Manning Coles was the pseudonym of two Hampshire neighbors who collaborated on a long series of entertaining spy novels featuring Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon, a modern-language instructor turned British secret agent. But in Drink to Yesterday, their first collaboration, Tommy isn’t really the central character at all. That role falls to young Bill Saunders, a teenage student of Tommy’s, who lies about his age, enlists in the army during World War I, and is eventually recruited by Tommy, now a full-time agent himself, into the British secret service. That book, first published in Britain in 1940 and in the U.S. in 1941, was an immediate hit and the authors were implored to write a sequel.
For reasons that will become obvious once you’ve read a Drink to Yesterday, a sequel presented certain difficulties and it became necessary, through a very clever literary sleight of hand, to give top billing to Tommy in A Toast to Tomorrow (published as Pray Silence in Britain) and all subsequent books. While the first two books are often quite different in tone, they still constitute, as Anthony Boucher, the genre’s most famous early critic, put it, “a single long and magnificent novel of drama, intrigue and humor.” While admittedly most of the humor is in the sequel, Tommy’s sardonic wit shines through in Drink to Yesterday, especially when he makes fun of popular notions of what a spy’s life is like.
Its realistic portrayal of the real world of espionage is what makes Drink to Yesterday one of the most important books in the development of the spy novel, a fact that was immediately recognized not only by the critics but by the general reading population. Howard Haycraft, the genre’s first historian, wrote in his seminal Murder for Pleasure that it fell first to Eric Ambler to give new life to the spy-and-intrigue story by bringing it close to a legitimate marriage with detection in such works as Background to Danger (1937) and Coffin for Dimitrios (1939). Gone from Ambler’s works were the “stereotyped cliches and slinky females in black velvet” found in the works of fanciful novelists such as William Lequeux, E. Phillips Oppenheim and H.C. McNeile (“Sapper”). Writing in 1941, the year the first two Manning Coles books appeared in the United States, Haycraft commented that “the mood of subtle understatement which [Ambler] established seems already to have found an echo in such superior works as... Drink to Yesterday and A Toast to Tomorrow.” He later added both books, with an assist from Frederic Dannay (one half of the Ellery Queen team), to his list of cornerstone books in the development of the genre.
The authors’ American publisher was also quick to point out that these books “were as different from the old spy stories as a Hitchcock movie is from silent pictures in the days of Lon Chaney. We would like you to forget any ideas you have about spy stories and approach this as a novel with humor, three dimensional characters, realistic narration and breathtaking suspense.” The two books almost immediately went into large reprint editions. This was a most unusual circumstance during the early years of World War II when anti-German sentiment was at its height, given that the books, while denouncing Naziism, presented a balanced, sympathetic and often appreciative portrait of the German people, whom the authors clearly felt had been betrayed and deceived by all sides following World War I. Yet there is never any question as to Hambledon’s loyalties. “If a country is worth living in,” he said, “it is worth fighting for.”
The books came to be written thanks to a fortuitous meeting. After Adelaide Frances Oke Manning (1891-1959), rented a flat from Cyril’s father in East Meon, Hampshire, she and Cyril became neighbors and friends. Educated at the High School for Girls in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Adelaide, who was eight years Cyril’s senior, worked in a munitions factory and later at the War Office during World War I. A birth defect had left her with a deformed ankle, limiting her employment opportunities. A career as a writer seemed a natural choice. In 1939 she published a solo novel, Half-Valdez, a fanciful tale of a hunt for lost Spanish treasure hidden in the days of the Armada in a remote outpost on the British coast. Burdened with pages of dialog told in thick dialects, the book was a critical and financial failure. Yet there were flashes of untamed literary talent in those pages. Cyril was also interested in writing fiction. An indifferent student as a youth, he had excelled in school in only two areas, modern languages and creative writing, in spite of being dyslexic (as were his son, grandson and great granddaughters). Dyslexia, while presenting certain obstacles to a writing career, can be overcome, as has been demonstrated by many successful authors, including novelist and television writer Stephen J. Cannell and mystery writer Deborah Crombie, creator of a popular series featuring Scotland Yard detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. While having tea, Coles and Manning discovered their common interest in the literary life and hit upon the idea for a spy novel based on Cyril’s own World War I adventures. The two settled into a comfortable working partnership made possible, in part, as Cyril pointed out in a note written when Drink to Yesterday was being rushed to the printers, by the fact that “the absence of physical attraction between them was more than compensated by their remarkable friendship.” While Adelaide never married, Coles had married Dorothy Cordelia Smith in 1934. The Manning Coles collaboration, which lasted longer than many marriages, ended when Adelaide died of throat cancer in 1959. During those twenty years the two worked together almost daily, although Cyril’s continuing activities with the Foreign Intelligence Branch, now known as the Secret Intelligence Service or, more commonly, MI6, often required that he be out of the country, especially during World War II.
