a mention, quite in passing. Edmonds evidently didn’t think much of him; Stalin is the real danger in his estimation. Curiously (in hindsight, anyway), Mussolini is something of a moderating force. He brokers the peace treaty that brings the war to an end. Unfortunately, while the others were fighting over nothing, the USSR annexes the Arabian peninsula and so the threat of Soviet expansion goes unthwarted.

Inscriptions: None, but there is a small pink index card between pages 166 and 167.

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