Mundy Monday: Author, Philosopher… Spy?

Talbot Mundy.jpg

Talbot Mundy had a wandering foot, as my grandfather would say. Born in London in 1879, he had visited (by his own account) India, Africa, Australia and several European nations before coming to the US in 1909. He traveled widely across America and Mexico, also visiting Egypt and Palestine after World War I. He claimed to have met a number of famous people during his travels, including G.K. Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), as well as a number of others he did not name. For example, the character of Jimgrim was supposedly based in part on Lawrence and one or more unnamed members of British Intelligence he had met in India, Africa and Palestine. Mundy also dropped hints that he himself had worked for the British at one time or another while traveling overseas. Later in life, he would say that as a young man he was a bald-faced liar, so just how credible were these claims? Was Talbot Mundy a spy?

It isn’t beyond reason for someone like Mundy to be involved with gathering intelligence. Others have done so, one example being the case of American science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith. It has been almost 80 years since his death, but perhaps a look at what we know of Talbot Mundy can tell us more about this possibility. What skills and abilities did he possess that might have enabled a career as a spy?

1.      Familiarity with Firearms – from all accounts, Mundy hunted foxes, pheasants, elephants and tigers; he would have known how to use a gun.

2.      Physical Courage – One of Mundy’s first non-fiction articles was about his experiences “pig-sticking”, that means boar-hunting with a spear from horseback. Boar hunting with a spear is an extremely dangerous sport; boars are notoriously tough (boar spears are made with a crossbar to prevent the boar from pushing its way up the spear when impaled) and can seriously wound or kill a horse or a man in a matter of seconds. Talbot Mundy was an enthusiastic boar-hunter, so I think we can say that he did indeed possess courage.

3.      Familiarity with Different Languages – Before coming to the United States, Mundy lived in Germany, India, South Africa, and the Portuguese, German and British colonies in East Africa. After moving to the US, he spent time living in Mexico and Palestine. Unfortunately, I have been unable to determine exactly which languages he was conversant in.

4.      Moral Flexibility – Before starting his career as a writer, Talbot Mundy could charitably be described as a con man; he himself said he had been a “wastrel… a bald-faced liar”. We know for a fact that he spent some of his time in East Africa poaching and smuggling ivory and apparently did time on a road gang for it. In 1910, he and his wife were charged with using false information to enter the United States. Those charges were dropped, but Mundy would have been familiar with both sides of the Law.

5.      Being in the Right Place at the Right Time – Talbot Mundy was in Peshawar as a reporter during the Mahsud uprising in 1901, he spent years in South and East Africa between the Second Boer War and the beginning of World War I and apparently became adept at moving across the borders between the Portuguese, German and British colonies when he needed to. While he was employed as the town clerk on the frontier at Kisumu, he survived three different tribal uprisings against British rule in 1904-05. After WWI, Mundy helped establish and run the first English-language newspaper in Jerusalem during the Nebi Musa riots in 1920. This could have all been coincidence, of course.

6.      Patriotism – Some critics accused Talbot Mundy of having an anti-British bias; he differed from many writers at that time in being anti-colonial and in being sympathetic to peoples who were ruled by, or in opposition to, imperial power. However, Mundy was a vocal supporter of Great Britain during both World Wars and an advocate of the United States joining Britain in fighting against her enemies. Before his death in 1940, he referred to Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Franco as “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

Did Talbot Mundy have the ability and the opportunity to have served as an intelligence agent for Great Britain and/or the United States? It certainly appears so, but what kind of secret agent would write dozens of short stories and novels about agents serving Great Britain in the Great Game, let alone suggest that he was one himself and then come out and publicly call himself a liar? Who would believe him?

Was Talbot Mundy a spy? We don’t know; it has been too long and too much shadow has fallen over the man and the times he lived in for us to say with any certainty.

But he could have been.