Monsieur Zenith the Albino by Anthony Skene
18 January, 2013
His skin, his lashes, the crisp curling hair of his head, are white as Cararra marble. Nowhere: neither in the room, nor in the sleeping figure, is there the least trace of any colour, until at length Monsieur Zenith stirs and opens his eyes. Beneath either fringe of stone-white lashes the irises glitter like rubies.
I have a weakness for fictional gentleman thieves from Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel to E.W. Hornung’s Raffles and Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin, Monkey Punch’s Lupin III to Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora. It’s not that they have to be aristocratic by birth but they just ooze class. A modern version of Robin Hood, I suppose.
I knew nothing of Monsieur Zenith until I stumbled upon this book in my local library. Don’t you just love libraries? You come across some incredible titles that you won’t find anywhere else. Take Monsieur Zenith the Albino by Anthony Skene. First published in serial form as a diabolic adversary of Sexton Blake (no, I hadn’t heard of him either), his popularity lead to a separate series in which he was the anti-hero. He proved so popular becoming the seed of Michael Moorcock’s famous Elric of Melnibone and many other anti-heroes of the pale hair, crimson eye variety. So of course I had to read this. Little did I know that I was holding in my hand an out of print, brand new republication, with a wonderful foreword by Moorcock, which goes for about £200 on the net. That’s right. So I suggest you go and reserve a copy at your local library, and when you are finished, you take it right back so that others can share in the wonderful opium-fuelled, Byronic vision that is Monsieur Zenith.
He knew better than to move stealthily. The opium was still in his brain, but it had the curious effect of making him normal. And it was normal to him to be utterly reckless.
Set in the 1930s when it was first published, Skene’s novel featuring Zenith as the protagonist takes place in London. A valuable object has been stolen from a famous actress’ house that may have severe repercussions for a small sovereign European state that is about to change regime. There is a burglar impersonating Zenith who is committing crimes across London and Zenith is getting annoyed. These two events collide in Sally Mynor’s bedroom and Zenith is pursued by both the police and a sinister gang operating from Golders Green. Will he be able to retrieve this precious object whilst evading capture and bringing the villains to justice? We can only hold breaths as Zenith confounds his pursuers and sets Sally Mynor’s heart racing.
Ok, I made it sound racier than it is, but Skene’s novel is a true old school thriller as we follow Zenith as he extracts himself from one sticky situation only to find himself in an even worse one. It is only his extraordinarily sophisticated mind, his well maintained Byronic physique and the impeccable timing of his Japanese manservant Oyani (the name really doesn’t sound Japanese but I guess an Oriental manservant is de rigueur in a 1930s crime caper – there’s also one in Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin mysteries) that keeps Zenith one step ahead of the others. We don’t know much about Zenith but the mystery enhances his allure. We do get little snippets from his beautiful violin playing to his darkly romantic taste in furnishing. He can’t escape the whiff of Transylvanian romance surrounding him.
I really enjoyed this novel although, as you can see from the title, there are instances where politically incorrect generalisations made me gawk. I do think, however, that this is a hazard whenever you read something that isn’t contemporary and Skene’s novel is very much a product of its time. You have been warned. There’s also nothing remotely psychological as in modern crime thrillers but there’s a lot of chasing and double dealing and gangsters in Golders Green. It’s all very pulp fiction. And I’ll be hunting down more stories of Monsieur Zenith and his adversary, the detective Sexton Blake.