Review: 'The Mystic Sands', by Alflor Aalto
The bad news: The Mystic Sands by Alflor Aalto is a funny animal novel. The characters, all anthropomorphized animals, are interchangeable surrogate humans. There is no reason for any of them to be raccoons, rabbits, foxes, weasels, squirrels, or anything other than humans. They are all human-sized, wear regular human clothes (imagine a human-sized squirrel wearing Victorian clothes), eat human diets, etc. They do occasionally refer to their animal natures:
And don’t you worry your fluffy ringed tails, my friends. (p. 36)
The good news: The Mystic Sands by Alflor Aalto is a ripping good page-turner, a guaranteed attention-holding light thriller of the 1930s Weird Tales sort with anthropomorphized animals that will have you wanting to finish it in one session. Go buy it!
Raccoon Edwin Fowler, a young amateur Egyptologist with obviously rich and indulgent parents (minor nobility?) in Victorian London, buys an ancient canopic jar at an auction, outbidding an old rival, weasel Patrick Trout. Instead of looking superciliously superior as usual, Trout looks desperately worried. He begs Edwin to sell it to him, but the latter refuses.
Edwin takes it home to the house that he shares with his surgeon brother, Robert. Opening the 4,000-year-old jar, they find not the expected mummified intestines but a golden amulet worth far more than the £3,000 Edwin paid for it bearing the image of the intestines. Edwin takes it into his library to look for a reference to the amulet; while he is gone, Trout breaks into their home to steal it at gunpoint, lightly wounding Robert before escaping.
The brothers report the attempted robbery and assault to Scotland Yard. When the police go to Trout’s apartment to investigate, they find Trout dead of a poisonous viper bite. A mysterious note leads the brothers to a mixed-class pub where a stranger, hare Lord Charles Dobbs, knows more about the amulet than he should. He offers them the opportunity to join in a scientific expedition to Egypt filled with deadly danger but which will lead to a prize of unimaginable value.
There are attempts on their lives of the secret-panel-in-creepy-houses sort. There are sinister strangers:
At first the strange rat had only done so because of how unique he looked. He was very clearly a foreigner, from the Mediterranean, most likely, and doing his best to fit in. Besides his thin summer fur; which no Londoner could have so soon after a long and cold winter; the chap wore a gaudy frock and breeches that any sane Londoner would be ashamed of even being buried in. This strange individual passed Edwin’s carriage once, and then once more. Each time, he glanced briefly at the Raccoon and kept going. On the fourth pass, Edwin Fowler knew he was being watched. He unbuckled the holding latch on the holster and prayed his brother would return sooner rather than later. (p. 27)
Scotland Yard suspects them of being Trout’s murderers. And they haven’t even left London yet! When Lady Serina, the ultra-competent and lovely raccoon master-thief, is introduced in Paris with her henchwomen, a fox and a squirrel, the only question is whether Edwin or Robert will lose his heart to her. Robert is captured and sent to the Château d'If! The others break him out of the prison transport ship in a Victorian-era submarine! And they’re still nowhere near Egypt yet!
You know me, so you know the kind of nitpicky quibbles that I had while reading this. Why a North American animal like a raccoon for a very British hero? I was frequently reminded of Phileas Fogg, the comically-exaggerated proper Englishman protagonist of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Does dialogue like, “Sure,” and “Certainly can,” sound authentically Victorian?
Why, as Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) complained in Superman (1978), does the most brilliant criminal genius always have the stupidest henchman? Are traditional robber masks enough to disguise a variety of anthropomorphic animals? In Saint Tropez:
It didn’t help, of course, that a rat who looked remarkably like the one he’d seen outside Setson’s [in London] just happened to be watching him from across the street. (p. 74)
How do you tell one rat from another? Oh, this one is distinctively furred? How convenient!
Why does Lord Charles keep cycling between an upper-class condescending hauteur and a lower-class buddy-buddy informality; and why is he sometimes called “Lord Dobbs”? Why is he referred to variously as a hare and as a rabbit? How can Dobbs keep turning out to be more and more fabulously wealthy, and willing to squander it all on his mysterious expedition?
Is the Sienne supposed to be the Seine? Isn’t the Château d'If, the famously impregnable French prison, on an island in the Mediterranean instead of near Paris? Yes, Aalto clearly knows the difference, but he does not explain adequately why the French police have transferred Robert from a Parisian lockup to their top prison in the middle of the Mediterranean. Without a trial. They might as well have shipped him to Devil’s Island in French Guiana in South America.
Who is the strangely reclusive M. Peridin? (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain …”) Is any of the flashy ancient-Egyptian mysticism genuinely supernatural? Who is the ominous “Teacher”?
Don’t take these criticisms amiss. Just try reading “The Trail of the Cloven Hoof”, by Arlton Eadie in Weird Tales, July 1933 to January 1934. It has a stag-centaur vivisected together by a mad surgeon. I loved Weird Tales!
Suffice it to say that The Mystic Sands never slows down, and it presents a variety of cute furry anthropomorphic animals in heroic Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn (and in Lady Serina’s case, Angelina Jolie) action. Call it a guilty pleasure, but don’t miss it. It’s too bad that the fine cover artist Robbye “Quel” Nicholson didn’t draw a couple of interior illustrations as well.