Saturday, January 22, 2011
THE DRUMS OF JEOPARDY, by Harold MacGrath
This was a hot-selling thriller back in 1920, having been serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, and was the basis of a play (poorly received) and two movies (one in 1923, and a sound remake in 1931 that's regarded as a minor classic). I downloaded it from one of the free ebook sites, thinking it might be fun...
Oh lordy, was I wrong.
This book stinks. It's a sloppily written potboiler that has aged very badly. It's the tale of someone who goes by the name of "John Hawksley" who's on the run from some villain, and off to meet up with a former mentor...for some reason that's forgotten by the end of the book. John is actually the child of an Italian mother and Russian noble father, and carries with him the "Drums of Jeopardy," two huge emeralds in settings that make them out to be the heads of drums. The villain, named "Boris Karlov," (I kid you not) is a Bolshevik, a crony of "Trotzky," who's out to kill John because he's the last member of a family that Karlov hates, and also to grab the jewels. John falls in with reporter Kitty Conover, who has a fabulously wealthy godfather who's not only nursing a crush on her, but also just happens to collect green gemstones and drums!
OK, on the surface it looks like it could be good fun hokum. But even on that level it flails. The writing is often turgid and MacGrath pauses every so often to rant about Bolshevism, so much so that it's not only tiresome but gets in the way of the story. A whole chapter that's an argument between Karlov and a captive is just an occasion to rant about the evils of Bolsheviks and how everyone's greatest and purest goal is to own property. (Yeah, not finding one's true love, but own property. We later have a violinist basically giving himself up to death because his most prized possession, a Stradivarius [it's always a Stradivarius] is destroyed by a Bolshevik philistine.) One wonders of Ayn Rand read this. (Not that I'm a fan of Bolshevism; I'm not, but capitalism has its drawbacks as well.) MacGrath is also hostile to southern and eastern Europeans, equating them with Bolsheviks, with the notable exception of John, and at one point lashes out against a union organizer. Just about anything not western or northern European, or not specifically free-market capitalist, or vaguely "internationalist" in any way, is a target of scorn.
Another plot element that ends up going nowhere is how Kitty goes to her godfather's place, who's out, and she ends up sleeping on the couch. And later the godfather and John are worried that she's been "compromised" and how godfather must marry Kitty to save her reputation, then let her divorce him and get a generous settlement. It's absurd and pretty stupid because we're never given any indication that anyone knows that Kitty spent the night at her godfather's place, let alone that anyone is scandalized or even cares in the least. It's all pointless and serves only to pad the narrative, but likely only serves the purpose of illustrating the dying gasps of Victorian morality.
The worst part is that we're given bits and pieces of John's background, but never know his true name or have things laid out for us. I was hoping for some more of the romance of the jewels, but there's damned little there. Then again, I have to admit that when I got about halfway through I started to skim a lot, mainly because I got bored by the anti-Bolshevist ranting.
Watch the movie if you want, but avoid the book. It stinks.