|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on October 3, 2019 at 9:35 PM|
Arthur Maling, the author of 1980’s winner, The Rheingold Route, is a difficult author for whom to collect biographical background. Various sources I consulted agreed in giving the following information: he was born into a famous shoe family, Maling Brothers, he went to Harvard, he served in the Navy during World War II, and went back to running Maling Brothers after (or at the same time as) writing his books. I finally found a source with more interesting information about him, but that turned out to be a different mystery blog that is also reviewing the Edgar winners, but faster. I’ll have more to say about that column in my next posting, but I didn’t think it was appropriate to benefit from their research.
The book was equally obscure – like some other past winners, such as The Lingala Code, I could only get my hands on a used copy, which again turned out to be an old library’s copy. The Fairfax County Public Library, to be specific. Patrick Henry Branch.
What the Rheingold Route is, is a particular route from London to Switzerland through the Netherlands using a train called the Rheingold Express. A shady lawyer in London named Garwood simultaneously sets two men in motion along this route. He hires a man named John Cochrane to smuggle three hundred thousand pounds from London to Switzerland; he tells Cochrane that these funds belong to a woman who is soon to die and whose son (Garwood’s nephew) hopes to get the funds early and avoid estate taxes. Garwood also hires another shady character named Kenneth O’Rourke to intercept Cochrane and recover the money before Cochrane gets there. To keep things tidy, he coerces Cochrane to using the Rheingold Route and it becomes obvious to us that this is to make things easy for O’Rourke. Why Garwood is setting two contradictory schemes in motion is part of the mystery, though most readers won’t be very surprised at the reason.
John Cochrane is an expert smuggler who joined the smuggling game after a personal tragedy that saps his will to live. You might wonder if it was just an unfortunate coincidence that Maling’s hero has the same name as O. J. Simpson’s lawyer – after all, the O. J. trial was in the 90s and The Rheingold Route was published in 1979. But the real-world Johnny Cochran had already defended Lenny Bruce by 1979 so presumably was in the news. What bothers me more about Maling’s Cochran is that he is another in a recurring series of “troubled” protagonists who the reader is supposed to find intriguing because of their flaws and then their flaws are strenuously explained away to return their character to perfect plainness. Cochrane’s quickly vanishing flaw is first hinted at on p. 20, when we learn that the death of someone named Stephanie sent Cochrane into a spiral that left him unemployable and unable to love – and thus susceptible to join the high-risk and ethics-free world of smuggling. By p. 80 (of 276) he has blurted out to a date with whom he has been set up that Stephanie was his daughter and he killed her. Four pages later, it is revealed that Cochrane blames himself for Stephanie’s death because he kidnapped her while he had custody and she died of meningitis because they couldn’t get to a hospital in time. Then he’s over it and can fall in love and has something to live for. Kidnapping your own child is a real crime but Maling toils tirelessly to make it clear to the reader that this didn’t really cause Stephanie’s death and Cochrane is really a swell guy. The crime does serve the purpose of seemingly preventing Cochrane from returning to anything like his old life.
Meanwhile, his antagonist O’Rourke is quite amoral and has been reassured by Garwood that the death of his quarry is not a deal-breaker. O’Rourke is comically racist, vain, and xenophobic. A big deal is also made of the fact that he is bisexual – to me 1979 is very late in the history of mystery for sexual orientation to still be part of a villain’s profile. Maybe Maling was only trying to demonstrate that O’Rourke is so vain that he can not imagine anyone of any sex or orientation not finding him irresistible.
So a cat and mouse ensues between Cochrane and O’Rourke which actually I started to find more interesting when it got into the technicalities of travel. The European scenery and milieu was also surprisingly interesting and partly made up for the unconvincing characters.
Categories: Edgar Winner Reviews (No Spoilers)