I must admit to some level of apprehension when I started reading this book. I initially snatched it up together with The Thin Man about six weeks ago, but in the interim someone in the movie thread watched some Bulldog Drummond films and reported that they were full of anti-Semitism. But I figured, if I could make it through “The Horror at Red Hook,” I can make it through this. As it turned out, there was next to nothing of that sort of thing in the book itself (one mention of Sam Levy, the Jew Moneylender), with all the ethnocentrism and stereotyping focused on Germans and Russians instead. For 1920, that’s practically enlightened.
Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond is one of the original pulp detectives, written by Herman Cyril McNeile under the pseudonym of “Sapper,” because at the time serving officers were not allowed to write under their own names. McNeile saw action in the trenches, actually starting his writing career from there, and he continued to write what he knew after the Great War was over. Drummond is himself a former soldier, driven into a life of adventure due to the abject boredom offered by post-war life in England. He is also bored, it should be noted, because he is some kind of aristocrat, who owns at least two homes, his own motor-car, two servants, and possesses no day job. No wonder he put an advertisement in the paper looking for excitement, up to and including assisting in the perpetration of crimes.
The first letter Drummond responds to comes from a young woman whose father is mixed up with a gang of arch-criminals and she needs help getting him out. Drummond, strong and fearless and uncommonly ugly but with an infectious smile, dives into the trouble with both fists swinging. This summary might suggest that the book is better than it actually is, and perhaps in 1920 this sort of thing was just the tonic needed for a population reeling from the destruction of the Great War. Myself I just see that McNeile has read the Sax Rohmer handbook. Mysterious villain with multiple names who is described as a brilliant mastermind but makes silly blunders time and again? Check. Bloodthirsty psychotic lieutenant villain who, each time he has the hero in his clutches, passes on killing him because it would be “too easy”? Check. Beautiful but cruel daughter of the main villain who is strangely attracted to the hero? Check. Uncorruptible and beautiful young woman to play the damsel in distress and inexplicably fall for the hero? Oh you bet that’s a check.
I love pulpy stories with action and adventure and square-jawed heroes and beautiful heroines and dastardly villains, but I will say this for Tarzan or Conan or Batman or Flash Gordon: when those worthies triumph over daunting odds, it is usually through some level of skill, cunning, sheer brute force, or some other entertaining method. Bulldog Drummond is just lucky. He is continually in the right place at the right time and evades death through the clumsiness and stupidity of his foes rather than any intrinsic aspect of Drummond himself. The one person he meets in Paris is the American detective looking for the American millionaire that Drummond has already rescued and has in his care. When a Pygmy hides above the cupboard in Drummond’s hotel room and waits for Drummond to lie down and go to sleep, the would-be assassin misses three times before Drummond gets up, moves around, and figures out how to foil him. There’s zero sense of peril or chance of Drummond failing at any point, and that sucks all the drama out of the proceedings. Drummond’s snappy comebacks whenever someone threatens to kill him show that he doesn’t care if he dies, so why should I?
Still, it wasn’t until Drummond killed a gorilla in the villain’s garden using his bare hands that I realized that this book was simply too ridiculous and silly to really dislike. I couldn’t invest anything in it, but as each amazing coincidence or stalwart ally appeared, stacking the deck further in Drummond’s favor, I only rolled my eyes. I didn’t give up in disgust.
The arch-villain’s plan is never really delineated, despite Bulldog Drummond being lumped into the mystery genre. By book’s end it is revealed that the Comte de Guy (or Carl Peterson, or whatever his real name might be) is paying off revolutionaries and demagogues to foment a Communist revolution in England, but that’s about as detailed as it gets. This is his big plan. I suppose only with the weight of 20th century history does this look silly, and that when the book was published only three years after the October Revolution in Russia it seemed much more of a clear and present danger. But the author also dispenses with communism as a philosophy by having Drummond bemoan how all the British lower classes are being duped by the communists, in a very clear communism = evil and capitalism = good manner that wouldn’t look out of place in a text published in the 1950s.
This is the kind of simplistic garbage that the word “pulp” usually conjures up in the minds of the average reader. Bulldog Drummond is one of the pulpiest books I have ever read, and I’ve read more than my fair share of Tarzan novels. It just fails at being pulpy in an entertaining way, time and again.