It was an interesting experience to read the first volume of Andre Norton’s World War II spy-thriller trilogy while on lockdown for a global pandemic. I’ve always heard the stories of what it was like to live during The War as my parents referred to it, the sacrifices that had to be made, the rationing, the safety measures: blackout curtains, curfews, and all the rest of it. And the lists of the dead and wounded, and the bodies coming home.
It’s not the same. And yet in its way it is. So reading a novel written during the war and published in 1944, when the author had no way to know how it would end, felt weirdly apposite.
The story is familiar from legions of war stories, both written and filmed, both contemporary and later. It’s also reminiscent of Norton’s first published novel, The Prince Commands, in that it’s about a young man of eighteen, heir to a wealthy European house, who has been deliberately cast out by the stern head of the family. In this case the house is a merchant one of great antiquity, a family of jewelers in the Netherlands, and the head of it, young Lorens’ grandfather, is dying.
It’s 1940 and the war is just beginning. The Nazis are moving in on the Netherlands. The House of Norreys has been preparing for the worst. Lorens was publicly rejected by his grandfather for good reason: to keep the Nazis from using him to get access to the family’s wealth. Now the old man is on his deathbed, and he confirms that Lorens is his heir, but also commands him to leave before the invasion is complete.
There is one object that will be the saving of the house. It’s an ugly but extremely valuable necklace called the Flowers of Orange. Lorens is to hide it in a safe hidden deep under the mansion, with a very unusual lock. The lock is on a timer and once sealed by a password that only Lorens knows, will not open for exactly two years.
With what will become classic Norton speed, the Nazis arrive—guided by a perfidious employee—just in time for the grandfather to die and for Lorens to make a break for it, leaving the house in ruins behind him and the necklace secure in the subterranean safe. Underground hiding places are just about universal in Norton novels, and here is a very early and suitably complicated example.
Lorens escapes from the Netherlands with the help, first, of an old retainer who happens to be Malaysian, then of a sea captain who calls himself a Free Trader, that is, a smuggler. Then off to the Far East he goes to find his cousin Piet, who is older but who is too much of an adventurer to be suited to the management of the company.
Lorens’ adventures in Java, then in Australia and America before he returns to the Netherlands to retrieve the necklace, are rather disjointed. After all the buildup about the dashing Piet, we don’t see the cousins’ meeting at all, and most of what we do see is Lorens cooling his heels in the jungle while the war goes on elsewhere. Just as with the Nazis, the Japanese finally invade, and Lorens just barely escapes—only to crash in the Australian outback. He then spends months in recovery and emerges with a distinct limp that becomes gradually better as he travels across the United States.
It becomes enough better in fact that he takes stalking lessons from a Native American in Oklahoma. He does not take parachuting lessons from an airman in London, but he picks up enough to be able to drop into his old country without killing himself. To further add to the unbelievability of it all, he lands in the middle of Gestapo headquarters, which also features a Resistance cell, and another cousin who may or may not be a traitor. And there the novel comes to a conclusion, with the finding of the necklace and a typically abrupt ending. And another convenient explosion. Though maybe not as effective as Lorens might hope. Nazis, like demons, have a way of coming back from apparent destruction.
It’s clear there’s more to come. The plotting is so herky-jerky and so much of it doesn’t seem to relate to anything else, that maybe it will make more sense later. Characters show up and then vanish—Piet, Klaas the old retainer who (to be fair) turns up at the end in a really lovely and rather satisfying way, the Free Trader captain and his crew of stalwart relatives, the Chinese-American pilot who lets Lorens know that he’s totally American and don’t you forget it. We never do get to see the Native American military man who teaches Lorens how to scout and stalk, but he has a name and a background, so maybe later he’ll appear onstage? One would hope.
Mostly the plot is about Lorens spinning wheels till it’s time to retrieve the necklace from its very strictly timed (but not really after all; so much for that) lockup. Individual bits are quickly enough paced and decently constructed, but they don’t hang together particularly well. That’s an art Norton seems to have learned later.
It’s really interesting to see elements that would become staples of her work, all right here in larval form. The Free Traders, the raffish captain, the careful depiction of Chinese-American and Native American characters as “just like us,” though the latter is still stereotyped by the skills he teaches Lorens. Nevertheless, for the time, it’s remarkable.
Norton’s fascination with gems shines through, too, and the House of Norreys and the overall plot remind me more than a bit of her Murdoc Jern series. She moved on later to alien worlds and starfaring adventures, but the roots are here, the themes and settings, plots and characters.
Next time I’ll move on to the second volume of the three, Sword in Sheath.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has even written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.