320 pages, Wordsworth Editions Ltd
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
What ho, chaps! Fed up with modern thrillers with their labyrinthine plots, gritty action and humourless, navel-gazing anti-heroes? If you're bored of Jason Bourne or Jack Reacher makes you retch, then perhaps you should turn to Sapper's “Bulldog Drummond”. First published in 1920, the novel was quickly followed by a number of sequels, as well as enjoying successful adaptations on the radio, cinema and television.
The novel follows the adventures of Captain Hugh Drummond. Returning to London after World War I, Drummond finds civvy street a little bit dull compared to the excitement of life in the trenches. In order to satisfy his desire for adventure, he places an advert in The Times offering his services to those who require them. Whilst Drummond is not a handsome man (his brief career as an amateur boxer has left him with a broken nose), his indefatigable “can do” attitude and his boundless optimism make him an immediately endearing character.
When Drummond is contacted by the inconveniently beautiful Phyllis Benton, he can't bring himself to turn down her request to aid her father who she fears has fallen victim to a gang of unscrupulous blackmailers. In no time at all, Drummond finds himself up against the villainous Carl Peterson and his cronies who seek to organise a Socialist uprising in Britain for their own financial gain. Drummond takes great pleasure in upsetting Peterson's dastardly schemes whilst always sticking to his strongly-held belief in the importance of sportsmanship and fair-play. He's not the sort to mercilessly pick off Peterson's henchmen with a sniper rifle. For an ex-soldier, Drummond seems remarkably averse to firearms and is far more likely to go toe-to-toe with his opponents in a good old-fashioned fist fight. However, Drummond's such a gentleman he'd most likely help them back to their feet and dust them off after knocking them down with a devastating right hook. It is this reluctance to killing his opponents that prolongs Drummond's adventure. One gets the impression things would be a lot more simple if he were to toss a grenade in through an open window of Peterson's headquarters and be done with it. Instead, Drummond and Peterson toy with one another, taunting and verbally sparring until it becomes abundantly clear that they're both enjoying their strange, confrontational relationship.
Aiding Drummond on his jolly japes are a group of his chums from the trenches. A gang of ex-soldiers from both high and low society, Drummond's pals are as inexplicably upbeat and fearless as the man himself and the banter between them as they sip beer and puff away on their pipes whilst plotting their next move epitomises the great British stiff upper lip. Whether providing Drummond with a bit of muscle, piloting aeroplanes for a quick jaunt across the channel or disguising themselves as waiters so that they can drop the antagonist's dinner into his lap, Hugh's friends add a welcome bit of comic relief to the story.
There's no escaping the fact that “Bulldog Drummond” is a period piece. The dialogue is peppered with hilariously dated slang and the author's attitude to women renders them little more than pretty bits of decoration to beautify an otherwise dull room. The character of Phyllis is as one-dimensional as they come and only serves the purpose of looking nice, being in need of rescue and wilting in our hero's arms. The most interesting female character is the chain-smoking, seductive Irma. Peterson's “daughter”, Irma is the novel's proto-femme fatale but her promising character is never exploited fully. By the time we reach the closing chapters, Irma has taken a back-seat in the proceedings and her ultimate fate barely gets a mention (though I am reliably informed she returns in the sequels).
The most glaringly dated aspect of the novel is Drummond's politics. Unlike modern heroes who work outside the bounds of society, Drummond is a staunch supporter of the status quo. The prospect of a Socialist uprising in Britain would undermine the rigid class system that he so fervently admires (after all, he is at the top of it). The reader is kept in the dark when it comes to the finer details of Peterson's plot and this is probably due to the fact that Sapper had not fully figured their plan out himself. The message he wanted to put across was very simple: Socialism is unworkable and dangerous. Its supporters (the trade unions) are deluded and naïve. Of course, one must always look at the context in which a book is written. Drummond's sportsmanlike attitude when taking on his opponents seems a logical reaction to the indiscriminate horrors of the First World War with the advent of mechanised warfare. British society was shaken by the war and many were concerned that the Bolshevik uprising in Russia would spread to our shores. Sapper's uncomplicated politics and straight-talking hero were aimed to remind the reader of what it means to be British, the Bulldog breed.
For all its faults, “Bulldog Drummond” is a great read. With a likeable hero, fast-paced action and a sense of fun that is lacking from many modern thrillers, it is easy to see why Sapper's square-jawed gentleman adventurer enjoyed such popular success. Paving the way for pulp heroes such as Doc Savage and cited by Ian Fleming as a major influence on James Bond, Bulldog Drummond is indeed a great British hero.
Hereward L.M. Proops