(The “Big Four” at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919)
If you were about to sit down and write a historical espionage thriller what better setting could you imagine than Paris following the Great War. Paris, 1919 with historical characters ranging from Ho Chi Minh to Woodrow Wilson all together in the city of lights, trying to redraw the boundaries of defeated empires and bring about self-determination is an amazing setting. It is on this stage that Robert Goddard has created an engrossing tale entitled, THE WAYS OF THE WORLD. Goddard has written over twenty historical novels, and this is my first exposure to his writing and it will not be my last. We first meet the protagonist, James Maxted, a former flying ace for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) during World War One, who spent the last eighteen months of the war in a German POW camp after being shot down, trying to set up an aerodrome business with his wartime compatriot Sam Twentyman. During negotiations he receives a message from his mother that his father has been killed in Paris. Sir Henry Maxted, a career British diplomat who served in Russia during the revolution, Brazil, and Japan among many postings was part of the British delegation to the Versailles Conference. The French police under pressure from the British government rule Sir Henry’s death was accidental and from this point on the story line begins to evolve.
After going to Paris with his brother Ashley, James, known as “Max” does not accept the French police’s conclusion that his father suffered an accidental death when he supposedly finds his mistress having a liaison with a French artist, and falls off a roof peering into the Frenchman’s apartment. For Max, his father’s honor is of the utmost importance and he is on a quest to learn the truth. His older brother, now, Sir Ashley, does not want to make waves, and under the influence of his scheming wife, Lydia wants to accept the findings of the French police and move on and collect his inheritance. Sir Ashley informs his brother that the land he was promised by his father for his aerodrome venture would not be forthcoming if he pursued his own investigation of his father’s demise. From the outset the family setting and some of the characters seem to have been borrowed from a Downton Abby script, but about a quarter of the way into the book matters become very serious and British officials are very clear they do not want Sir Henry’s death to create a scandal at Versailles that could ruin the tenuous negotiations that are taking place.
Goddard creates a number of interesting characters apart from the Maxted family members. There is Travis Ireton, a supposed American friend of Sir Henry, who traffics in obtaining information concerning peace negotiations and selling what he learns to interested parties. Madame Corinne Dombreux, a French woman who had been married to a spy during the Russian Revolution. Now a widow she had been Sir Henry’s mistress, and she too questions Sir Henry’s supposed accident. Senor Baltazar Ribeiro, a Brazilian diplomat who knew Sir Henry well and worked with him to settle Brazilian and allied disagreement as to how many German merchant ships should remain in the Rio government’s control. Fritz Lemmers, the fugitive head of the German Secret Service who is working behind the scenes to foster German interests by recruiting spies all over Europe and had been an attaché in Tokyo in the 1890s when he Sir Henry was posted there. Masataka Kuroda, a Japanese official who knew Henry in 1891 at the time of the plot to assassinate the Tsarevitch during a visit to Tokyo. Nadia Bukayeva and her uncle, leaders of the trust, a group bent on restoring the Russian monarchy to the throne after the revolution. In addition, there are numerous others ranging from American, French, and British secret police to Maxed family members who will provoke the reader’s interest. All developed well by Goddard, and each makes an important contribution to the ever complex plot. When it seems that the closer Max gets to the truth, the more people with important information die.
It is important to keep in mind that the novel is taking place during the Versailles Conference. The atmosphere is intense because so much is at stake for so many nationalist movements and countries. Things became even more problematic as the major powers, the US, Italy, France and the UK decide that they will make the “major” decisions to the exclusion of Japan. Goddard blends this atmosphere well with his plot concerning Sir Henry’s death, the chicanery that is the Maxted family as Sir Ashley tries to protect his selfish interests, Max’s pursuit of the truth and where it leads him, and the ultimate result of his investigation. My only disappointment came when the book came to an end rather abruptly. However, once you turn the final page you learn that the second installment of Goddard’s’ worldwide trilogy, THE CORNERS OF THE GLOBE continues the story. For me, I cannot fathom where Goddard will take the story next.