Bulldog Drummond (1920) by ‘Sapper’

Book Review by Jane Varley: This is the novel in which Hugh Drummond D.S.O., M.C. demobbed British officer bored with peace – and the reader – first encounter the international collection of crooks who plan to stage a coup in Great Britain and other capitalist countries and install a Bolshevist regime in order to gain power for themselves. This was very much thought to be a political threat post WW1. The gang’s leader le Conte de Guy/Peterson says, ‘There is a force in England which if it is led properly, will result in millions (££/$$) coming to you . . . it is present now in every nation – unfettered, inarticulate, un-coordinated … It is partly the result of the war – the war that the idiots waged . . . Harness that force, co-ordinate it, and use it for your own ends.’ Several times in this story the author refers to the conspirators as ‘ragged trousered’ [q.v. the working class novel, The ragged trousered philanthropists, Robert Tressell, pub 1914] This can hardly be a coincidence. (Incidentally the author knows the 1920s price of bread in Petrograd – £2.4/- a pound.

Peterson’s plan: to become an autocrat in GB ‘who has only to lift his finger to plunge his kingdom into destruction and annihilation’. To ‘bring ruin, perhaps death to thousands of innocent men and women, . . . he (is) a supreme egoist’ who has it in particularly for England, ‘that accursed country’ which he wishes to see ‘humbled to the dirt’ But to realise his plan he must have money. He brings together three men who have it.

The financers are: Steinmann in coal, ‘a peculiar looking man in a big fur coat, reminding one of a cod-fish’. He is ‘of the common order of German to whom food was sacred.’ ‘Guttural voice’. McNeile goes on to attribute piggy eyes and all the cliched physical attributes by which the ‘Boche’ are to be recognised.

Von Gratz – in steel – timid. Cowardly.

Hocking, a gaunt, dyspeptic American, (nasal drawl, chewing a tooth pick) ‘at the head of the great American cotton trust who in accumulating his millions had also accumulated a digestion of such an exotic and tender character that dry rusks and Vichy water were the limit of his (eating) capacity. Not a fan of GB.

The financers want a fourth man so they can spread the costs (£1,000,000). They suggest Hiram Potts who is a shipping magnet, a large employer of labour and a multi-millionaire. And this will prove to be the fly in the ointment because Potts, when they get him, is unwilling to finance this plot even under brutal duress.

Petersen, a man of inhuman calmness who nonetheless has a nervous tic – tapping his left knee with his hand – has ‘deep-set, steel grey eyes’. ‘His hands were large and white: not effeminate, but capable and determined: the hands of a man who knew what he wanted, knew how to get it and got it.’ ‘… a man of power, a man capable of forming instant decisions and carrying them through,’. He is suave and a brilliant speaker.

Peterson gathers a gang around him:

Lackington (the name says it all!) is Petersen’s side kick. A sadist, he is typified by a ‘cold, merciless stare’. He is a Brit who is an art and jewellery thief. A Russian Bolshevist of ‘insanitary appearance’, with ‘sunken eyes, glowing with burning fires of fanaticism’ … ‘his eyes gleamed with the smouldering madness of his soul.’ And sundry other ‘heavies’.

Enter our hero. Hugh Drummond is ‘slightly under six foot in height, he was broad in proportion’ . . .’ 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 Heavy Weights.’ ‘His eyes . . . deep set and steady, with eyelashes that many a woman had envied, they showed the man for what he was – a sportsman and a gentleman’. So that’s alright then! A true Brit to the rescue! But Drummond’s motivation for entering the fray is not so much political as chivalrous – he is appealed to by a girl with ‘blue eyes and white teeth, and a skin like the bloom of a sun-kissed peach’ to help her father who is in the clutches of the Black Gang. ‘Like most normal Englishmen politics and labour disputes had left Drummond cold . . . but no one could be ignorant of the volcano that had been simmering just beneath the surface for years.’ So in fact he does see how things might turn out, as in Russia.

‘Not one in a hundred of the so-called revolutionary leaders in this country are disinterested. They’re out for number one and when they’ve talked boys into bloody murder, and your existing social system is down-and-out, they’ll be the leaders in the new one. ‘ . . . they’re playing power and when they’ve got it, God help the men who gave it to ‘em!’

Bulldog Drummond gathers a bunch of his fellow demobbed officers to help him defeat this threat to England and to rescue the girl with whom he has fallen in love. They are, of course, all good sports. The reader, presented with the physical attributes of the characters, is manipulated into thinking of them in a certain way and knows exactly what to feel about them.

Drummond goes through an impossible number of ordeals and perilous situations from which he always manages to extract himself, Bond-like. Both sides use violence graphically described, and there is plenty of sadism coming from Lackington. But of course Peterson and his baddies are defeated – for the time being. No doubt this impossibly indestructible hero was held up as an ideal of manhood to public school boys of the 20s and 30s but I have to say I am glad that no doting great uncle inflicted these stories on my son when he was of an impressionable age. To the modern reader of any sensibilities this is the stuff of the pornography of violence. But one must take things in context . . .

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