The Gun Runner (Arthur Stringer, 1909)

A telegrapher aboard a cargo ship is caught up in an attempted coup in a Central American banana republic and hijacks a train full of smuggled ammunition from the rebels to give to the fruit company’s government because he’s fallen in love with the Minister of War’s sister. If that log line summary makes the story sound exciting, it’s really not. I don’t know how, but the author managed to make this “supertale of modern mystery” one of the dullest books I’ve read in some time.

No inscriptions.

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The Fortunes of Captain Blood (Rafael Sabatini, 1936)

This is, I think, the fourth book in the Captain Blood series, but as its the only one I’ve read, I can’t comment on whatever continuing story there might be. I doubt there is one, as there’s really no overarching plot within this volume — each chapter is a more or less independent short story. Peter Blood, once an Irish surgeon, is a wanted man back in Europe for rendering aid to an injured enemy soldier and so is forced into piracy in the Caribbean. He remains, however, a virtuous sort of buccaneer, stealing only from those who deserve to be stolen from. Those people, generally but not exclusively, are the Spanish. Blood’s battles are sometimes won by violence and at other times by cunning. My favorite chapter, called “Sacrilege”, is an example of the later. An English slave trader is robbed by the Spanish commander of Havana. Blood disguises his compatriot as the Cardinal-Archbishop of New Spain and demands ransom from Havana for his release. The ransom, of course, is more than enough to repay the Englishman and make it worth Blood’s while.

No inscriptions.

Rollo in London (Jacob Abbott, 1854)

I would assume this is the next in the series after Rollo on the Atlantic, but I honestly don’t know. The order isn’t marked, and of the twelve I’ve got in my library, London seemed the most likely.

Rollo and Jane have arrived in England. Their father is still in poor health and unable to do much sightseeing, so uncle George takes Rollo on a tour of London. The book’s educational component comes from George’s explanations to Rollo about the places they visit, some of which are better woven into the narrative than others. At the docks, for example, George launches into a long digression on the shipping industry and commodities and brokers and African trading, which is interesting in its way, but what child could possibly care? To be fair, while Rollo listens politely, he does seem to be more intrigued by the big crane and the cool drawbridge.

Inscription: on the inside front cover, “China Lefrary, from Edith Frost Stevens”. I can’t find anything about China online, but Mrs. Stevens seems to have been a teacher at the Woods school in Unity, Maine in 1912.

Rollo on the Atlantic (Jacob Abbott, 1853)

The preface says that the book exists both to educate and entertain, but for a Victorian kids book, it’s thankfully pretty light on the moralizing. For the entertainment side of things, we follow twelve year old Rollo and his seven year old cousin/adopted sister Jane as they journey across the Atlantic to join their parents, who — owing to their father’s illness — have been obliged to remain in Europe longer than expected and don’t wish to be so long separated from their children. Rollo and Jane were to be entrusted to some friends on board the ship, but after a series of accidents, the children find themselves on their own. For the education side, we learn about how a steamer operates and what a transatlantic crossing is like for the passengers.

Abbott actually lived right here in my hometown. His house, Fewacres, has been gone for several years — it was demolished to make way for the new education center at the college — but the grounds are now Abbott Park. I read most of this book there on the banks of Rollo Pond. It seemed appropriate.

Inscription: on the flyleaf, “Fred from Grand Ma, Xmas 1900”. Granny also seems to have written to the publisher, W.B. Conkey, for a catalogue, since it’s folded up and tucked in at the front. “Books to entertain all ages … for the boys and girls … best in the world at moderate cost”. Rollo on the Atlantic sold for 25 cents.

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.

The Blazed Trail (Stewart Edward White, 1902)

Harry Thorpe, ashamed of his father’s bankruptcy, travels west to become a lumberman in order to make a fortune and rebuild the family name. Through hard work and dedication, he rises quickly from an entry-level position to co-owner of a forest. He’s not without hardship, however, partly at the hands of a rival firm — Morrison & Daly, whom Thorpe has made an enemy of by undermining their illegal logging operation on government land — and partly from Thorpe’s own devotion to the “religion of Success” — a hold-over from his Puritan ancestors who equated failure with sin, and the pursuit of which costs Thorpe his sister and nearly his fiancee. By the end, he learns that there’s more to life than winning every trial and that there’s no shame in accepting help when help is needed.

Doors of the Night (Frank L. Packard, 1922)

Billy Zane Kane is the private secretary to David Ellsworth, the multimillionaire, ruby collector, and noted philanthropist. Part of Billy’s job is vetting the stories of all the poor people who appeal to Ellsworth for help. Those who tell the truth are handsomely rewarded, and those that are running a con are turned out. It’s a job that quickly familiarizes Billy to New York’s underworld and the people who haunt it.

Late one evening, Billy discovers that his boss has been murdered and the rubies stolen. It’s clear that whoever  committed the crime intended for Billy to take the wrap, as all the evidence left points conclusively to him. Pursued by the police, Billy escapes into the underworld, where he finds himself mistaken for a gangster known as the Rat. The resemblance must be uncanny, as no one so much as doubts that the Rat is back in town.

Billy intends to use the new persona as a cover to search for Ellsworth’s real killer, who he eventually identifies as the Man with the Crutch, but the appearance of the Woman in Black complicates matters. The Woman in Black is holding something over the Rat — what, Billy doesn’t know, but evidently it’s enough put him in her power. She directs hims to thwart all his gang’s criminal activities, which he does by adopting a third persona. All of them are dangerous: Billy Kane is hunted by the police, the Man in the Mask is hunted by the underworld, and the Rat will be in a sticky situation should the actual Rat ever return.

Speaking of that, where is the Rat and how is it that his impersonator has gone unnoticed so long? As it turns out, he’s never been away at all — the Rat and the Man with the Crutch are one and the same — and he’s well aware of Billy’s activities — in fact, he’s setting Billy up to take another fall. He intends on killing the troublesome Woman in Black, after which her securities against him will be made public, but that matters little, because “the Rat” will also be found dead.

Interesting tidbit, Doors of the Night contains one of the earliest usages of “– not!” I’ve seen. There are earlier, some dating back to the 19th century, but they’re uncommon and don’t read exactly like the familiar 1990s catchphrase, which this one absolutely does:

The Cherub, a young thug with a disarmingly innocent face, is talking to Shaky Liz, a disheveled, elderly boozehound. He was speaking about his grandmother when he tells her:

“She looked just like youse, too — not!”
Shaky Liz scowled.
(Packard, 1922, p. 264)