The Edgar Awards Revisited: The Rheingold Route by Arthur Maling (Best Novel; 1980)
By Thomas WickershamJuly 9, 2019
Though The Rheingold Route by Arthur Maling won the 1980 Edgar Award for Best Novel, it remains unknown today, and Thomas Wickersham argues that it should remain that way. Learn more about this lackluster winner.
Arthur Maling’s 1979 novel The Rheingold Route may hold the dubious distinction of being the least remembered book to ever win the Edgar Award for best novel of the year. It is a challenge to find anyone who has heard of it, let alone read it. A 2019 internet search turns up virtually nothing besides its title on a list of Edgar winners and a single Kirkus review from the year of its release, which spoils the entire book right up to its final pages. How does a book that captured such enthusiasm from a panel of judges as to be deemed the best mystery novel of the year simply vanish?
Everything about The Rheingold Route is slightly peculiar, and nothing about it is particularly notable. It is an espionage novel without spies. It is a heist novel without set pieces. It is a cross-continent European jaunt without glamour. It is perhaps the only thriller to be primarily concerned with travel arrangements. If the mundane minutiae of train station luggage claims makes your heart race, The Rheingold Route is the book for you.
Our protagonist John Cochrane is a haunted man. A former United States treasury agent living in London under an assumed name, John is a fugitive after taking his daughter from his ex-wife and fleeing the states for Britain, only to have that daughter die of illness. Following his daughter’s death, John’s penance was to walk every city block of London with no purpose beyond the distraction of numbness. That is his state when we meet him: a hollow traveler whose life exists as nothing more than a physical vessel for money.
John is a currency smuggler. After a chance (or not so chance) encounter in a bar, John was recruited to smuggle cash out of Britain ostensibly to avoid tax penalties for otherwise honest businessmen. His occupation is to periodically don a stash suit of his own design and ask few questions of his employer as he traverses Europe wearing his illegal load. No one is supposed to know about John and his occupation besides his handler, until one day John receives a call from someone who knows all too much. A bumbling young aristocrat named Peter Evans wants to use John’s services to smuggle his diminished inheritance out of the country to Switzerland. With Garwood, a ruthless lawyer, backing Peter’s play by threatening to send John to jail, and John’s own handler out of the country and unreachable, John is forced to accept this dubious job. What neither John nor the aristocrat knows is that Garwood has employed a sinister thug by the name of O’Rourke to rob John en route and steal the money for the unscrupulous lawyer.
It is a fine setup, but there is something inexplicably misguided about the execution in both plot and tone. What should be a cat and mouse game of the hunter and the hunted turns not into a battle of wills and wits, but into a battle of travel itineraries. John’s travel plans are given to him by Garwood despite John’s objecting that “I make my own travel arrangements.” Alas, that is not to be the case for this trip and John accepts that his passage will be via “the Rheingold route” as dictated by Garwood. But before John embarks on his perilous errand of thrilling tax evasion, O’Rourke must make his own preparations to rob John by making a dry run of the entire route that John will follow so that O’Rourke may find the best spot to ambush John. And so begins an endless series train rides with the occasional ferry thrown in to break the monotony.
It is an odd way to structure a novel: John doesn’t embark on his journey until well over halfway through the book. He spends the first 170 pages of a 276-page book fretting about travel plans and shopping for the suitcase he thinks will be least conspicuous at customs after determining that this large amount of money won’t fit in his custom smuggling suit. (There’s a love story as well, but it does little besides further delay the action rather than heightening the stakes of John’s character as was likely intended.) This type of detail-oriented novel works when the preparations in question are fascinating revelations of spy tradecraft or the inside secrets of bank robbers, not shopping for a suitcase or disguising a car by putting a luggage rack on the roof and painting a racing stripe on the side. Once he embarks on his trip, John is never seriously at risk of being discovered by the authorities, and besides a single brief failed robbery attempt by O’Rourke, John is not actively threatened, pursued, or attacked by our antagonist until a confrontation in the book’s final pages. (O’Rourke does kill a completely innocent German woman who he fears is going to report him to the police for stealing a license plate when she’s actually just scolding him for smoking inside the parking garage.)
With less than compelling plotting, one might reasonably assume that the strength of The Rheingold Route must be found in its gorgeous prose or lively voice. The book has its moments of blending danger and fear with wit, but it never rises to the joyous heights of Ross Thomas or sinks to the dreaded depths of Patricia Highsmith. The villainous O’Rourke sometimes jolts the book to life with his ill-tempered reactions to his travel accommodations and xenophobic musings on German sex shops:
It was inferior to the sex shops in London, he found. The atmosphere was most provincial…[T]here was a dildoe that he was tempted to buy as a souvenir for Trumper. But after giving the matter due consideration, he left the shop without making the purchase. The dildoe was no better than the ones Trumper had.
Unfortunately even O’Rourke’s time on the page is not always so engaging. Unlike the great memorable villains of crime fiction, O’Rourke is neither truly terrifying nor deliciously wicked. O’Rourke has one distinctive trait beyond being a psychopath: he’s bisexual. However, O’Rourke’s sexuality is neither significant to the plot nor particularly personally revealing about the character.
The Rheingold Route was Arthur Maling’s tenth novel and it was rewarded with the most distinguished award for mystery fiction. Perhaps it was a book of its time, and yet even the blurbs on the first edition seem less than enthused, praising Maling’s previous novels as “good reading” and “highly civilized reading” saying that “he is accumulating a solid series.” These are hardly the charged exaltations usually used to market a book. There is something admirably controlled and understated about Arthur Maling’s writing. However, if “civilized” was Maling’s goal, the contemplation of “dildoes” in German sex shops would likely make his more gentile readers blanch. Likewise, thriller readers would find themselves bored by the lack of action, and readers of love stories would likely be disconcerted by the callous murder of innocents. It is a pity when a book’s place in history is to languish all but forgotten besides its title on a list of awards. It is sadder still to revisit such a book and find that its place in obscurity is earned.
Fun Facts from the 1980 Edgar Awards:
- The Best Biographical/Critical Work category featured dueling works about Dorothy Sayers, both published by Kent State University Press: As Her Whimsey Took Her edited by Margaret P. Hannay, and Dorothy L. Sayers, A Literary Biography by Richard E. Hone, which won the award.
- Roald Dahl won the award for The Best Episode of a TV Series, his third Edgar Award, for “Skin,” an episode of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected.
- The Best First Novel Category was limited to three nominees with Richard North Patterson winning for his debut The Lasko Tangent.
- Allen J. Hubin, who succeeded Anthony Boucher as The New York Times’ crime fiction reviewer, won a Special Edgar for The Bibliography of Crime Fiction, 1749-1975.
- William L. DeAndrea won his second Edgar Award in the Best Paperback Original category for The Hog Murders. He would later win a third Edgar in 1995 in the Best Critical/Biographical Work category for Encyclopedia Mysteriosa.
- The Muppet Show won the Raven Award for “The Muppet Murders.”
- The other nominees for Best Novel included A Coat of Varnish by C.P. Snow, Death of a Mystery Writer by Robert Barnard, Fire in the Barley by Frank Parrish, and Make Death Love Me by Ruth Rendell.