Monday, February 22, 2010


My contribution to the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise is S for "Sapper".
Well rules are meant to be bent a little, and Sapper is the pen name of Herman Cyril McNeile.

McNeile was born in 1888 at the Naval prison in Bodmin, Cornwall where his father was the Governor. He served in the Royal Engineers [known as sappers] from 1907-1919. He took the pen name because during the First World War serving officers were not allowed to write under their own names.
His first thriller Bulldog Drummond [1920] was an enormous success, and he went on to become one of the most popular novelists of his generation, when he died in 1937 a vast public mourned his death.
The character of Bulldog Drummond was played on screen by some very famous actors including Ronald Colman, Ralph Richardson, John Howard, Walter Pidgeon and Ray Milland.

A few weeks ago I was persuaded by Mrs Crime Scraps to visit a book fair at Killerton House, and this revived my historical interest in Sapper when I purchased a copy of his novel Jim Maitland. Jim Maitland was first published in 1923, and the 1935 edition I purchased was the twenty-eighth edition, which is evidence of the incredible popularity of this writer in his time.
Ben McIntyre recently wrote in an article in the Times in which he stated 'All great fictional detectives hold up a mirror to their times.'
Sapper's Hugh Drummond did indeed hold up such a mirror and today the novels are an interesting record of a rather unpleasant society. These ideas were openly expressed in everyday conversation so the authors of the early part of the twentieth century were not shy about putting them in print. I suspect many people hold similar views today, but keep their opinions more to themselves.

"That being the case, " he continued, "how comes it that a Dago made you cry out for help? Dagos who do anything so foolish as to molest English girls are simply asking for trouble, aren't they, you repulsive little beast?"
[Jim Maitland: Sapper 1923]

"The scum certainly would not be complete," he remarked to Peterson, "without a filthy Boche in it."

"I caught a glimpse of the most wonderful gold chaliced cup-just like the one for which Samuel Levy, the Jew moneylender, was still offering a reward."
[Bulldog Drummond: Sapper 1920]

I did go back this week and read Bulldog Drummond again, after a gap over half a century, and much of the plot, attitudes and language just seemed utterly stupid.
I wondered why I and so many others read this stuff when I was at school.
It came to me that an English preparatory or public school in the 1950s was far closer both chronologically and in its attitudes to the world of Hugh Drummond, and Carl Peterson, than to today's world.
But it is just possible to read the books for the adventure while ignoring the jingoistic, racist, anti-Semitic nonsense and the ludicrous plots if you are ten.
But it is nice to know that some things never change:

'Look at this entry here, 'he grunted. 'That blighter is a Member of Parliament. What's he getting four payments of a thousand pounds for?'
'Why surely, to buy some nice warm underclothes with,' grinned the detective.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norman - It is really interesting how some of the classic crime fiction really does contain language, references, and so on that people don't use "in polite company" today. To me, it's very interesting to see that change in what's considered appropriate.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Margot I certainly don't think we should rewrite parts of these books, or stop them being published, because they are part of our history.
People who talk about the good old days usually never lived through them. Whether we have gone too far in the other direction with political correctness and affirmative action programs is another question.

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norman - You really raise an interesting point, and I actually think I'm going to blog about it. It's really a very important issue. As you mention, people didn't always observe the niceties of what's called political correctness (As I think of this debate, I think of Donna Leon's The Girl of His Dreams, where there is more than one conversation about what to call gypsies, or Roms). Certainly the language we use has changed over time, and I agree, we shouldn't rewrite the classics because of that. As for books currently being written, it's an interesting question...Thanks for making me think about something really interesting and important.

7:45 PM  
Blogger Bernadette said...

I've never heard of these books but your present day reaction to one reminds me of the way I felt reading one of Arthur Upfield's 'Bony' books a few years ago - a series set largely in the Australian outback featuring an Aboriginal tracker as the protagonist. I was too young to read these in their first incarnation and reading it some 60 years after its publication I cringed at the language and the prejudices and wished for a moment that I could make the entire oevre disappear from the universe.

However, being an old archivist I do agree quite passionately with you Norman that such works should stand 'as they are' as representative of their time and place and not be airbrushed, rewritten or massaged in the interests of modern notions of what is appropriate to say. Burying our history doesn't allow us to learn what we need to from it and good parents, teachers and librarians can discuss such artworks with new readers in such a way as to explain the context to modern readers.

3:58 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Margot- I have a book on my TBR shelf which is set in 1925 [a saga of race, civil rights and murder in the Jazz Age] and the author states that in his early drafts he referred to "African Americans" in the narrative.
Readers told him this usage not surprisingly jarred them out of the story, and he then used the "antiquated" but historically evocative terms "Negro" and "colored" as well as the term "black" in the book. He added that by that choice he meant no disrespect to the subjects of the book or present day readers.
I shared a flat with a "black" Jamaican at university in the 1960s, and we remain internet friends today. I am sure we were not as cautious with our language to each other as people are today. But equally I am sure we respected each other, and got on very well despite England's cricket team being regularly thrashed by the West Indies.

4:08 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Bernadette- I agree with you especially in that we should not hide our history but learn from it. What we want is fairness for all and a level playing field not incidents such as the recent Ali Dizaei case in the UK, or the Duke Lacrosse case in North Carolina.

4:51 AM  

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