WRITING about Gun Cotton is rather like writing about a friend—you don't quite know whether you are going to offend him or not. It's a well-established fact that big agonies arise out of little agonies, so I wrote to him and told him what I was going to do, and added rather wittily, "As soon as a man makes a success in opera he's got to make a song about it." But Gun Cotton knows a man must make his living somehow. An Englishman's home may be his castle, but there are usually a few tax collectors passing over the drawbridge. So he told me to go ahead—we all like a full stocking at Christmas after all, and the good things in life are not always free; let me call your attention to the price of caviare!
I suppose in some ways Gun Cotton is not an easy person to get on with, because he's a moody person. Of course he's really extraordinarily tolerant, and admitted one day that he could even like people who disliked dogs. Frankly, I enjoy being Gun Cotton's Boswell. When I said Boswell, of course, Boswell was a great biographer, and obviously I'm not a great biographer.
Gun Cotton is always on the move, and not in a smart way, ship's labels, wanted on the voyage, or, on the other hand, not wanted on the voyage; his ships never have more than one funnel, and there's no army of stewards or an American bar.
We find our way down to the London Docks and board one of those old steamers you see down there, and then we nose our way out to the open sea. I suppose I'm lucky to have nothing else to do but follow the fellow around. We've had some wonderful adventures.
Some of you may remember that sinister inn, the "Pity Me" it was called, and it was in the Fen Country all very gloomy, and that dreadful man Grood was the landlord. I can see him now standing in the doorway, suspicious and calculating. That was a lonely terrifying place, yet I believe that Cotton grew to like it in the end, and it was there at Pan Meadow, by the way, that he ran into Toni. He always had the luck to meet girls—kind and charming ones, fascinating girls, out of the ordinary girls. Toni had a little stammer and a violet farm. Well, of course, when one writes it down about a girl stammering it sounds rather absurd, but I must get these things down as they are. Gun Cotton loves New York because he makes it an excuse to go to Montreal on the way, and he likes Montreal even better. He likes travelling about. The fun of travelling, he says, is knowing that you haven't got to remain in the place you're visiting.
We had a terrific business in New York once. I thought I'd written the last of Gun Cotton when he met Padroni and his gangster boy friends, and they didn't understand Gun; he was in his best form, cool and very firm with them. That little Italian was a dirty bit of work, and the whole adventure was a grim business. We lay low after that at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Then came that visit to Ritzenhausen like a Ruritanian romance, and I called it Death Rides the Forest. The most charming villain that Gun ever met, Maurice of Stalheim, lived at Ritzenhausen. Gun liked the fellow, admired his daring, and matched his own daring and insolence against that of Maurice. It was one of those pistols-for-two, coffee-for-one affairs. He had a duel with Maurice in the end, and killed him—rather a faux pas in a way, but he managed to get over the Ritzenhausen frontier safely in the end.
Of course, there was a girl mixed up in that, young, beautiful, and an archduchess. All very complete, and she had seven names, one for every day of the week—Valerie, Sophia, Anatasia, Johanna, Stephanie, Antonia, Louisa. She married Greville, a friend of Gun's; it was Greville, by the way, who once said that a cat had nine lives, and Gun ten.
Last year we went to South Africa. I called that adventure, Gun Cotton Secret Agent. Gun fell for the country and the people like an apple from an apple-tree. He nearly fell for a most experienced vamp too, which wasn't so good. Carnation was her name. Of course, a fellow's bound to meet with a few adventuresses when he's leading a life which is one long chain of adventure, hairbreadth escapes, plots, and counter-plots. In Secret Service you soon get into a world of secret happenings and hushed whisperings, when things happen very suddenly and very quietly. It has just occurred to me that I'm writing more about myself than Gun Cotton. I'm like the goose that grew so fat he couldn't make up his mind whether to be all goose or all liver.
We went to Finland recently—I've written a book about it; called it Escape with Gun Cotton, not very highbrow or modern as a title, but still it's a title and it's an exciting story. In Finland, Gun Cotton got into one tight corner after another, and no sooner was he out of one tight corner than he got into another tight corner. He was smuggling people out of Russia into Finland—by the way, we've just returned from Russia. Leningrad, Moscow, and all that, and there was more trouble there. I'm writing it up now; we were soon in trouble with the Gay-pay-oo that's the Foreign Office and the Scotland Yard of Russia all rolled into one. They were waiting for us, even had Gun's dossier and photostats, so that we walked right into it.
