I might have missed out on reading this author’s work if not for a collector from the Midwest who has purchased a number of first editions of the Colonel North series from Old Scrolls Book Shop over the years for her son’s growing collection. (Thank you, Bonnie!) The collector’s interest sparked my curiosity enough to hold one of these novels back for my own reading (I started with The Shanghai Bund Murders, considered to be one of the best). I was pleasantly surprised, and was soon in search of more books by F. Van Wyck Mason for my own enjoyment.
Francis Van Wyck Mason (1901-1978) was a prolific American writer of 78 novels who was as famous for his historical fiction as for his suspenseful espionage novels featuring Captain Hugh North of G-2, U.S. Army Intelligence (later Colonel North as he moved up in rank).
Suave Hugh North’s stamping ground was the world, his knowledge of criminology immense, his sophistication and keen mind fascinating to observe. The settings in which he played, from Shanghai to Tangier, were vividly rendered and historically accurate. The plots were suspenseful, unpredictable, and believable.
I find it intriguing that Hollywood never brought any of these smartly written novels to the silver screen – in my opinion they were at least as good as Ian Fleming’s 007 stories, which followed later. (The series began with Seeds of Murder, published in 1930 ending with The Deadly Orbit Mission, published in 1968; Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953 and ended with Octopussy published in 1966. There was some overlap here, with Mason being the more prolific writer.) Colonel North, of course, is a completely American agent, while 007 is utterly British.
Not surprisingly, F. Van Wyck Mason led an intriguing life of his own, which contributes to the authenticity of the stories and locales. As a child he experienced life in Paris and Berlin while his father served as U.S. Consul General, and like many great novelists who emerged from that era, he served as an ambulance driver during World War I. He joined the French Army and became a decorated artillery officer, and was awarded the Legion of Honor. By the time he was 17 he had become a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After the war he attended Harvard, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1924.
There are numerous bibliographies available listing all of this author’s works, but I was unable to locate a list which singled out his Captain North / Colonel North mysteries (in the early novels, he was Captain North). Here’s a list of them which I have compiled and I believe is accurate; if anyone cares to make additions or corrections, feel free to contact me in the comment section! Some of the scarce early novels in first edition are currently going for three figures when found in very good or better condition in like dustjacket.
Seeds of Murder (Doubleday Crime Club, 1930)
The Vesper Service Murders (Doubleday Crime Club, 1931)
The Fort Terror Murders (Doubleday Crime Club, 1931)
The Yellow Arrow Murders (Doubleday Crime Club, 1932)
Spider House (The Mystery League, NY, 1932)
The Branded Spy Murders (Doubleday Crime Club, 1932)
The Sulu Sea Murders (Doubleday Crime Club, 1933)
The Shanghai Bund Murders (G. P. Putnam, 1933)
The Budapest Parade Murders (Doubleday Crime Club, 1935)
The Washington Legation Murders (Doubleday Crime Club, 1935)
The Seven Seas Murders (Doubleday Crime Club, 1936)
The Hongkong Airbase Murders (Doubleday Crime Club, 1937)
The Cairo Garter Murders (Doubleday Crime Club, 1938)
The Singapore Exile Murders (Doubleday Crime Club, 1939)
The Bucharest Ballerina Murders (Frederick A. Stokes, 1940)
The Rio Casino Intrigue (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1941)
Saigon Singer (Doubleday, 1946)
Himalayan Assignment (Doubleday, 1952)
Two Tickets for Tangier (Doubleday, 1955)
The Gracious Lily Affair (Doubleday, 1957)
Secret Mission to Bangkok (Doubleday,1960)
Trouble In Burma (Doubleday, 1962)
Zanzibar Intrigue (Doubleday, 1963)
Maracaibo Mission (Doubleday, 1965)
The Deadly Orbit Mission (Doubleday, 1968)
A fairly extensive biography of the author is available here on Wikipedia .
Books by F. Van Wyck Mason usually available at Old Scrolls Book Shop!