The Devil’s Cocktail – The Great Game in late 1920s British India

The Devil's Cocktail. Alexander Wilson's second Secret Service novel published in 1928. Image: Allison and Busby
The Devil’s Cocktail. Alexander Wilson’s second Secret Service novel published in 1928. Image: Allison and Busby

This is one of the most significant and remarkable espionage novels of the 1920s.

It is set in Lahore, the Punjab during the time of the Raj in British India and the action, suspense and drama is another intense Alexander Wilson narrative of the early 20th century Great Game of intelligence between the British Empire and Russia.

This is the second Wallace of the Secret Service novel where Sir Leonard’s agents are sent undercover to work in an all Muslim college to combat Soviet machinations to sow rebellion and terrorism.

Wilson represents the racial hierarchy of an imperialist society, but at the same time offers a noble and powerful characterization of the Indian Principal of a college committed to improving educational standards.

The story of Mohammed Abdullah at Sheranwala College bears a close resemblance to Abdullah Yusuf Ali– the brilliant educationalist and Urdu/Arab scholar who produced an influential and much respected translation of the Koran.

Wilson fictionalized a global British Secret Service combating Fascism and Communism as well as organised crime.

The Devil’s Cocktail is one of the first spy novels charting cooperation between British and American intelligence; something that would accelerate during and after the Second World War.

The Times Literary Supplement said of ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’:

The author strives conscientiously to provide a thrill on every page.

This film shot by members of the British Raj in 1930 provides an accurate view of the city of Lahore, its surrounding countryside and the society of the Punjab during the time of the fictional events represented in ‘The Devil’s Cocktail.’

How Longmans, Green and Co., the first publisher of ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’, marketed the novel to the book trade in January 1920- six weeks after publication:

Notes on Books, Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd, January 1929

The Devil’s Cocktail

By Alexander Wilson, Author of “The Mystery of Tunnel 51.” Crown 8vo, pp. vi + 360, price 7s. 6d. net. [October 11, 1928]

Captain Hugh Shannon, of the British Intelligence Service, is sent out to India with a colleague to investigate certain activities inimical to British rule. An intrigue against Britain by Bolshevik agents is strongly suspected at headquarters, and Shannon is deputed to get to the bottom of it. From the time that Shannon and his colleague Cousins step on the boat they are plunged into a maelstrom of thrilling events. They are joined by an American, Oscar Miles, who proves to be a great help in their investigations, and the three men, in spite of ever increasing danger, gradually discover the existence of one of the vilest plots that has ever threatened the peace of the world. Their exploits culminate in a dramatic exposure during a secret meeting in Lahore. Joan Shannon, who accompanied her brother to India, is the central figure in a dastardly kidnapping episode, and her rescue forms one of the most exciting events in the story.

Allison and Busby re-published ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’ in April 2015 and offered the following summary on the novel’s appeal:

An intrigue against Britain by Bolshevik agents is strongly suspected at MI6. Sir Leonard Wallace sends Captain Hugh Shannon, disguised as a professor of English Literature, to India to get to the bottom of it.

And the audio version of the book- completely unabridged- is now available from Lamplight audio.

TheDevil'sCocktailAudiofromAmazon

The New York Times was very impressed with Alexander Wilson’s second novel and published a detailed review:

International plots of gigantic and diabolical scope are fortunately more abundant in fiction than in fact. One of the latest to blossom in the pages of a novel is the one which Alexander Wilson describes as conspiracy “engineered by Russia and supported by China, Germany, Austria, Persia, Turkey and Afghanistan, against the peace of the world.” Evidently the author does not believe it difficult for a gang of schemers to induce the slightly diverse array of nations to agree upon a common plan for, acting upon the premise that the plot has already been hatched and has far from a bad chance of success, he builds up a tale of thrills and daring centring about the unbarring of the dastardly design and the apprehension of the culprits.

In the beginning we are introduced to Hugh Shannon, member of the British Secret Service, who is sent to India under pretence of accepting a post as professor of English Literature. With him goes another member of the Secret Service, disguised as his valet; and with him also, travels his sister, to whom he is devotedly attached. On board the vessel they accidentally encounter a member of the United States Secret Service, who is to prove of invaluable assistance; but at the same time they run against an Englishman of doubtful character, who instantly suspects Shannon’s purpose in going to the Orient.

Once they arrive in India, their skill as detectives is instantly in demand; they find themselves surrounded by a band of scoundrels sufficiently devilish to give the plot the necessary interest; Shannon’s life is in danger, and his sister falls into dire peril, from which she is duly rescued; and intrigue follows intrigue and ordeal follows ordeal with a frequency essential to maintain the action of the story. But in the end, needless to say, all turns out as well as the reader has any right to expect, the heroes and heroines are rewarded and the villains vanquished; while as a final touch, we hear the bells of a double wedding.

The possibility of the conspiracy which the tale resolves will scarcely require comment; nor will the plausibility of certain details, such as the fact that the Secret Service agent goes to England [sic- meaning India] in the guise of an instructor in English accompanied by his valet, thereby inevitably attracting attention to himself by virtue of his unusual procedure. Yet, leaving out of account those departures from probability without which the author would have had no story, one must admit that the book on the whole is better written than most of its type, that the sequence of events is more logical and the suspense better maintained.’

The original cover of the first edition of 'The Devil's Cocktail' published by Longman, Green and Company in 1928. Image: Copyright The Alexander Wilson Estate.
The original cover of the first edition of ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’ published by Longmans, Green and Company in 1928. Image: Copyright The Alexander Wilson Estate.

Much of the novel is based on Wilson’s personal experiences of working as a Professor of English Literature (1925-8) and then Principal of Islamia College in Lahore  (1928-31).

