The Augustus Mandrell series
(the Commissions)
by Frank McAuliffe
  

Review Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a series, or episodic novel, in three books:
1. Of All the Bloody Cheek        1965; 224 pages
2. Rather a Vicious Gentleman  1968; 213 pages
3. For Murder I Charge More     1971; 310 pages

Ballantine: New York

March 2005

  
The Commissions of August Mandrell

I was in London when I received the General LaCorte Commission. LaCorte was in France. Our lack of proximity did not appear too formidable a hurdle. Making one's way about a land caught up in the chaos of invasion is a rather simple matter, requiring but a judicious use of cheek.

Ah, but crossing the Channel, there was another matter. The extraordinary security arrangements that had been imposed at the Channel ports prior to the launching of the D-Day invasion had, for some reason, been kept rather intact. ...

The military rabble in control were very officious about who should board the Continent-bound troopships. Something more potent than counterfeit identity papers would be necessary. ...

Another four days were lost as I went about London attempting to muster a small theatrical group. I wanted four female dancers and a middle-aged buffoon. They would accompany me to France, at my expense, and we would do our bit toward relieving the tension of front-line warfare. You haven't been forgotten, lads.

The Augustus Mandrell series by Frank McAuliffe comprises a dozen stories, sly, subtle, witty and even hilarious, and designedly murderous escapades. These are related by Augustus Mandrell himself in terms of a series of Commissions to his small and exclusive firm, Mandrell Limited. The Commissions are generally murder-for-hire. The stories are thus a personal and business history of a master of disguise, deception, and carefully accomplished illegal mayhem. Augustus Mandrell is every inch an English professional, and he does not want you to forget it.

In fact, part of the reason for his history is to set the record straight, lest his reputation rest on official confusions and inaccuracies,

to cleanse the absurd dossiers being compiled by a variety of policing establishments ...

I do not want to leave the impression that the FBI is the only agency compiling blatant misinformation on my activities. Surely the Mexico City police are engaging in some monstrous joke when they link my name with the abrupt demise in 1940 of Mr. Leon Trotsky. The very method employed, a pickax blow delivered to the brain, is hardly a technique one associates with Mandrell Limited.

These Commissions are not mysteries in the sense of whodunits; we know who does the crime: Augustus Mandrell. Although we may be surprised at who actually pulls the trigger or otherwise lowers the boom, because Mandrell often uses misdirection and allows others, with or without clear motive, to do the actual deed. We often are surprised at who actually does and does not eventually wind up listed as deceased.

Here are the books and the Commissions:

Of All the Bloody Cheek
    The Dr. Sherrock Commission (England, 1939)
    The Iranian Farmer Commission (Iran, 1942)
    The General LaCorte Commission (France, 1944)
    The Scotland Yard Commission (England & France, 1945)

Rather a Vicious Gentleman
    The Sealed Tomb Commission (England, 1947)
    The Bullrusher Commission (England, 1946)
    The American Mistress Commission (England, 1943)
    The Irish Monster Commission (England & Ireland, 1941)

For Murder I Charge More
    The German Tourist Commission (Ireland, 1945)
    The Hawaiian Volcano Commission (Ireland to America, 1945)
    The Baseball Commission (America, 1948)
    The American Apple Pie Commission (America, 1950)
  

Commissions in time and wartime

The Commissions are listed in the order related, and they really should be read in this order. The dozen stories are tightly related, and the effect is cumulative, as an extended, open novel. (It's unfortunate that no magazine has taken the opportunity to run the whole series.)

Frank McAuliffe successfully weaves his plots back and forth in time, a feat much oftener attempted than successful. It takes a rare sense of history in an author to accomplish this with clarity and suspense. As an incidental benefit, the reader looks at the historical period slightly askance, and new aspects spring to the eye. (Raintree County by Ross Lockridge is a great exemplar of this technique.) The backward-stepping through Rather a Vicious Gentleman is a delight.

In the manner of Dr. Watson's unpublished cases of Sherlock Holmes, Mandrell alludes occasionally to other Commissions, perhaps told already, or never to be.

As you see from the dates above, McAuliffe's target range is in the dozen years in and around World War II. (My year assignments are from internal evidence; Mandrell is occasionally deliberately imprecise, and there are short flashbacks which I ignore for this.)

A number of characters are in assorted militaries, and there are events on the fringe of the great war: smuggling; prisoner escape; refugee escape; change of identity; black marketeering; and of course Mandrell's specialty, assassination. Key characters reappear, sometimes with different occupations or names, in the military and then out, in legal activity or not or frequently both at once. A lot of the fun in the Augustus Mandrell stories is these frequent reappearances, sometimes with grudging respect for Mandrell, sometimes ex-customer turning into enemy.
  

1. Of All the Bloody Cheek

Beginning the series, "The Dr. Sherrock Commission" is the only one entirely pre-war, and even it has characters we will see again later. This is the shortest and simplest Commission, which begins to establish the reputation and fortunes of Mandrell Limited, but also shows the reader the basics of how Mandrell operates, without the complexity and wartime background in the future escapades. McAuliffe builds from here, with increasingly subtle contrivances, reappearing characters, delayed comeuppance, and so on.

To get a proper impression of the series, of McAuliffe's intent and talent, we must read at a minimum all the way through Of All the Bloody Cheek and watch delightedly as plot threads tangle; as criminals, military men and women, respectable businessmen and socialites, all struggle their way through the wartime period; resorting only when absolutely necessary to the true professional of murder-for-hire, Augustus Mandrell.

