Monday, October 10, 2016
Dick Pemberty—introduced in Vultures of the Sky—is an attractive young man with crinkly fair hair; his sparse frame is as hard as steel and his behind his looks is a keen brain. Pemberty has worked for his uncle in a new department of the Home Office set up to investigate the activities of different subversive political organisations. Dick is recommended by his uncle to Sir Ralph Bennington of the Empire Insurance Company, who are investigating the loss over the English Channel of a number of gold-carrying aircraft. The coasts of England and France have been scoured, but there is no sign of the crashed planes, although wreckage is later found at another location not on the route.
"It's a strange coincidence that only the planes with gold on them have been lost," observes Dick. There are plenty of other coincidences throughout the book, the first being that Sir Ralph's daughter, Laura, is a rival to Dick on the track at Brooklands. Dick and Laura eventually establish that information about the aircraft is being leaked from the office of Empire's director Sir Herbert Morton through his secretary, Miss Morton—actually Sonia Dubrocoff, wife of one of the most infamous criminals of the age, Serge Dubrocoff.
After his planes have been shot up and sabotaged and he has shaken off the attentions of Sonia Dubrocoff, Dick discovers the Russian's underground lair, where Dubrocoff is holding Sir Ralph and his daughter. Vultures ends in a huge gun battle, a desperate search for Laura and a near watery grave for our heroes.
Condé weaves together all these elements into what could easily be an entertaining Bond movie. The novel is fun and frantic and although Dick Pemberty himself is a cliché of young British action heroes of that era, the pace and wild plot make up for it.
Love, of course, wins through and by the second novel, Death from the Air, Dick and Laura are married. Serge Dubrocoff returns and attempts to hold up the British Government: after murdering several prominent Government officials, he threatens to annihilate London by means of an invisible poison gas unless he is paid... one million pounds!
In The Ghost Plane Dubrocoff is involved in dope-smuggling and gun-running with the aid of a mystery helicopter, while in The Devil Has Wings, Dubrocoff uses the latest discoveries of science to help him in his plan to rob the Bank of England. In later novels, the stakes are even higher. In Spawn of the Hawk, havoc follows a practice air raid defence exercise over London when real torpedoes are dropped. War looms when a second exercise is disrupted by an unknown plane which proves to belong to a European power when it is brought down in the Thames. By the time we reach The Case of the Crazy Pilot, the prize is a cool five million pounds in bonds.
In each of these adventures, Dick Pemberty of the Home Office recognises the hand of his arch nemesis, Serge Dubrocoff, and he is occasionally aided by Sam, a feature writer for The Recorder, who was introduced briefly in the first book.
Whilst Dick Pemberty battled his foe across a dozen books, Phillip Condé had a second string to his bow. Scotland Yard's Inspector Irving Todd debuted in Murder in the Cockpit and resolved seven cases involving mysteries set in and around aircraft. The Corpse in the Clouds, for instance, involved a body falling from an aeroplane; Death Takes the Joystick begins with a crash-landing and puts Todd on the trail of dope traffickers; Murder at 10,000 Feet involves the death of a pilot whilst high in the air; and Dead Reckoning opens with an escaping murderer killing one pilot and making the other and a passenger jump while he takes the plane.
Critic J. R. Wilmot believed Murder at 10,000 Feet to be "a first-class air thriller into which the author has packed plenty of action without losing the sense of mystery," (Liverpool Evening Express, 1 February 1939) and this was the general tone of reviews for Condé's "thrillers" (as they were called), which were swift moving tales full of exciting incidents.
Novels (series: P = Dick Pemberty; T = Irving Todd)
Vultures of the Sky (P) (London, Wright & Brown, [Nov] 1935; abridged, Mellifont, 1937)
Death from the Air (P) (London, Wright & Brown, [Jun] 1936; abridged, Mellifont, 1940)
Murder in the Cockpit (T) (London, Wright & Brown, 1936; abridged, Mellifont, 1939)
The Phantom Pilot (T) (London, Wright & Brown, 1936; abridged, Mellifont, 1939)
The Ghost Plane (P) (London, Wright & Brown, [Dec] 1936; abridged, Mellifont, 1937)
The Corpse in the Clouds (T) (London, Wright & Brown, [Jun] 1937; abridged, Mellifont, 1938)
The Devil Has Wings (P) (London, Wright & Brown, [Jul] 1937; abridged, Mellifont, 1938)
Death Takes the Joystick (T) (London, Wright & Brown, [Oct] 1937; abridged, Mellifont, 1940; Ramble House, 2006)
Pilots' Graveyard (P) (London, Wright & Brown, [Dec] 1937; abridged, Mellifont, 1939)
Spawn of the Hawk (P) (London, Wright & Brown, [May] 1938; abridged, Mellifont, 1940)
Skyway Vampire (T) (London, Wright & Brown, [Jul] 1938; abridged, Mellifont, 1940)
Death Loop (P) (London, Wright & Brown, [Jul] 1938, abridged, Mellifont, 1940)
Murder at 10,000 Feet (T) (London, Wright & Brown, [Nov] 1938; abridged, Mellifont, 1940)
Dead-Reckoning (T) (London, Wright & Brown, [Dec] 1938; abridged, Mellifont, 1940)
The Case of the Crazy Pilot (P) (London, Wright & Brown, 1938 [Jan 1939]; abridged, Mellifont, 1943)
Mystery of the Vanishing Aerodrome (P) (London, Wright & Brown, Mar 1939; abridged, Mellifont, 1940)
Secret of the Scarlet Bomber (P) (London, Wright & Brown, Aug 1939; abridged, Mellifont, 1940)
Visibility Nil (London, Wright & Brown, Jan 1940)
Death Laughs Aloft (P) (London, Wright & Brown, 1940)