Geoffrey Household’s 1960 novel Watcher in the Shadows was a return to form — two decades after his Buchanesque hunted-man novel Rogue Male (1939), and a decade after his brace of 1951 thrillers A Rough Shoot and A Time to Kill — for one of the greatest adventure writers ever. Zoologist Charles Dennim is sent a mail bomb. Why? During the war, he was a double agent working for the Allies as a Gestapo officer… and now the husband of one of the Gestapo’s victims wants revenge. HiLoBooks is delighted to introduce this terrific yarn to today’s adventure readers.
At the end of my training I was returned to the United States — there was no evidence of any sort that I had ever left it — and told how to make my way to Vienna across the Pacific to Vladivostok and on by the Trans-Siberian railway. I managed it, arriving in the spring of 1941, just before Hitler’s attack on Russia.
I was not suspect. My story was carefully prepared and unshakable. I had completed a long and difficult journey to fight for Hitler, and I was held up as an example of the penniless aristocrat who had made good. God, the nonsense I had to talk!
The channel through which I reported and received my orders was that friend, now in the Ministry of Justice, to whom I had written. He had influence and was trusted by the Nazis. He suggested that I was just the fellow to train security units for operation in dense forest. Though the German armies in Russia had complete control of the main routes, they were bothered by the infiltration of agents and partisans. They wanted police patrols which could operate and maintain themselves out in the thick country on the flanks.
I knew more about trees themselves than playing Red Indians, but I quickly became an authority. It was worth the trouble. The continual posting of personnel to and away from the depot gave me a very good picture of troop movements, and I could pass on the information through my cell for transmission to London.
Then I myself was given command of a unit; but instead of sending us to the Russian forests — all armies are alike — we were stationed in the Apennines, where a good tree was a rarity.
In Italy there was little I could do beyond letting the organization know I was there. That was a pity, for I had two other patriotic, anti-Nazi Austrians in my command. Our chance came when Italy surrendered. We organized the escape of an entire prisoner-of-war camp — routes, stolen transport and all.
Owing to long boredom, we were careless and came under suspicion. Even so it could only be proved that we had been slack and inefficient. My two collaborators were punished by being drafted to grave-digging, and continued accurate reports of troop movements though they had ceased to move. I, since in a sense I was a policeman, was posted to the Gestapo and soon afterwards to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. It was a studied humiliation of my name. Even Hitler despised the Gestapo.
They may have thought that I would commit suicide. Perhaps I should have done so. Day after day I forced myself to resist the temptation to dig myself in with a machine gun and kill the swine till I was killed. But Ian Parrow’s cold-blooded training counted. I was in charge of records and could read committal orders and abstracts of interrogation. Sometimes the documents showed me what the enemy most wanted to know. It was my duty to get the information out.
Since I was hopelessly out of touch with the Austrian organization, it took me months to reopen some channel of communication. When I did, it was direct to London — usually by secret radio, but surprisingly often by what was practically air mail. Chaos in Germany was beginning, and the night sky was so full of activity that an occasional aircraft could land and take off unnoticed.
As soon as the war was over and the Buchenwald guards arrested, I was spirited away. I was not asked to give evidence at the war trials — partly because I was too valuable to be exposed, partly because Ian understood that I had had enough and that my whole soul was rotted by disgust. It was he who obtained for me British nationality — easily, for there was already a distinguished branch of the Dennims in England which had long since dropped the “von” and the title — and he who arranged a future career for me as soon as I had come out of hospital and could bear human society without washing myself continually.
For nine years I had not seen him.
“My dear Charles!” he exclaimed. “You haven’t changed a bit! And what a good little book that was on the squirrel! Obviously they took you for one of themselves!”
He always said in the old days that I reminded him of some confident squirrel flashing a swift look at the intruder before vanishing into the blackness of trees. My russetty color of hair and skin, I suppose, plus a pointed nose and the angular bones of cheek and jaw. But I cannot see any mischief in my face when I look at it. I am more like a tall, thin, battered monkey than a squirrel.
When we had had a drink together and sung the praises of old friends, I told him the story.
“So it’s obvious that someone who was a prisoner in Buchenwald has waited all these years for his revenge. And I am next on his list.”