McAuliffe begins to hit his stride in "The General LaCorte Commission", wherein Mandrell forms a little troupe of dancing girls to win access to an American prisoner-of-war camp to get at a turncoat French officer. Mandrell has some close calls here, but as usual, those who try to block him have it worse, hilariously worse. In "The Scotland Yard Commission", with Mandrell hired by war-enriched smugglers to eliminate the top police official in Great Britain, we see McAuliffe's fast action and beautifully intricate plotting in precision high flight.
  

2. Rather a Vicious Gentleman

In the succeeding and progressively longer collections (smaller print), the stories allow more development of each Commission, and our old pals tend to come around again.

"The Sealed Tomb Commission" is memorable as an attempt at locked-room murder in a really tight environment, an ultra-secure British base holding a Nazi war criminal for trial. "The Bullrusher Commission" shows Mandrell in exquisite form, crashing a country-estate wedding party as Italian dress designer Signor Orlando of the House of LeRoy.

Other favorites of mine include the multifaceted (I should say, multi-Commissioned and multi-victimed) "American Mistress Commission"; and the socially and anthropologically outrageous "Irish Monster Commission". Lovely Hope Cornflower appears in all these, and she is seductively featured in the latter two.
  

3. For Murder I Charge More

These Commissions move into the postwar era, but carrying naturally the gaggle of low-lifes (respectable or not) which we've encountered during the war. "The German Tourist Commission" leads off, Mandrell waiting (in disguise) for a small plane at a damp potato field in Ireland:

Apparently the General was in no hurry to join the three of us. One could hardly blame the man. Two of us, myself and the Jew, were waiting to kill him. The Irishman was waiting to steal his money.

Ah, but we knew that General Von Ritterdorf had to come. So we waited.

The wet wind found its way through the hedge and swept upon us again. ...

"The Hawaiian Volcano Commission" includes smuggling — to name just the most conspicuous item — a surplus American bomber westward across the Atlantic aboard SS Haleakala. "The Baseball Commission" revolves around blocking (without mayhem) the New York Giants from winning the Pennant. This almost partakes of the supernatural intervention (you may prefer diabolical unlikelihood) of Douglass Wallop's The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (the musical comedy Damn Yankees). These two Commissions are substantial novellas, slower-paced but elaborate, allowing more characters more time to cook the plots. "The American Apple Pie Commission" neatly but too soon wraps up the extant stories.
  

Simon Redwool

In the latter stories we incidentally learn about Simon Redwool, a dubious figure of the 19th Century American West who is of mysterious and expensive interest to select current folks. Mandrell is accumulating letters mentioning him; the Simon Redwool letter with the Jesse James bloodstains is for instance much sought after. Mandrell's adventures are open-ended, but I believe the Simon Redwool business (although quite satisfactory as it stands) may still be developing at the end of the third book, and I've always wished to see it further integrated into Mandrell's own life.

(I'm told that Frank McAuliffe left a couple of unpublished Commissions, which we may hope to see in print.)
  

Characters and false characters

Mandrell has an eye for the women, although as a disciplined professional he does not let flirtation or seduction interfere with a Commission. Nevertheless in some Commissions, flirtation or seduction is part of his subtle planning, or even of his delightful improvising in deadly danger to save his own skin when plans go awry. The shared warm-up exercises called gymcrack may be useful to warm the ladies' willingness. Mandrell's affairs during Commissions are funny, sexy, even a little romantic; although with Mandrell in disguise, oftimes the ladies are hard put to explain afterwards just what happened and why.

There is a wonderful cast of characters: Sally Hickey, the multi-marrying; Louis Proferra, the American Intelligence officer who is Mandrell's implacable foe; Keith Coder, the adroit British general; Bertie Roche, the Spitfire pilot; Jeannie Champlain, the French Communist girl; Marcel the Dwarf, best pistol-shot of the Paris underworld; General "Geronimo" Starkey, owner of the Brazilian banking firm, Uni-Coffee; Hope Cornflower, of the true and sweetly trusting nature; General Helmut von Ritterdorf, late of the Reich; Gretel Oxenriter, the blonde motorcycle chauffeur; Corporal Alice Ranger, of the US Army Logistic Command. And lots more.

Additionally, we have Augustus Mandrell's tremendous range of guises and impersonations. Like Sherlock Holmes, Mandrell employs a gaggle of disreputable associates and go-betweens, most of whom are Mandrell himself. Since the Commissions are told in first-person by Mandrell, we are never at a loss as to who he is, however outre Mandrell's personality or disguise. The other characters are, with one notable misdirection, presented clearly up-front also. (Dorothy Dunnett mars her historical novels by bringing her viewpoint character on-stage in new guises without letting the reader know, which I find tiresome.) McAuliffe now and then lets Mandrell discourse interestingly on disguise and deception.
  

Parting shots

Is any there any ethical component to these stories? You may discern some flickers. Mandrell is not respectful of army, police, or other government bureaucracies; he has on more grounds than most people incurred their just hostility. On the other hand, Mandrell's individual targets often seem to deserve what they get, although he disdains any ethical trappings to his professional work. His personal streaks of justice and sentimentality and lust turn up occasionally. In any circumstances, commissioning a task from Mandrell Limited, but then not paying, is a bad idea.

In fact, reading those inaccurate police dossiers is a bad idea. You wouldn't want to get the wrong impression of Augustus Mandrell and the professionally subtle operations of Mandrell Limited, would you? Much better to study these Commissions as related by Mandrell himself. You will be glad you did.

  


  
Frank McAuliffe (1926-1986) was a writing colleague and friend of my father's at General Dynamics / Astronautics at the height of the Cold War and the rocketing heyday of the aerospace business. I am indebted to his giving our family Of All the Bloody Cheek and introducing us to the Commissions of Augustus Mandrell, which — as I trust I've made clear — I still greatly enjoy.

  

© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
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