Friday, September 30, 2016

BULLDOG DRUMMOND by "Sapper" (aka H. C. McNeile)

Capt. Hugh Drummond is bored. The Great War is over, he craves excitement, and places a tongue-in-cheek ad in the paper offering his services to anyone needing an adventurer. And then the story gets rolling....he's called in by a damsel in distress, who needs help in untangling her father from the influence of Carl Peterson, an international criminal and schemer. It proceeds from move to counter-move, with a heinous conspiracy unmasked at the end.

Published in 1920, "Bulldog Drummond" is notorious for being a shining example of the patriotic two-fisted adventurer types that populated British pulp fiction between the wars. Politically, Drummond would horrify some modern readers, as he functions largely to preserve a conservative status quo, and I've read that in later books he becomes a sort of Ayn Rand-ian Rugged Individualist. But in this book he's palatable; he's doing what he's doing for the sake of adventure and excitement, and I was impressed about halfway through when he starts to wonder if he's not in over his head and should bring in the police. He decides against it, of course (because otherwise there's no story) but that moment of reflection and self-doubt is something you don't see often, especially in macho fiction of this era.

Drummond was also famously xenophobic in later works, but in this one it's not visible aside from a certain pro-British jingoism that's par for the course in this era. There's a peripheral character who's referred to as a "Jew" but not disparagingly so; it's just that they felt it necessary to include that. Yeah, it's not the most enlightened, but it's extremely mild for those days.

It was also interesting to pick up on ways it influenced other works, and was influenced by others. Villain Peterson keeps a number of exotic poisonous animals in his house, and has a number of elaborate traps, all of which were reminiscent of Sax Rohmer's "Fu Manchu" novels....and Rohmer had been writing of the Devil Doctor since 1913, so it's likely Sapper read them. And some of the goings-on here reminded me of some of the early Saint stories by Leslie Charteris, and Simon Templar didn't appear in print until 1928, so it's likely Charteris was influenced by Sapper. (And The Saint is much more compassionate than Drummond on any day of the week...)

Overall, the story is sometimes a bit muddled and is preposterous as hell, but it is entertaining enough in a sort of idealized picture postcard England kind of way. We know from the start that Peterson is trying to bring about a Communist revolution in England and reap millions as a result (yeah, it's vague) and I actually agreed with Drummond's speech that capitalism is badly flawed but at least it works halfway, and communism simply won't work. (Liberal as I am, I do have occasional flirtations with socialism, but consider communism and Marxism to be failed philosophies [there are differences, look them up if you think they're all the same], and while capitalism has serious problems it's likely the best system we have.) I can imagine this getting more conservative and right-wing as times go by, but I enjoyed this enough to want to continue with the series.

Wordsworth Editions has an omnibus of the first four books (all of which feature Carl Peterson) and there's some ebooks out there; otherwise, check your used bookstore. McNeile died in 1937 and this work is in public domain in the US and can be downloaded for free from the usual suspects, but the rest appear to be still protected by copyright here.


Gene Phillips said...

I read the first four novels in a modern collection, so some of the particulars are confused in my memory--

But isn't the first novel where Bulldog manages to outwrestle a gorilla-- albeit only a "small" one-- thanks to the hero's enormous strength?

Vagrarian said...

Yes, it was, bizarrely enough. Peterson kept a menagerie of exotic beasts, a la Fu Manchu. No real reason given; they were just there. Weird.