In Secret Service a man should be able to see through a brick wall, mind-read like a medium, and be able to hear the flowers growing. Gun can't do any of these., so we were lucky not to get flung into the local bastille. Russia's rather like a gas-mask; it's difficult to get into, and when you're in it's most difficult to find your way out. Talking about difficulties, you've no idea how difficult it is to write about a friend not yet dead. But Gun Cotton's very much alive. He hates people with fixed ideas and he's been saying that for years. I wonder how many of the people who read thrillers realize how unpleasant and terrifying the adventure can be while it is going on.
Adventures, Gun once told me, are things that you can only enjoy once they're over. This is probably quite untrue, because I know that Gun can tell a lie as well as any other man, and stick to it too.
Most people like reading about Secret Service, but obviously Secret Service is not easy to write about. Readers expect it all to be exciting, but actually in Secret Service, just as in a ship's log, there are bound to be dull days when nothing takes place. I've always tried in telling Gun Cotton's adventures not to exaggerate the thrilling moments, and at the same time keep the sense of ordinary events and ordinary things that have to be done in Secret Service. There are two popular conceptions of Secret Service, Some people think of it as a life of continual adventure and perpetual risks; the other people merely as an interesting and often dull occupation, and that the only excitement about it is in the imagination of the author who is anxious to feed a thrill-hungry public. Actually the Service can be appallingly exciting once a man is prepared to leave the paths of safety as Gun Cotton has always been. To be a successful agent a man must be discreet, and Gun Cotton carried this protective and valuable quality like a hidden shirt of mail. Another quality that Gun Cotton possesses is charm and the kind of charm that can command. There are three things Gun always says that must be avoided in Secret Service: Publicity, Poison, and Policemen—one might add policewomen.
Gun Cotton's been lucky to escape out of some of the positions fate has thrown him into, and he's not afraid of admitting that it was luck that got him out; so many people get a lucky break—I believe it*s called a "break" in these days—and they pretend they schemed the whole thing out.
It's very difficult to tell just what does thrill people. A fellow's first kiss, I suppose, but after a procession of sweethearts he gets used to kissing; a fight can be unpleasant with bullets zipping around and that sort of thing.
The other day Gun Cotton said to me, "I'll give you a real thrill," so we got together our hats and coats and things, and he took me along to a dingy old building in Chancery Lane, and there he showed me the Domesday Book, and love letters from Queen Elizabeth to her favourites, and Guy Fawkes's signature before torture and the second signature after torture, which certainly wasn't so good. That did thrill me, but it's murders that seem to really thrill most people, even the good old-fashioned murders. Gun's been mixed up in a few in his time. The criminal mind thrills people—crime, when some strange tenant has wandered into the wrong cell of some poor devil's mind. The door has been opened, freeing some sort of irritability, the other cells automatically close. Only one dangerous cell is awake, night follows, a shriek, hurrying footsteps. Next morning the newspapers; before the headlines are in type the saner cells have begun to work, but too late to save the criminal—guilt! fear! escape! But there are other criminals. The ones that Gun has met who use every cell, and every cell is attuned— caution, reason, cunning; not professional these, but just brilliant amateurs, and they leave no trace, no clue, no reason, just a faint sigh where others would leave suspicion. I'm afraid I'm getting a bit morbid, I forgot to tell you that Gun's a reasonable fellow in a way, but if you try to oppose him it's like meeting an elephant in a one-way alley!
If I can't tell you more about Gun Cotton, it's because he's a strange fellow with many facets to his character, and because I'm a writer, and as you no doubt already realize, not a particularly good one. Gun goes directly to those ideas beyond style and custom that give him real pleasure, half believing in earthly felicity; he fills my life with colour, and who knows, perhaps he may do the same for you. Glimpses of the past steal like dreams to my mind, memories from the shadowy past, like a long road of stars and tears and laughter, the scent of orange-groves and the song of the sea, dark eyes, strong warm arms, soft lips and curly hair. A star-reflecting iceberg, and the graceful sweep of wind-blown palms, A lonely inn, crouching in the boggy depths of fenland. Sunshine creeping round a pool of shadow, downcast eyes and long silk lashes, and the smell of well-worn leather in a droshky, a crimson flag with sickle and hammer above the Kremlin wall, a blood-red splash against the northern sky blazing with stars, and somewhere in the distance I seem to hear the sound of Gun Cotton laughing softly and very charmingly.
Which reminds me that we've an appointment at Harry Craddock's bar at the Savoy with two dry martinis, and if I'm late Gun Cotton won't be laughing softly or very charmingly!
See also Rupert Grayson bibliography
Text © 1935 Rupert Grayson-Allen & Unwin Layout © 2004 R.D. Collins
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