Book Review by George Simmers: In 1937 Herman Cyril McNeile who, as ‘Sapper’ had written the Bulldog Drummond thrillers, died. His friend Gerard Fairlie, who had collaborated with him on the novelisation of a Drummond film script (The series of Drummond movies were very popular in the 1930s) took over the profitable franchise.
Captain Bulldog Drummond is the second Drummond novel Fairlie wrote by himself. Published in 1946, it is set in 1943, and offers, as the cover image suggests, exactly what many readers must have wanted – the prospect of Bulldog Drummond biffing Germans.
At the start of the novel, Drummond is frustrated. Now in late middle age, his services have not been required by the War Office. He is, however, a keen officer in the Home Guard (His troop run rings round the opposition in a training exercise.) Then his name is put forward for a delicate mission. Britain and America are preparing for the invasion of France, but are unsure of the level of support in that country, which is run by the defeatist Vichy regime.
Drummond’s job is to make contact with resistance leaders, and to gauge their commitment and morale. Before he sets off, however, he receives taunting messages from a mystery woman – who can only be his arch-enemy, the beautiful but deadly Irma Petersen. Back in the twenties the Petersens had been free of any national loyalties. Now Irma is definitely on the side of the Nazis. As ever her exact motivation is hard to decipher; her plans are as mysterious as they are deep. But her influence is extraordinary. Other characters are frightened of the Gestapo. The Gestapo are frightened of Irma.
In London, Drummond comes in contact with a beautiful and mysterious woman with contacts in high places who is making a name for herself doing wonderful things for war charities. The astute reader (me) guesses immediately that this is going to be Irma, but Drummond initially does not recognise her, until, in a box at the theatre, he catches a whiff of her perfume – Vol de Nuit, which was always Irma’s favourite.
How Drummond becomes certain she is Irma is moderately interesting. In Bulldog Drummond, ‘Sapper’ had appropriated an idea from John Buchan. In The Thirty-nine Steps, Richard Hannay recognises his arch-enemy by his tell – the way he taps his fingers on his knee when under stress. Sapper gives exactly the same mannerism to Carl Petersen, so that Drummond is able to recognise that what seemed an innocent missionary is instead the arch-criminal. In Captain Bulldog Drummond Drummond, half-suspecting the countess Lilli, takes her to the Savoy. She asks him about his previous experiences, and when he tells her about killing Petersen, her fingers start unconsciously tapping the table.
‘That benevolent old missionary all over again. The middle finger tapping a tattoo on the table cloth. A mannerism, no doubt, picked up from him, which was his weakness, in moments of stress he just couldn’t help himself. I’m quite certain she had no idea that she was doing it.’
There follows a cat and mouse game – Drummond knows she is Irma, and she knows he knows. She knows he is dangerous, but wants him to go to France, since he will lead the Germans to the Resistance leaders. So, though each could kill the other immediately, they don’t, which sets the pattern for the rest of the book.
Drummond is introduced to an American, Mat Harlow, who is assigned to go to France with him, and is as solid and dependable as Drummond himself (This books is very reassuring about our allies.) Drummond’s long-term associates, Algy Longworth and Peter Darrel, are also recruited. Algy, an upper-class twit character with unexpected resources of courage and skill, was a favourite in the Drummond films, and gets a large part in this adventure,
Chapter XVI is perhaps the most interesting in the book, in that it does not exist. In its place is an Author’s Note, explaining that he is not going to recount how Drummond and Harlow reach France, in case it would give away important secrets to Britain’s enmeies. As if.
In France, Drummond and Harlow meet members of the Resistance, all uncomplicated followers of De Gaulle. The book does not touch on the fact that many members of the resistance – often the most effective – were committed Communists. Fairlie prefers to keep his politics simple.
Drummond’s friend Algy has managed to take the place of a member of Irma’s gang, and brings news to Paris of what she is planning. One of the Resistance group is captured, and Drummond conceives a daring plan to save him – so daring that it involves himself being captured by the Gestapo. He reveals himself to Irma (even though she now completely unrecognizable again in a different disguise, yet still stunningly beautiful) and she has him arrested. Astonishing courage and even more astonishing coincidence mean that he wins the day. The Gestapo are foiled, Drummond’s plan works. Algy and the American Mat Harlow both show terrific courage, and all is well. Except that Irma manages to escape justice. Which is bad news for the war effort, but good news for Fairlie, who will need her if he is to write more in the series.
This book’s wartime readers must have realised that its story was utterly incredible, but I doubt hat that would greatly have spoiled their reading pleasure. This is a comfort read, reinforcing all the standard prejudices – the British are great, the Americans are staunch allies, the French are dependable – while all Germans are both evil and easily outwitted. But underlying this, and giving a tang to this reading pleasure is the erotic subtext. Irma is beautiful, enigmatic but deadly; she and Drummond play out a long cat-and mouse game, luring and tempting and deceiving one another. There is never any question of Drummond being untrue to his Phyllis (the girl he married after rescuing her in the first of the novels) but the relationship with Irma is tinged with an eroticism that is quite different from anything else in the book.
Fairlie doesn’t quite have Sapper’s gift for conveying physical action, but this is still a very readable thriller, if you’re not a stickler for credibility, and you’re not made too uncomfortable by a suspicion of misogyny in the presentation of that female super-villain.
How well has Fairlie done in continuing the Drummond franchise? Well, it’s a good deal better that Sophie Hannah’s version of Poirot.