What set their books apart, in particular Drink to Yesterday, was Cyril’s intimate knowledge of real world of espionage. Cyril, in fact, abandoned an attempt at autobiography in his later years partly because so much of the story of his early years had already been told in that first collaboration, cloaked as fiction in part to avoid violating the Official Secrets Act. We’ll never know for certain what was fact and what was fiction in Drink to Yesterday, as Coles asked his two sons, Michael and Peter, to destroy his private papers without reading them. But the many striking parallels between the lives of the fictional Bill Saunders and the very real Cyril Coles makes one wonder if any of the events in Drink to Yesterday are actually pure fiction.
Like Bill Saunders, Cyril was attending private school when war with Germany broke out in August 1914. Churchers College in Petersfield, Hampshire, was a school originally established for the sons of members of the East India Company. Young Cyril did not think much of the place, writing years later that it had the usual “spartan discipline and terrible food that may be questioned in a penitentiary of today.” It was at Churchers that Cyril published his first short story. But it was his remarkable aptitude for languages, French and German in particular, that drew the attention of a teacher named John Radwell, who also was captain of the cadet corps at school. Radwell encouraged his student to drop classics and concentrate on modern languages. Cyril recalled that Radwell’s teaching methods were modern and imaginative for the day. He often worked with Cyril on German conversation outside of class. Cyril later wrote that “Little did the boy realize that this teacher would one day help to make him famous as it was he on whom he based his universally known character of Tommy Hambledon.” Hambledon, by the way, was the name of a small village just down the road from where Cyril lived. In the books, Cyril shaved thirty years off Radwell’s age.
But even the special attentions of this teacher could not keep Cyril interested in school work once war broke out. He was completely caught up in the frenzy. It struck him as a grand adventure and he attempted to enlist at the age of fifteen. His parents thwarted that attempt, pulled him out of school in 1915 and apprenticed him at Thornycroft’s Ship Building Yard in Southampton. Not long after Cyril arrived in Southhampton he found a familiar name in the casualty lists, an admired hero from his school days who had been a very promising musician (presumably allowed to live on in fiction as Dixon Ogilvie, a minor character in both Drink to Yesterday and A Toast to Tomorrow). Cyril hitched a ride to London, walked into the recruiting station and when asked his age, replied, without hesitation, “Eighteen.” He was placed in the 2nd Hants Regiment as a private and soon found himself on the front lines in France. There is some evidence in Cyril’s notes that he may well have reconnected with Radwell, now a major and second in command of the 6th Hants Regiment, at this point. Radwell also served in India and Mesopotamia. In any event, Cyril was overheard talking with German prisoners and was soon employed as a translator away from the front. Cyril ended up being conscripted into the Secret Service, becoming Britain’s youngest intelligence officer. He went behind German lines working out of Cologne and did not return to England until 1920, two years after the war ended. Between the wars, Cyril ran an import export business in Cologne, much as Bill and Tommy do in Drink to Yesterday, and may have known Konrad Adenauer, who was mayor of Cologne from 1917 to 1933, at this time since he was on a first name basis after World War II with the future first chancellor of the West German Republic. It gave Cyril first hand information on what life was like in Germany between the wars, which would be invaluable in writing A Toast to Tomorrow.
