Saturday, March 21, 2015

Forgotten books: THE FEARED AND THE FEARLESS (1956)

THE FEARED AND THE FEARLESS by Guthrie Wilson (Corgi, 1956)

The blurb: The story starts in a British post behind the German lines in Italy. This little group of men was commanded by Captain Markham Faulkner, a hard and domineering man, feared by both friend and ally, and known throughout Italy as Il Brutto. To the post came Maria Cresswell, an American girl who fell under Il Brutto’s almost hypnotic spell. The war was over, Maria was happily married and living in New Zealand, Il Brutto was dead, but the past could not be forgotten. Often Maria tried to brush away the phantom from the past that crept back into her mind … telling herself that it was all over … finished …

Then one day it became a stark reality!

A swift and gripping novel of love and passion, of ambush and murder, of a manhunt that began in northern Italy and ended long after the war in the peaceful hills of New Zealand. This is a suspense story of high literary quality. Readers of Guthrie Wilson’s BRAVE COMPANY know with what consummate skill he can write of men in combat. To that skill he has added remarkable understanding of the mind of a man whose brain has been warped by the lust for power and shattered by injury. To Il Brutto’s story Guthrie Wilson brings stark reality in a superb novel of tension and terror.

The author: Guthrie Wilson was born in 1914 at Palmerston North, New Zealand. He attended school there and later became a student at Victoria University College, Wellington, where he gained his MA. He taught at Marlborough College, Blenheim, until 1941, when he joined the New Zealand Territorial Forces. From 1943-1945 he served in the New Zealand Infantry in the Middle East and Italy. He was captured just before the end of the war and ultimately awarded the Military Cross.  He returned to New Zealand, took up teaching again, and wrote BRAVE COMPANY and JULIEN WARE, both of which are Corgi bestsellers.

Critical reception: In the academic work, The New Zealand Novel, 1860-1965, Guthrie is noted for winning overseas acclaim as a novelist at the time, and this book seems to be analysed more on its merits as a war novel. Looking with modern eyes, some of the analysis in The New Zealand Novel, 1860-1965 in general seems stuffy or overly academic (in fairness, it was an academic tome providing an overview of New Zealand writing for a century), with a barely-contained sneer towards anything that hinted at what we'd call popular fiction. It's a good resource though, which I've used to discover many long-forgotten crime, thriller, mystery and suspense titles written by New Zealanders before 1965.

In the case of Guthrie and his war novels, including THE FEARED AND THE FEARLESS, Guthrie is praised for his evocation of war but skewered whenever it's felt he veers more towards entertaining readers with his storytelling:
"This is a deliberately violent study of "Brutto" (Scarface), the New Zealand leader of a partisan group; it is about blood and guts and murder and madness, about evil inextricably mixed with good, about pity for suffering and admiration for strength. Brutto, made repulsive by his raw head wound in the manner of Gothic terror novelists, terrifies all about him. Probably he is meant to symbolise the horror of war in what it does to the body and to the spirit. In both Brutto is feared, is fearless, is maimed, is strong. 
However this psychological theme is too much for the author, whose obsession with brutality exploited in strained rhetoric reminds one of the turgidities of cheap sensational fiction... This book raises doubts about Guthrie Wilson's artistic control. Is he merely making a blatant appeal to the popular market for blood-and-sex?"

Heaven forbid a 1950s New Zealand author would actually appeal to the masses...

In contrast, in a 1997 academic paper examing the classic physically hard and emotionally tough 'Man Alone' figure in New Zealand literature (something akin to the Tough Guy of Hemingway's writing and early American crime fiction etc), Dale Benson of the University of Otago noted that Wilson's portrayal of Il Brutto in THE FEARED AND THE FEARLESS implied a moral judgment about the heinous character, rather than simply just emphasising perversion and murder for its own sake. Benson writes that:
"When Il Brutto in The Feared and the Fearless kills many of the people who threaten to curtail his freedom Wilson's careful exposition of his past promotes the idea that, because Il Brutto's personality has been altered by a severe head injury, he is not responsible for his psychotic behaviour... Yet Wilson's displacement of his characters' personal responsibility on to their environment does not mitigate their fate..."
Similarly, the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (1991) calls Guthrie Wilson "the only substantial New Zealand novelist to emerge from the (barren) early 1950s".

So perhaps tales of murder and mayhem, even those written in 1950s New Zealand against a wartime backdrop, can be both entertaining, and substantial. It certainly has me intrigued to read this sixty year old novel, and very grateful that I stumbled across it in a wonderful secondhand bookstore. 


I found this book at Arty Bees Books in Wellington, in August last year. I first discovered Arty Bees when participating in the New Zealand International Arts Festival in 2012. It is an outstanding bookstore that for my money has by far the best out-of-print and hard-to-find New Zealand literature section I've ever seen. Both times I've visited I've found one or two old crime or thriller novels I didn't yet have, and I'd already compiled an amateur collection of more than 150 New Zealand crime novels from earlier days. So it is very hard for me to find anything I don't already have. If you're in Wellington, definitely check out Arty Bees, they have more than 100,000 books. It's a delight wandering their aisles and perusing their shelves. I was there for an hour plus on each of my visits. Just a great store.


  1. Where I am books like this are similar to rocking horse pooh - you just don't see them anymore

  2. Publisher Corgi's cover for "The Feared and the Fearless" looks an awful lot like the front of "Death's Long Shadow," Jay Barbette (1955).