The prisoner of Zenda
(Anthony Hope, 1894)
The Zenda vendetta
(Simon Hawke, 1985)

Hope's original book is a dashing tale of adventure in a middle European kingdom. Rudolf, about to be crowned king of Ruritania, is kidnapped by Black Michael, his half-brother; but just then an Englishman, also called Rudolf and bearing a remarkable resemblance to his namesake (of whom he's a distant blood relation), happens to visit the country and is persuaded by a pair of loyalists to impersonate the kidnapped king until he can be rescued. There are castles to be stormed, swordsmen to be outfought, and a beautiful princess who falls in love with the fake king.

It's a robust plot with some potentially lively characters. But the English hero, though brave and reasonably honourable, is an overgrown schoolboy and almost as much of a bullet-headed oaf as the members of the gang he's up against. The conduct of his romance with the rather insipid princess Flavia is quite implausible.

A good yarn, then, but not especially well told.

Much later, along comes Simon Hawke, in search of somewhere new to send his time commandos (already veterans of three previous novels); and he cheekily clocks them back from 27th century Los Angeles to 19th century Ruritania, charged with the unlikely mission of preserving the course of history as documented in Hope's novel (!!). As usual, the course of 'history' is endangered by the Timekeepers, a by now seriously depleted guerilla organisation bent on sabotaging the time stream. This time, they've bumped off Rudolf Rassendyll before he ever gets to Ruritania, forcing the Temporal Corps to substitute one of its own men — who, by happy coincidence, happens to resemble both Rudolfs as closely as they resemble each other.

The plot of Hawke's book follows the original quite closely for some time, and then diverges only in detail, but it does of course add a number of new characters and a whole new level of intrigue, and, although not a long novel, it's about 50% longer than the original.

It seems to me that the result is something more than mere plagiarism. In the same way as an author will sometimes show the same fictional events from the viewpoint of different characters, so Simon Hawke gives us a rerun of the same fictional events — at least from the same starting point — from the viewpoint of a different author. It could be a new art form. I wonder whether Hawke happened to read Dave Langford's 1977 short story, "Accretion", which suggested something rather similar.

Although essentially a writer of action adventures, Hawke is a man of some intelligence and has his thoughtful side — more than can be said of Hope. Thus, in his book, Hawke not only deals with the extra plot complications he introduces, he also enlarges and improves on the original characterisations, making most of the participants more likeable and interesting than Hope managed to do; and yet without fundamentally changing their natures. Being, evidently, a believer in female equality (which Hope certainly wasn't), he brings on one of his own strong female characters as the chief Timekeeper; and he goes to some trouble to improve the credibility of the impostor's relationship with the princess.

I have no biographical details on Simon Hawke, but he must have spent some time in the American army, possibly as one of the Vietnam draftees, and his military personnel have an authentic-seeming weary cynicism. He's clearly more interested in intrigue and strategy than in violence, but he seems to have the soldier's acceptance of violence as part of the job, and he manages to put it over with a rather clinical detachment and a redeeming lack of enthusiasm. Although his regular characters are part of a military organisation, they function more like secret agents.

I have to admire the fluency with which he can turn out these novels. It seems almost effortless. Using the wine metaphor, this is not a carefully picked and matured product; but it's pretty good plonk. Of course, he is helped by getting much of the framework of each story from someone else; but I think he contributes enough of his own to make the exercise worthwhile.

I actually read Hawke's book first, and only then went into the university library to dig up the original. And, lo and behold, what did I find but a pair of faded original editions (including the sequel, Rupert of Hentzau). The library, like the university itself, only dates from about 1965, but much of its stock evidently fell off the back of a lorry.

The sequel is inscribed "To dear Florrir. With love from Lydia. 1898." One can only speculate on the fate of Lydia and her dear Florrir, and on how the latter came to be the possessor of such an unlikely name. Such inscriptions are wonderfully sad, like old family photographs, reminding us of how like mayflies we are. Our lives pass in an instant of geological time, and no mark of our passing remains but faint pathetic traces of our puny hopes and ambitions.

The advertisements at the end of each volume are rather charming. At prices ranging from two to six shillings:

Gosh, I wish my conversations were well managed and full of sprightliness, don't you? As for Captain Andrew Haggard, he seems to have been prey to a fatal indecision. One pictures him teetering on the brink of naming his masterpiece: "Dash it, Amelia, I can't think whether to call it Leslie's Fate... Hilda... or even The Ghost of Erminstein. It's so terribly vexing! I think I'll just write them all down and let the publisher decide."

Originally published in Thurb 9 in July 1985