“But you can’t be!” he insisted. “You weren’t a jailer. You weren’t involved in any of the brutality and executions. You were a sort of adjutant always in the office. Why you? And why now?”
Why me, I could not answer. Why now rather than long ago was pretty plain. Walter Dickfuss had screamed out some accusation during those three days of torture.
“It’s more likely,” Ian said, “that some crazy ex-Nazi who has just been let out of jail is taking revenge on you for spying on him or Hitler or what-have-you.”
I pointed out that my cover had never been broken. Also I doubted if former enemies ever took revenge on each other when war was long over. It was out of character. They were too tired of it all.
“Yes. I am. Well, we’ll go to Scotland Yard straight away. Somebody there ought to remember who I was. You’ll be guarded as if you were the Prime Minister.”
“So was Hans Weber,” I said.
“But damn it, you shall be!”
I reminded him that no private citizen could be efficiently guarded forever. An assassin ready to wait ten years would be perfectly ready to wait a few months more, taking a look at the setup from time to time to see how careless the victim and the man in the turned-down hat and mackintosh were getting. I wasn’t going to have policemen on my walks, testing my meals, sitting outside the museum. I hated policemen. I’d had enough of them. And I should be executed just the same — not tomorrow or next week, but as soon as we were all convinced that the danger was over.
“Suppose we have your whole story published?” he suggested. “I should think any Sunday paper would jump at it.”
“I am still not prepared, Ian, to look any person in the eyes who knows I was a captain in the Gestapo at Buchenwald. And what is half the world going to say? The blighter betrayed his country to save his neck, and they gave him British nationality for it.”
“Nonsense! Of course they wouldn’t! And what about your Scarlet Pimpernel stuff? There’s no trouble in proving that!”
Perhaps. But then I doubted it. It was true that I had planned escapes — could have planned a lot more of them if the wretched inmates of the camp had been lunatics enough to trust a Gestapo captain. The most spectacular was the rescue of Catherine Dessayes and Olga Coronel from Ravensbrück when they were due for the gas chamber. They knew that Hauptmann von Dennim was responsible but they couldn’t know that he was not just adding corruption to corruption — a Gestapo swine heavily bribed by the enemy.
“I told you at the time you were a fool not to accept your George Cross,” Ian said.
“One does not defile a decoration.”
“Take ’em a bit seriously, don’t you? And anyway it isn’t fair to your assassin. It would surely make him think twice if he knew you as Graf Karl von Dennim, G.C.”
“Another very good reason why Charles Dennim should handle him gently and deal with him personally, Ian.”
“Oh, my God, you would say that!”
I calmed him down. What I had to propose was really very sensible. I did not want to die in the least — or at least I hadn’t wanted to until all these memories were forced back on me — and I did not believe that month after month any police guard could be effective against a man who was patient and implacable, who had leisure and money and no criminal record.
But if I could recognize him or describe him, the German police would do the rest. I might even be able to reason with him. At the very worst I could kill him, provided self-defense was evident.
“And what I want from you, Ian,” I said, “is to be my secret agent after all the years I was yours, plus a cottage to live in and an excuse for being in it.”
“A neighbor of mine has got two badger setts on his land,” he replied doubtfully. “You could be studying their diet. He says they kill his chickens.”
“Well, you can tell him from me they don’t. If it isn’t a fox — and I suppose he knows — it’s probably a polecat gone wild.”
“Jim Melton turned some of his polecat ferrets loose after myxomatosis killed off the rabbits,” he said. “You could watch the blasted things. Or badgers. The cottage I can manage, though it’s some way from my place. But that is all the better. How are you going to persuade him to follow you?”
“By making it easy. As soon as he sees that the house is shut up he can get my forwarding address from half a dozen different places.”
“That will puzzle him,” Ian objected. “It should be much harder to get your address. If one is going to tie out a fat goat for a tiger, it is essential to let the tiger think he has found it for himself.”
I did not care for the metaphor, though I have since adopted it. But at the first hearing it offended me. It was too typically and heartily English.
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REDISCOVERED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable | Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | John Buchan’s Huntingtower
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