03 September 2009

Book Review: Bulldog Drummond

Bulldog Drummond (1920)
By Herman Cyril McNeile writing as Sapper

The cheap paper story magazines, the genuine “pulps,” were a North American publishing phenomenon. That doesn’t mean their style of action and adventure never got across the pond. Starting in 1920, Herman Cyril McNeile, veteran of the Great War and member of the Royal Engineers, inaugurated a series of novels that took the British detective figure and molded him into an action hero for Brits who wanted patriotic thrills in the unsure post-war climate. So was born Bulldog Drummond, whom McNeille wrote about under the pseudonym “Sapper,” a name for a private in the Royal Engineers.

Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond borrowed from the detectives before him as well as from the virile adventure style of the American pulpers. He would also have a huge effect on the heroes who followed, as David Stuart Davies explains in his introduction to the new Wordsworth omnibus volume Bulldog Drummond:
…[he] was the prototype of all the sleuthing adventurers who ambushed the bookshelves in the first half of the twentieth century. He inspired numerous crime solvers from Sidney Horley’s Tiger Standish to Leslie Charteris’ The Saint to Dick Barton and beyond, and indeed he could well have been the father of James Bond.
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Drummond was neither as cerebral as Sherlock Holmes nor as self-contained, cunning and aristocratic as Lord Peter Whimsey (although like Whimsey he did have a trusty and useful manservant), but he had a bluff, good-hearted nature, great energy and above all staunch patriotism and tremendous courage.
And he could beat up evildoers viciously if he needed to—such as the acid-bath treatment that appears in the first book. It was just what the British reading public, especially exhausted soldiers back from the trenches, wanted to read. McNeile delivered the same thrills to the demobilized that Mickey Spillane would later give to U.S. soldiers returning from the Big One with his Mike Hammer novels.

Wordsworth has given us a new printing of the first four Bulldog Drummond books in the eponymous volume, part of their “Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural” series. These four adventures feature running villain Carl Peterson, a man much fiercer than his pedestrian name, and a forerunner of many master-planner super-baddies. The four novels contained between the two covers are Bulldog Drummond (1920), The Black Gang (1922), The Third Round (1925), and The Final Count (1926). (The volume’s introduction accidentally switches the dates for the last two. The introduction also misspells the author’s name as “McNeille” with the extra “l.” Proofreader asleep on the job, I guess.)

Taking on all four books at once would require too much space—and take too long for me read them all, and I rarely like tackling series novels at one time—so I will take them one at a time over the next few months. Up first, of course, is the original Bulldog Drummond of 1920.

The premiere adventure begins with a prologue chapter of a kind that would turn into the standard opener for many suspense novels. Instead of introducing the hero, the action begins with the villains gathering, ready to hatch a dastardly plot, but one kept oblique from the reader in order to build suspense. In a hotel in Berne, on the eve of the conclusion of the Great War, “Le Comte de Guy” brings together three men—two Germans and one American—and asks for their funding in a plan to bring down the horrid British. The three men agree, as long as they can bring in one more investor. The Count reveals himself at the end of the chapter as Carl Peterson, the villain of the omnibus, and the readers also meet his “daughter” Irma, who will spend the novel wrapped in mystery and an ambiguous attitude toward our hero.

With the next chapter, we meet that hero. Captain Hugh Drummond, late of His Majesty’s Royal Loamshires, is “demobilized” and wants adventure, preferably one dealing with crime, and has put notices in the paper seeking it. McNeile sketches the first portrait of his famous character:
Slightly under six feet in height, he was broad in proportion. His best friend would not have called him good-looking, but he was the fortunate possessor of that cheerful type of ugliness which inspires immediate confidence in its owner. His nose had never quite recovered from the final one year in the Public Schools Heavyweights; his mouth was not small. In fact, to be strictly accurate, only his eyes redeemed his face from being what is known in the vernacular as the Frozen Limit.
Drummond also comes equipped with a manservant, ex-batman James Denny, to dryly quip and act unflappable.

Drummond almost immediately finds the right client in a plea for help from a damsel, Miss Phyllis Benton, who fears that her father has fallen into the machinations of a villainous scientist, Henry Laking—who also has designs to marry her—and the even more vile (at least the readers know so) Carl Peterson. Drummond wastes no time snapping into action when he goes to visit the Bentons at Godalming. With a blazing gun and a striking fist, he rescued a hapless man in the clutches of the plotting Peterson and Laking. The man is American millionaire Hiram Potts, the planned fourth investor in Peterson’s scheme. The villain will do anything to get him back from Drummond’s heroic clutches. Drummond, however, has already started to learn how to play the devious game, and he’s willing to take outrageous chances to help out the beautiful Phyllis and her poor father.

Drummond rounds up a squad of his war-buddies to help, all of them fired up with an enthusiasm for this new “sport” of Hugh’s. The game between the determined Drummond and the schemes of Peterson, which centers around the possession of the drugged and confused Hiram Potts, will take up the rest of the novel. Some outrageous occurrences will happen along the way, with death traps, poison snakes, gruesome manners of killing, and a pygmy with a blowgun hiding in the Ritz in Paris. As a capper, Drummond wrestles with a gorilla, an idea that must have gotten into McNeile’s pen from reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, and which would in turn appear in many classic hero-pulp adventures. (For example, there is a Spider novel by Norvell Page where the villain tries to get an ape to rape the heroine. I’m not making that up.)

One of the endearing traits of Hugh Drummond, and something that sets him apart from 007 and many other heroes who came after him, is his amateur enthusiasm. He isn’t a professional spy-smasher, he’s simply a fellow with the tenacity of his namesake, a love of taking risks, and a staunch refusal to look at the odds. “Had he realized even dimly the immensity of the issues he was up against, had he but an inkling of the magnitude of the plot conceived in the sinister brain of his host of the previous evening, then, cheery optimist though he was, even Hugh Drummond might have wavered.” Well, lucky us and Hugh Drummond, “he had no such inkling.” And he proves it again and again through crazy risks and some outrageous bits of good fortune. He’s good with his fists as well, but when he tries talking politics at the end—well, that is not quite his forte.

Carl Peterson casts a fearsome shadow of ice-cold villainy, even as he passes up one opportunity after another to kill Drummond. Perhaps it was too early in the spy-novel game for McNeile to understand that an author needs to come up with at least a plausible excuse why the bad guy doesn’t simply off his enemy when he has him at his mercy. And Peterson’s dastardly scheme isn’t terribly interesting: some vague business about funding a syndicalist uprising in England that doesn’t sound like it has the remotest chance of succeeding. Perhaps McNeile realized this and included a jewelry-theft subplot to add a more concrete scheme.

Drummond meets the love of his life and marries her in this novel, which is another aspect of his character that would vanish in his successors. Getting the hero married off was a Victorian idea, and later authors must have seen that keeping the character unattached would allow for more swingin’ antics and romance. But in 1920, having Hugh meeting the right girl in the middle of flailing his fists must have seemed like the right choice. If Tarzan gets married, why not Hugh Drummond?

Bulldog Drummond moves at rapid clip, but sometimes gets tangled, and this might stem from McNeile’s tyro status as a novelist. He had written popular short stories before, but with Bulldog Drummond he has to manage a large cast and a sprawl of events, and the narrative gets choppy as Drummond darts from mansion to mansion, and Hiram Potts and Carl Peterson seem to hop around randomly. The story also reaches an action climax too early, resulting in a tired winding-down. But McNeile was just getting started, and would bring Carl Peterson and Irma back two years later for the more violent The Black Gang.