He had been recruited and appointed by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, but mystery surrounds Wilson’s status and identity while in British India.

He called himself Alexander Douglas Gordon Chesney Wilson, took on the rank of Major in the India Army Reserve, with the decoration D.S.O. and an MA from Oxford University.

His last academic publication referred to him as Sir Alexander Wilson.

Is it possible that he was undertaking an intelligence role with a cover legend?

Yusuf Ali’s biographer, Dr. M A Sherif, believes Wilson provided a very sympathetic portrait of the famous muslim scholar.

Dr. Sherif agrees with the view outlined in Wilson’s biography, The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent, that the espionage author may well have had some kind of intelligence role in Lahore:

The intelligence world is rightly described as a world of mirrors and shadows. The ‘cover’ Alexander Wilson was to become an outstanding principal in the footsteps of his mentor, raising both academic and sporting standards at Islamia College and writing educational textbooks, while also”mollifying and pacifying the region’s Muslim elite”. 

There is no documentary evidence that he was working for British intelligence organisations at this time, though out of the blue he started his writing career penning spy novels.

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Extract from ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’- Sir Leonard Wallace sends one of his agent undercover to Lahore to challenge Bolshevik subversion.

Chapter One  ‘The Advertisement’ (pages 9-11 of the Allison and Busby edition)

‘You sent for me, sir?’ he enquired.
‘Yes! Sit down, and help yourself to a cigarette!’
The young man did as he was bidden. The Chief regarded him seriously for a moment, then:
‘You made rather a name for yourself at oxford, didn’t you? Got a fellowship and half a dozen other things?’ he asked.
The other smiled.
‘I didn’t do badly, sir,’ he replied.
‘And you had a double “Blue”, which is a great advantage in an appointment of the nature I am going to put before you, Shannon.’ The faintest look of surprise passed across the young man’s face. ‘Altogether you are eminently suitable to take up the Chair of English literature at a university college,’ went on the Chief, ‘and so I wish you to apply at once for this post.’

He handed The Times to Shannon, and showed him the advertisement in question. Without attempting to conceal his interest, the latter read the following:

A Professor of English literature is required for Sheranwala College, University of northern India, lahore, at a salary of rupees 500-50-1000, for a period of three years. Applicants must be graduates of an English University and preference will be given to one who is a sportsman. Apply with copies of testimonials, references, etc., to Mahommed Abdullah, C.I.E., Savoy Hotel, Strand, London.

Captain Shannon read the advertisement twice before handing the paper back, and it was a very astonished young man who looked to his Chief for enlightenment. The latter smiled, and knocked out the ashes of his pipe into an ashtray.

‘I want you to get that post, Shannon,’ he said, ‘you’ll probably find it most congenial.’

‘You have your reasons, sir?’ said the other.

‘I have! Very little is done in this department without a reason. Now listen carefully to what I have to say!’ He rose from his chair and strolled across the room to the fireplace, where he stood with his back resting against the mantelpiece, and confronted the young officer.

‘India is a strange country,’ he said, ‘and there are things going on there which this country knows nothing about. The time has come, however, when Great Britain must be cognisant of all that occurs, in order not only to safeguard herself, but also to ensure the safety of the Indian Empire. As you are aware, my colleague and I practically succeeded last year in routing out the Bolshevik element in India, but from information received, I believe that representatives of the russian Soviet have recommenced their activities. Apart from that there is an undercurrent of unrest and distrust and various latent disorders which must be inquired into. lahore appears to be the centre of the trouble, and it is to lahore that I wish you to go. India possesses a very fine police force, but there is no Intelligence Department worth the name. In taking up the appointment of Professor of English literature in this college, you will have endless opportunities to get to the bottom of things. nobody will suspect that you are a member of the Secret Service – nobody must suspect! Something is going on, and I want you to find out what that something is. You have a big job before you, and it will require infinite tact, patience and resource. I have chosen you because of your knowledge of Hindustani, and because I have found you to be a reliable man. You have no time to think the matter over; your application for this appointment must go in today – either accept or refuse! Which is it to be?’

Captain Shannon looked at his Chief with sparkling eyes. This was an opportunity for which he had longed ever since he had joined the Intelligence Service. Without the slightest sign of hesitation, he spoke.

‘Of course I accept, sir!’ he said.

‘Good,’ said the Chief nonchalantly, and returned to his seat at the desk. ‘Now you had better write your application at once, and in order to ensure your getting the post, you must have a splendid list of referees. no doubt you can get any number from your college, and so on. Add to them these three—’ He mentioned three names which were household words in England. ‘I’ll see that these gentlemen respond without any suspicion arising that you are a member of the Intelligence Department. And now you had better get busy at once. Remember that if you are appointed, you are in no way to neglect your duty to your employers, but, of course, your first responsibility will be to us.’

He rose, and held out his hand. Captain Shannon grasped it eagerly.

‘I’m jolly grateful to you for giving me this chance, sir,’ he said boyishly.

‘Well, make the most of it! A lot depends upon you; perhaps more than any of us can say at present. The main thing now is to get the post; everything will be done to help you, and before you sail we shall have a further interview at which all details will be discussed, and your final instructions given to you.’

The Deputy Chief walked with Shannon to the door.

‘You must get the post!’ he said. ‘We are relying on you more than we have ever relied upon anybody before. If you succeed in the job that has been assigned to you, you are a made man, if you fail—’ He shrugged his shoulders, and held out his hand.

‘I shall not fail, sir,’ said Shannon, and departed.

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'The Devil's Cocktail' Old and New. From 1928 to 2015. Image: Copyright The Alexander Wilson Estate.
The Devil’s Cocktail old and new. From 1928 to 2015. Image: Copyright The Alexander Wilson Estate.
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