GRAND MASTER (1939)

1939 Michael Joseph. [Published under the pseudonym Stephen Hockaby.]

They had come to the place where the bodies of beheaded wives or concubines could be bundled into the Bosphorus. John had been shown the place a couple of years before. A flight of steps led down through the prison building, and ended in a well. The steps continued to within a few feet of the level of the salt water, so that the corpses, wrapped up in their concealing sacks, could be rolled into the Bosphorus secretly and easily. Wives or concubines who died of too severe a beating, and unwanted infants bow-stringed at birth, could be disposed of as readily as the headless bodies of the executed.

John's argument was that since none of the corpses remained in the well there must be a current which bore them immediately seawards, for tide there was practically none. Nevertheless, although Mourad himself had advocated this method of escape, none but a boy made desperate by captivity and wildly anxious to get away, would have taken the risk of attempting to leave the palace in such a way, but Mourad's place was to be filled, and de la Naye had no intention of proving the temper of another master. He intended to drown in the well-water or to escape. An older man might, even then, have refused to take the risk, but John was sixteen, with the extraordinarily healthy nerves of the age in which he lived. He had also a clear concsience, and centuries of courage and hardihood were in his blood. His every faculty, too, was as keen and clear as youth and a good life could make it. He prayed; breathed deeply; and began to climb down the steps. The blackness engulfed him. A slight breeze blew up the well, an excellent omen. He let go, and dropped with a splash into the quiet water.

For John Stephen-Michael de la Naye, his education into the cruel and sobering realities of the world begins early. While just a boy traveling to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage, his galley is attacked by Moslem pirates, his mother is killed, and John becomes a prisoner and slave to serve a sultan in Constantinople. Under the kind mentorship of Mourad Bashik, a soldier and factotum of the sultan, John begins to learn about palace life within the walls of the seraglio, with its endless intrigues and its frequent execution of concubines and others who have fallen out of favor. But Mourad, acting as father to the orphaned boy, always treats John compassionately and fairly, and it is for this reason that John chooses to make his escape only after the kind soldier has died, so recriminations could not fall on him. With a fellow prisoner named Pablo, John bravely descends into the well where the executed bodies are tossed, assuming that the current carries all that enter it to the Bosphorus.

After hiding for months in a forgotten, underground aqueduct – and with the help of Mourad's brother Ahmed – John leaves the city on a merchant ship bound for Crete. Knowing that the Order of the Knights Hospitaller is stationed on the island of Rhodes, John leaps into the Mediterranean Sea as soon as he spots land, hoping to swim ashore. There he wins the confidence of the assembled knights, a collection of men representing various countries in the defense of Christianity during the Crusades. Indeed, the Turks soon attack the fortress of Rhodes, led by the fearsome Ottoman leader Suleiman. John is among the surviving defenders who must leave the island upon defeat. It is a gracious gesture by Suleiman not to kill the surrendered knights, although he will have cause to regret his decision years later, when the Siege of Malta lasts, miraculously, for months despite a vastly outnumbered Christian force.

Between those two amazing battles – the latter will carry the pious and ascetic John de la Naye to the position of Grand Master of the Order – John meets Francesca, introduced to him in Venice by his lusty friend Paolo. But it is Paolo who becomes the father of Francesca's child, and years later John sees the soul and spirit of his long-dead friend when the boy, now a young man, fights alongside him in Malta. The year-long siege on the high fort is brutal, taking its toll both in lives (on both sides) and in moral ambiguity (whose God would champion barbarism and death to others on such a massive, man-made scale?). Ultimately, John passes from his life with an understanding that the Infidel, while still the enemy, should be offered respect, as the best among them are as worthy as our own.

A challenging, sober, and ambitious historical novel, Grand Master stands as one of author Gladys Mitchell's greatest literary achievements. It is meticulously researched, from the larger events which form the anchors of John de la Naye's adventurous life to the hundreds of convincing details that are found throughout this book. Mitchell's other adult adventure stories written under the name Stephen Hockaby are all worthy to be read and rediscovered, but this title in particular feels like an apex in the series, as she delivers an epic story set in an evocative and often violent world, and succeeds in unifying tone, actions, character, and theme.

Interestingly, for as much admiration as I have of Grand Master's challenges and victories as a work of detailed historical fiction, it is a story (with a very ascetic and tight-lipped protagonist at its center) that feels cool and removed. Whereas the excellent Seven Stars and Orion focused on a farming family in the Middle Ages whose characters were multi-dimensional, passionate, and appealingly human, there is a sense of cool observation and detachment from the world's baser motives that John de la Naye fosters here. It is in keeping with his destined path of becoming a high-ranking Christian soldier and leader, but it also renders him slightly unknowable and, in a sense, sainted before he should be. Almost certainly, Mitchell based her fictional protagonist on the real Grand Master at the time of the Siege of Malta, Jean Parisot de la Valette, whose status and heroic reputation she acknowledges in an author's note. And while he is indeed a worthy subject for a historical adventure, the conscious connection with such a venerable figure may have encouraged the author to present de la Valette's fictional counterpart as a model of piety.

It is quite interesting to compare the themes and ideas of Grand Master with a book published a year earlier by Gladys Mitchell's friend and companion Winifred Blazey. Indian Rain (1938) – which is dedicated to "Stephen Hockaby" – is also a story about a man journeying through a hard and often brutal world, looking for a larger meaning both spiritual and physical from life. As with Grand Master, Blazey's story chronicles terrible, barbaric moments derived from the social and cultural codes in the countries and eras under observation, and does so using objective, matter-of-fact narration. Both writers also choose not to judge these cultures and actions, and Mitchell allows her protagonist to recognize both the humanity of the enemy (as with the Bashik brothers) and the un-Christian cruelty that can consume an ally. As the novels were likely written around the same time, it is curious to consider how the two women may have helped each other shape and deliver their stories of young men who try to find spiritual purpose and personal meaning in dark and dangerous times.

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