When I saw that Girls Gone By were bringing out The Purple Valley, I was reminded of the existence of Malcolm Saville’s Marston Baines books. First, I gave myself a bit of a kicking because I used to have copies of both The Purple Valley and Three Towers in Tuscany but got rid of them. The golden rule of purging your books should be: how hard would it be to find this book again? I still had two of the books and re-read them.
In the Marston Baines series, Saville was attempting a different sort of novel, intended for ‘young people’. So instead of young teenagers, as in the Lone Pine series, the characters are students, graduates, young marrieds. Marston Baines himself is a writer of thrillers who also happens to work for the Secret Service. Here’s how Dark Danger begins:
‘Patrick Cartwright, twenty-year-old Oxford Undergraduate, came to Venice for the first time late one June evening….
Within half an hour of his arrival he had saved a man from being murdered.’
That’s what I call a good start to a book. Unfortunately, the plot is less satisfactory, dealing with an international gang of crooks which gains control over people through Satanism. Throughout, Saville contrasts the evils of Satanism with the power and truth of Christianity. In Power of Three we have a similar global conspiracy, this time stirring up racial hatred and planning a neo-Nazi assault on Jews and black people. (Saville says ‘coloured’, as was more correct at the time of writing.)
I have several problems with these stories. First is the complete idiocy of some of the characters, falling into traps such as responding to false telephone messages and getting themselves kidnapped. Marston Baines is by far the most interesting character yet he plays little part in most of the story, turning up at the end like a deus ex machina to get people out of the pickle they’ve managed to get themselves into. Worst of all for me is that the books are neither one thing nor t’other: neither children’s books nor adult thrillers. Most of the younger characters are already paired off, so there’s no ‘will they, won’t they?’ interest. It also gives Saville the opportunity to have these happy people talking about lurve. I suppose he was trying to be modern but dialogue was not Saville’s strong point, IMO, and I find these conversations excruciatingly embarrassing.
I’d like to contrast these books with the Lone Pine series, which really was way ahead of its time. It ran from 1943 to 1978 and I find the earlier books the most successful. What is fascinating about the books is that as far back as the 1940s Saville was writing for children yet hinting at – gasp - *sex*. This is all done very subtly and most of the passages suggesting it were removed from the abridged paperback versions. This was done with Saville’s approval; he wanted to sell more books. It’s practically unknown for children’s books at the time to even suggest that teenagers could be not just ‘good chums’ but fancy each other, fall out, get jealous, be angry because someone doesn’t write. I find these little suggestions far more convincing than the declarations in the Marston Baines books. Elizabeth Langton in the Nettleford series is very flirty and so is the ‘Jillies’ heroine Amanda. This is not at all the way a Chalet Girl would behave, or Monica Edwards’ Tamzin and Rissa. Saville was a much better writer than he’s often given credit for. If you ask someone why they don’t like him, the answer is invariably, ‘I can’t stand those Morton twins!’ No one can stand the Morton twins, except their long-suffering brother. Just one of the reasons that Jonathan Warrender is my favourite Lone Pine character is that he finds the twins irritating. It’s a pity to write off a complete oeuvre because of a couple of characters whom even the author admits are a pain at times.
A little in-joke from Power of Three. When everything has been resolved and the villains rounded up, ‘From somebody’s radio or record-player far away came the cheeky, haunting lilt of Puppet on a String.' I find this amusing because it’s known that the old boy had a bit of a thing for Sandie Shaw.
The Marston Baines books
Three Towers in Tuscany 1963
The Purple Valley 1964
Dark Danger 1965
White Fire 1966
Power of Three 1968
The Dagger and the Flame 1970
Marston – Master Spy 1978