Elected at the age of 34 as the member for Coventry in the Labour wave that swept Churchill out of as Prime Minister after VE Day, Maurice Edelman served in Parliament until his death 30 years later. And while he may not have enjoyed the historical fame of Disraeli or the sales of Jeffery Archer, he may be the supreme representative of that exclusive class, the British MP-slash-novelist. Between 1951 and 1974, he published over a dozen novels, along with a handful of non-fiction works.
While I wouldn’t call him a great writer, Edelman was certainly adept at producing novels that managed to be both entertaining and intelligent. His paperback publishers tended to slap racy covers on his books in blatant attempts to convince unsuspecting browsers into thinking them essentially indistinguishable from other shelf fodder. One can picture copies of A Dream of Treason or Shark Island or Disraeli in Love next to the finest works of Erle Stanley Gardner, Mac Bolan or Barbara Cartland. Had he been more of a publicity hound, he might even have been able to boost his numbers into Jeffery Archer’s range.
If you were to judge by their covers–and if they weren’t pandering, they were just boring–you’d think Edelman’s books fully deserve their fate today: utterly forgotten and disregarded. But good things sometimes hide behind terrible packaging. Flip past the title page of any of his novels, and you will find material far more subtle, sophisticated and intelligent that you’d have reason to suspect.
A Dream of Treason, his third novel (1955), is a perfect example. Its protagonist, Martin Lambert, is a mid-level civil servant in the Foreign Office who appears to be doomed to spend the rest of his career in mediocrity. Lambert is married to an alcoholic who’s spent her recent years hopping into Lambert’s colleague’s beds, spending months in institutions, or making scenes at embassy affairs–in other words, a frightful liaibility for an aspiring diplomat. Too unstable a property to risk putting her husband in more prominent positions.
Until he’s approached by Brangwyn, the brash and ambitious new Foreign Secretary, with a proposal to pass some controversial state papers to a radical French journalist. It is a patently treasonous act, and Brangwyn has marked Lambert as someone just desperate enough to do it, in return for a posting that will give his career a second wind. The deal is made, and Lambert makes the drop in a quiet room of the National Gallery, looking forward to a move to Tokyo.
And then Brangwyn dies in a plane crash, leaving Lambert with no posting, no protector, and no alibi. The leaked material makes the expected splash in the French press, and the Foreign Office security officers begin hunting for its source. Lambert is quickly suspected but the investigation is pursued with typical bureaucratic deliberation–which means he is allowed to spend days wondering about his fate and his options. Edelman is quite effective in portraying the plight of a man who is about to be caught and has no good way out.
But he is at his best in capturing the intricate interplay between politics and bureaucracy that defines the workings of British government. The permanence of the Civil Service and the transcience of part-led governments creates an environment where the leaders can often find themselves subordinated to the people who are meant to follow them. Lambert’s biggest mistake, the Permanent Undersecretary–the senior civil servant in the Foreign Office–points out to him, was to put his faith in a politician rather than in his own kind:
“I’ll tell you this, Martin. The politician’s never been born who in the long run can stand up to a determined Civil Servant. Oh, I know that some tough Minister can come along and throw his weight about. He’ll stir up the Department study the functional diagram say he wants this and that. And then he’ll have to go off to a dinner or a conference or to a Cabinet meeting. And in the meantime, the Civil Servant will be co-operating with his great ally inertia. Inertia: it’s eminent among the graces.”
Edelman is at his worst, however, when he wanders from office and club into the realm of sex. There is a romance, between Lambert and a girl of nineteen. It is veddy British and veddy icky: “He put his arm around her waist and from there, under her left armpit, and they walked together slowly and with out speaking towards the light of the postern-gate, while beneath his fingers, he felt her breast, firm and pendant in the rhythm of their motion.” This is low, not love.
If you can overlook the ham-fisted attempts at romance, A Dream of Treason is remarkably successful as a thinking person’s entertainment, the sort of thing you read as a nice break between weightier books. I’ve ordered a couple more of Edelman’s novels for just such occasions.
You can find electronic copies of A Dream of Treason online at the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/dreamoftreason001478mbp.