Whether or not Cyril participated in the actual missions conducted by Bill Saunders is open to question. Certainly German scientists were working on biological and chemical weapons. Is the elderly German scientist Amtenbrink in Drink to Yesterday the same man to whom the book is dedicated—“an old gentleman who loved his roses?” If so, it’s a chilling acknowledgment. Did Cyril, as Bill did, blow up a Zeppelin base? Probably not, but the incident in the book is obviously based on the January 5, 1918, explosion at Ahlhorn, German’s largest Zeppelin base, which destroyed five German airship bombers, thus effectively ending the role of Zeppelins in the war. It is usually attributed to an accidental hydrogen gas explosion, but more than one military expert has suggested that sabotage was a more likely explanation. Certainly the automatic along with its wooden box found in Bill’s garage apartment is based on the weapon owned by Cyril Coles which Cyril’s grandson, Steven, came across as a small child when his father, uncle and other grandfather were cleaning out his grandparents’ house after Dorothy’s death. It was, as Cyril always maintained it, fully loaded, with the safety on. Since it was not registered, the family turned it in to the government.
Bill’s experiences as a spy in World War I may remind some readers of the recent movie The Good Shepherd, which was based on the life of an actual CIA agent who was recruited straight out of college. Both are understated but moving stories of lost innocence about young men whose life in the shadows makes it impossible for them to connect with people in the regular world. Unlike Bill, however, Cyril seems to have adjusted well to postwar life. After the war, he emigrated to Australia where he worked on the railway, as a garage manager (as Bill does in England), and as a columnist for a Melbourne newspaper before returning to England in 1928. When asked what periods he worked for British Intelligence, Coles replied somewhat cryptically by saying that you never really leave the service. He told his sons that his pay from Intelligence paid for the “extras.”
Cyril was definitely back on active duty once World War II broke out in September 1939, operating for a time in Holland and Germany. Once, while in the field, he was picked up by plane and flown back to England. En route, the pilot and navigator were seriously wounded and Cyril was forced to take the controls and land the plane. As a result, he refused to fly after the war and only would travel by boat or various land transports.
Some of his wartime activities were closer to home. When he was six or seven, Cyril’s son Michael recalls watching a German plane fly so low near their house on the outskirts of Southhampton that they could see the face of the pilot. His mother, fearing the plane would crash, pulled Michael and his twin brother Peter to safety. Years later Cyril told his son that the plane had indeed crashed and that he had interrogated the pilot. One of Cyril’s more important tasks during the war involved transmitting false information to confuse the enemy during the D-Day landings. While writing took up most of his time, Cyril continued to work for British Intelligence until the late 1950s. That link helped provide the background for Tommy’s Cold War adventures. After Adelaide’s death in 1959, Cyril completed Concrete Crime (1960) on his own. Two subsequent books, Search for a Sultan (1961) and The House at Pluck’s Corner (1963) were written in collaboration with Tom Hammerton. While the series was at its best when Tommy and his cohorts were battling the Nazis, the Cold War era novels are not without charm and Tommy was still Tommy, an engaging hero who never quite forgot what it meant to be an Englishman. If realism sometimes took a back seat to comedy, the books were still filled with what Boucher described as “good-humored implausibility.”
That same good humor—and a good deal more implausibility—is to be found in the collaborators’ four ghost books, which began with Brief Candles in 1954 and included two other books featuring the ghostly Latimers, Happy Returns in 1955 (published in England as A Family Matter) and Come and Go in 1958. A fourth ghost book, The Far Traveller, which features a displaced, displeased and deceased German nobleman who finds a movie company employing people of the most common sort invading his castle, appeared in 1956. Although the books were quite popular and appeared in the U.S. under the Coles byline, they were published in England under yet another pseudonym, Francis Gaite. Boucher described this new venture “as felicitously foolish as a collaboration of (P.G.) Wodehouse and Thorne Smith.” The ghost books ended with Manning’s death, and one can only hope than the two collaborators are having as much fun in the next world as they gave readers in this one.
Tom & Enid Schantz
The editors would like to thank Cyril Coles’ sons, Michael and Peter, as well as Michael’s son, Steven, for their tremendous help in compiling this short biography of an extraordinary man.