“Mark Morse” is not one of the stars of the British Secret Service, he is merely a humble, hard-worked member of it. In plain language he is a spy, kept very busy fighting the Bolshevik spies that move silently throughout England. Morse does not need to go to Russia for adventure; he and his comrades can find it daily in the streets of our cities, in city offices, in Mayfair drawing-rooms, and in quiet country villages.
(Fighting the Red Shadow, 1932)
In January 1932 there suddenly appeared an obscure volume of spy fiction with the evocative title of Fighting the Red Shadow. Published under the allusive pseudonym of ‘Vigilant’, this was a collection of nine short stories featuring a counter-espionage officer who serves as a penetration agent inside the Communist Party of Great Britain. The publishers issued a popular edition in 1933, then the book disappeared. It attracted few reviews and there are surviving copies in only six libraries worldwide, and these mainly national depositories of books. The following brief account throws some light on this considerable rarity of spy fiction, as part of the AHRC-funded 'Writers in Intelligence' project.
Following the release of documents in the early millennium, further supplemented by the privilege of access granted to an official historian, several scholars have offered accounts of national security and communist subversion in the years following the First World War (Madeira, 2014, Quinlan, 2014, Phillips, 2017, and Andrew, 2009). The basic outline of the long decade now consolidates in the peaks of unprecedented mutinies and police strikes in the immediate aftermath of conflict, the uncertainties around the Anglo-Soviet trade agreement of 1921, the upheavals caused by the Zinoviev letter in 1924, the galvanisations of the General Strike in 1926, the direct action of the All Russian Co-operative Society raid in 1927, in which an exasperated Conservative Government formerly broke with Moscow, and across this whole period the subversive activities of the spy ring operating under the cover of the Federated Press of America. Considerations of intelligence and security were at the heart of these matters, as the British state slowly accommodated itself to the fallout of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the existential threat of international communism.
While political and intelligence historians have scrutinised microscopically the surge of events, little attention has been devoted to how spy fiction depicted the contest between the arraigned forces. In general, secret service stories continued to reflect the monumental struggle of the recent war, in which espionage had played a greater part than in any previous conflict. However, the widespread disquiet regarding the ‘red menace’ ensured that a few writers deployed their pens in the cause of liberty and democratic freedoms. A veteran of mystery fiction, E. Phillips Oppenheim, contributed Miss Brown of the XYO in 1927. In this story, a plucky secretary stumbles into a conspiracy (literally, due to an enveloping ‘pea-souper’ fog) in which the Soviets are manoeuvring for a general strike in Britain which could be the touchstone for the revolution. Miss Brown is recruited into the new security department XYO, where, in addition to her typing and filing duties, she serves as an occasional penetration agent. Typical of the author, all ends well and Miss Brown satisfyingly marries the aristocratic head of the department.
1927 also saw the publication of The Shadow on the Course by Ben Strong. In this novel, the Soviet plot is the unconvincing one of bringing Britain low through the deployment of poison gas at big sports gatherings such as The Derby. Again, typical of the melodramatic approach, and suggestive of future peaceful harmony between the classes, the niece of the evil red genius ends up marrying the son of the sporting Irish baronet who features in the story. A future practitioner of American-style hard-boiled fiction, Peter Cheyney entered the fray with the ‘unusual mystery serial’ The Gold Kimono in 1930. Here, the British inventor of a death ray, whose Russian-born wife suddenly vanished, finds himself amidst a mystery of lonely cliff-tops, strange characters, dead bodies, a laconic British agent, and a gang of Bolsheviks. Of course, the Secret Service man wins out and the inventor is happily reunited with his wife.
These three stories, with their flamboyant themes and romantic sub-plots, were typical of spy fiction as it was practised in the period. Altogether of a different order was Fighting the Red Shadow of 1932. Atypically, the approach was unsensational and credible. Two years earlier, ‘Vigilant’ had authored a study of espionage published as Secrets of Modern Spying, and which, unusual of its kind and clearly reflecting a particular concern of the author, devoted three chapters to the menace of Soviet ideology and the threat of covert activities. There, the writer drew a disturbing picture of ‘Red’ subversion and the practice of insidious communist cells burrowing deep into the fabric of industry, the military and government.
So, who was ‘Vigilant’? The book-trade eventually unmasked the pseudonymous writer as the biographer and established translator Claud W. Sykes, a specialist in writing about wartime aviators and translating from both German and French. This was the Claud Sykes who had associated with James Joyce in wartime Switzerland, an actor who worked with the writer to set up some local theatrical ventures, as well as providing some secretarial services for the emerging novel of Ulysses. Joyceans have wondered what Sykes, still a young man, was doing in Zurich during the war. An obvious suggestion is that, as an accomplished German speaker, he was in some way serving British Intelligence, perhaps one his roles being to keep an eye on the wayward Irishman Joyce who was suspect in some quarters. One is immediately put in mind of the writer Somerset Maugham who had been recruited to the wartime British Secret Service and based around French-speaking Lake Geneva only 280km distant. It could be that Sykes was yet another of those British writers of spy fiction who had served in intelligence. Maugham, of course, was a celebrated case in point, publishing the classic Ashenden in 1928, a set of stories based on his espionage activities in neutral Switzerland.
