My rating: 6.5/10
You have to hand it to D.E. Stevenson. Even if she didn’t know anything at all about her subject (mental illness in Rochester’s Wife, for example) it didn’t stop her from taking a good old swing at it, cheerfully glossing over the complicated bits by having her characters tell each other, “It’s too specialized to explain. Just trust me.” And of course, they do.
In this case it is schoolmaster Adam Southey who is the clueless one. His headmaster, Samuel Cooke, is a prominent scientist who is working on a secret war machine, a kind of death ray which focus an ultraviolet beam of light on an object – say, an enemy airplane – and causes it to burst into flames. “A Death Ray!” exclaims Adam, only to be lectured by his superior that this is inaccurate: “It’s too specialized to explain to a simple soul like you. Just trust me.”
It is early in World War II, and Adam is disappointed that His Majesty’s Army has no use for him, due to a childhood injury which has left one of his legs shorter than the other. Despite this physical handicap, Adam is fit and strong, and can swing along at a great rate, which is about to come in very handy very soon. He surprises a suspicious intruder attempting to get a look at Cooke’s secret weapon, and ends up accompanying the van carrying the machine to a secret army testing base in Scotland, with some interesting adventures on the way, including an attempted hijacking and a stint of camouflage with a travelling circus.
Once in Scotland, with Marvelous Invention to Change the Course of the War almost ready to demonstrate, Adam’s adventures get even more exciting, as he stumbles upon a Cleverly Disguised Nest of Nazi Spies (complete with submarine access to a secret tunnel), teams up with the local shepherds and fishermen to foil the Wicked Teutonic Menace, and ultimately finds True Love.
Despite the simplistic tone of the whole thing, written in a “Gosh! Golly!” schoolboy-adventure-tale-genre sort of way, it is rather an enjoyable romp, and the groaning faux-pas-by-sincere-author moments add to the charming vintage atmosphere. The hero is sweet and true-blue all the way through (“Crooked Adam”, as one of his schoolboy charges murmurs in a scene-setting aside to a friend, is really one of those double entendre nicknames which mean the exact opposite – gimpy leg aside, Adam is straight as they come) and we can only hope that his serendipitous love interest will live up to his nobleness, once the war is safely over.
Though this adventure started off rather slowly for me – this is my second go at reading it, as the first try fizzled out – once I pushed past the “I can’t explain my invention; you’ll just have to take my word for it that it’s marvelous” bit by Dr. Cooke and wide-eyed Adam’s acceptance that he’s too dumb to grasp the complexities of science I started to grow rather fond of our sterling-natured hero, and cheerfully went along with the tale until the heroic and neatly tied up end. I’d noticed before that D.E. Stevenson often has no qualms about cold-bloodedly eliminating her bad eggs, and Crooked Adam proved no exception, with the author showing more sympathy with the German Nazis versus the turncoat Englishmen, who get their (fatal) comeuppance.
Yes, one might safely shelve this one with the propaganda novels, I think.