This book initially takes the reader somewhat by surprise, as the main Character, ‘Gregory Sallust’ starts the ball rolling by sending a letter to Dennis Wheatley’ admitting that DW has some grounds for complaint as it is eight years since he (GS) has provided material for a book. GS informs DW that he has been engaged on a private enterprise in China & the South Pacific for the previous year and has forwarded his notes on should DW wish to publish them.
From these notes, ‘The Island where time stands still’, evolves.
The prologue begins with Gregory and Erika enjoying a cruise on Sir Pellinore’s yacht. The location is the central Pacific Ocean. All had been going so well until a vicious tempest had struck the region and the yacht is forced onto a submerged coral reef. The boat had disappeared. There was no sign of anybody. GS manages to hang on to an oar until he is eventually washed up on a shallow pool within the barrier reef of a volcanic island. Some local fishermen find him and they take him to a strange building. It is a long one-storied, flat roofed block that looked strictly utilitarian. It was built out of concrete slabs which had been whitewashed. It had been erected on a wide flat ledge of rock that jutted out from the cliff face. The cliff dropped sheer away and behind the building the cliff rose just as steeply. There is also an eight foot wire mesh fence totally surrounding the building. He later finds out that it is a holding place for immigrants. (Chapter one of this book is quite understandably called, ‘The Cage’).
A Dr Ho Ping speaks to GS (in English) and informs GS that he has a fractured skull and two broken ribs. He also tells him that he has landed on a small group of Islands known as the Manihiki’s.
To Gregory’s dismay there were no signs of any other survivors.
Dr Ping agrees to nurse Gregory back to health on condition that Gregory agrees to stay within the confines of the building.
After several weeks of recovery he decides that he can’t stay holed up for much longer and manages to escape onto the roof and with the help of an overhanging tree begins to look around. The escape is made at night and he eventually finds a much larger house than the usual dwellings. Whilst peering through the window he witnesses an abduction of a young Chinese girl. GS comes to the rescue and he is thanked by the owner of the house ‘Sze Hsuan’ who is a prominent mandarin gentleman whose daughter A-Lu-Te had just been saved. GS is rewarded by becoming A-Lu-Te’s ‘ slave’ (Don’t you just hate him!!!!)
The Emperor dies suddenly and A-Lu-Te and GS are asked to accompany the jovial Kao Hsuan (A-Lu-Te’s Uncle) and the earnest Mandarin Tsai-Ping on a trip to San Francisco. As this is where the unknowing heir is currently living. There is an urgent need to install her to her natural position as she is the last heir to the imperial throne of China. She is known as Princess Josephine. She is dumb and can only communicate by hand signals, writing & drawing.
When the group eventually arrive in America they find out that the Princess is no longer in San Francisco. After many enquiries, they establish that the Princess was taken to Mongolia with a wealthy man named ‘Lin Wan’.
Another ship & crew is organised to take them to China and a smaller vessel to get them to Yen-An on the borders of Mongolia. During this trip GS meets a stowaway (Foo Wang). GS takes him under his wing as his assistant and although he seems helpful things seem to keep going wrong and he becomes one of the major suspects.
After a journey of nearly 10,000 miles they arrive at the great house of Lin. He explains how he came into contact with her. Days later, Lin Wan is found dead.
Soon afterwards they meet with the princess (who can speak). Hold on - maybe it’s not the real Princess. Her name is Shih – Niang and she admits to having been paid to impersonate the Princess. She begs GS to take her away. She tells him that she knows, ‘The 70 Caresses and the 41 ways of attaining complete enjoyment’. (Tried to get a Wikipedia link but nothing like it unfortunately!!) She offers him the money that was given to her if he gets her out. Suddenly the door slides open, a knife is thrown which kills her. The killers disappear instantly and very soon after one of the senior Chinese leaders together with A–Lu-Te appear at the door. GS can’t wait around to explain this dangerous situation and so he escapes up a nearby tree (like Charles II did) and then in the eaves of the building itself; hence the chapter, ‘ The Armpit of the Tortoise’; which has also been used before (They Used Dark Forces – chapter 15).
After a lengthy return to their ship by way of the Great Wall of China they catch up with the real villain of the peace who was responsible for all the pitfalls that had occurred since their arrival. On arrival back at the Manihiki’s GS is forced to pit his wits against the real offenders who were after his blood & threatening him with all that went wrong on the trip. As the Hutchinson sleeve notes state sleeve notes state, “The plot is so intricate that up to the last page it will defy complete solution by the most expert analyst of detective mysteries” Enjoy.
Page reference’s from Arrow Paperback
Page 17 – 34 Chapter One is titled, ‘The Cage’. A cage has also been used in another of DW’s books although the chapter wasn’t actually named, ‘The Cage’ (See ‘The Fabulous Valley’). It was actually called, The Caged Bird’s Sing. (Chapter no. 29)
Page 51 – GS makes a comparison between the lives lived on the Island and Shangri La! A-Lu-Te points out that “…..you will find little in this island which resembles the imaginary country described in Mr James Hilton’s beautiful book (Lost Horizon)” (A plug for DW’s very good friend)
Page 52 – DW brings to light another of his thoughts relating to habitual criminals.
“For minor breaches of the law; warnings, if unheeded fines. For murder; death. We do not go to the trouble and expense of providing for their confinement. For crimes in the middle (like A-Lu-Te’s abduction) they would be injected daily for three months with a drug that destroys memory. Those who have had it are no longer plagued by their phobia; they do not remember their crimes and feel no urge to repeat them”
Page 225 – During the boat trip to Mongolia the group stop at a riverside restaurant. In order to get to the table they climb up a ladder attached to the tree trunk. The table & chairs are then located on a small platform around the upper branches.
Page 271 – “Like most Chinese buildings that are over 100 years old the roof came down at each corner in a graceful saddle that terminated in an upturned sabre tooth. By working his way along to within a few feet of this curved corner ridge, he could lie in the bend it made and gain concealment on one side from its ornamentation”
Page 285 – DW praises the book,’Honours Easy’ by that brilliant editor of the Manchester guardian, C.E. Montague. This story tells of how a cockroach hid in the ‘Armpit of the Tortoise’
I also happened to notice that the chapter listing at the beginning of the book was generally incorrect. The first five chapters had the correct page number listed but the remaining nineteen were all wrong. Obviously someone at Arrow didn’t check this when transferring info from the Hutchinson hardback.
This was my first reading of this book and I enjoyed it. The two instant recollections of the story is the ‘dinner in the tree’ and when GS was hiding in the bend of the roof as described above. It really conjured an image for me. It was the previous reviewer, Frank Linmarsh who pointed out in his excellent review that the book was great fun and I agree with him. However if I’m honest I don’t think this GS novel is in the same high category as Gregorys previous books. This is probably because Contraband, Black August and the Second World War novels were so good. Otherwise it is a good read which would have been improved without the obligatory info dumps and the even more ponderous descriptions of the various situations.