It is far less clear what Sykes did on his return to England after the war. As an actor before 1914, touring Ibsen with the artistically-inclined Leigh Lovel and Octavia Kenmore Company, his name regularly showed up in the theatrical press. There is no evidence that he continued to tread the boards following the conflict. As Claud W. Sykes he was first published in 1927 with the mystery novel The Nine-Pointed Star, and the following year commenced a long series of translations of books from German and French. It is a little more difficult to tie-down the publishing history of ‘Vigilant’ as this was a not uncommon moniker used by writers and journalists at the time. There was an intriguing book published as Sinn Fein and Germany in 1919 that might be from the hand of a former intelligence officer with German-leanings. And it could be that the title Der Kulturkampf in Frankreich, geschichtliche Darstellung und kritische Würdigung, von Vigilant (The Culture Clash in France, Historical Account and Critical Appraisal, by Vigilant) published in Germany in 1924, with its Franco-German focus, was the work of Claud Sykes. The first certainty, though, of Sykes writing as ‘Vigilant’, was his Secrets of Modern Spying in 1930. There were some years following the war, then, where it is unclear exactly what Claud Sykes was doing. This was the period when the secret state, supplemented by unofficial patriotic groups which operated their own intelligence networks, geared up to the challenge of Soviet subversion. Some former wartime intelligence officers were recruited into this secret war and it is interesting to speculate if this was the case with Claud Sykes. There is some circumstantial evidence to support such a view.
While an actor in pre-war Britain, Sykes developed an association with the labour movement, lecturing on ‘Socialism and the Drama’ to the British Socialist Party, for example, and offering to advise amateur labour drama groups on suitable plays (both 1912). Such association would have provided Sykes with some credibility among socialists and smoothed the path for any future role he might have played in seeking intelligence among those on the Left. There is material in both Secrets of Modern Spying and Fighting the Red Shadow which is suggestive of a writer with actual experience in intelligence. His study of espionage features a particular insight into the secret war in Switzerland, indicative of the role Sykes might have played in that country during the war. Moreover, there is a passage in the later short story ‘Deutschland Über Alles’ in which the penetration agent reminisces about his wartime role in intelligence in German-speaking Switzerland. A curious coincidence is reported in Secrets of Modern Spying, where the author writes of a chance acquaintance back in his theatre days with an elderly Russian actor who turned out to be ‘the chief of an organisation for providing Russian revolutionaries with false passports and smuggling them back to Russia. His headquarters’. It is surprising that an undercover revolutionary should confide such secrets to a young actor; yet the incident tenuously connects Sykes at an early stage with the revolutionary struggle.
The most important aspect of Syke’s experience for considering the possibility of biography in Fighting the Red Shadow is the recent revelation that the author served as an undercover agent for MI5 in the 1930s. Codenamed M/S, he was tasked with the Security Service’s surveillance of anti-Nazi refugees (Brinson and Dove 2014). M/S’s earliest declassified report is dated 23 June 1937, but some internal evidence suggests previous contact of Sykes with German communist exiles residing in Britain. If this were so, was Sykes there to report on their being communists or because they were Germans? An agent responsible to a case officer in the 1930s, in his case the legendary Maxwell Knight, Sykes was later recruited into wartime MI5 proper, leaving the service in December 1944. The handful of reviewers to tackle Fighting the Red Shadow, tended to speculate on the truthfulness of the fiction. One noted the contrast with the mainstream of fanciful spy fiction, reporting that ‘there was nothing impossible about the book’, and making the perhaps prescient observation that ‘Mark Morse is not entirely a creation of the imagination’. Another, swayed by the matter of fact first person narration of the story, queried, ‘How far is this fiction and how far fact?’. ‘‘Vigilant’ does not say’, he continued, ‘though his publishers suggest that those who read between the lines “may hazard a guess”’.
In his first novel of 1927, The Nine-Pointed Star, Sykes writes of a man who by accident is drawn into conflict with a sinister secret society. Revealingly, the protagonist is an easy going actor, forsaking a life of indolence and luxury, and, in the words of a reviewer, ‘taking part in a great world-drama of evil import’. Could this have been a veiled account of the author’s experiences in intelligence in the 1920s, a time when nothing is known about the former actor, and where, in his case, the sinister secret society was revolutionary communism. Was secret service in this decade, then, the background to the stories featured in Fighting the Red Shadow, unusually realistic and queried as truthful by those who reviewed it. Was the selection of the name ‘Morse’ suggestive code simply awaiting to be deciphered? Could it be that a secret service operative when writing about actual espionage was required to revert to a pseudonym, and that ‘Vigilant’ precisely caught the temper of the mission at hand? That, by ‘Being Vigilant’, Claud Sykes could place the struggle on the literary page, and through doing so, join that select list of spy authors who have graced British spy fiction and engendered endless speculation about where spy fiction ends and spy fact begins?
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Alex May of Oxford University for reading chapters of Fighting the Red Shadow in the Bodleian Library and kindly forwarding notes, and of Mark Kaufman of the United States Air Force Academy for enabling me to actually read a copy of Fighting the Red Shadow.
Find out more about the AHRC-funded 'Writers in Intelligence' project here.