“Enormous physical strength is a great asset, but it carries with it certain natural disadvantages. In the first place, its possessor is frequently clumsy: Hugh had practised in France till he could move over ground without a single blade of grass rustling.”
Early in the 20th century it was not permitted for officers serving the British Army to publish under their proper names. Thus, Herman Cyril McNeile was given the pen name “Sapper” by the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Northcliffe.
Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond began as a policeman in his first appearance in a short story published in The Strand Magazine, but McNeile transformed the character into a gentleman adventurer for the first novel, published in 1920.
The language used in the book reflects its era, nationality, and commonly accepted prejudices, which call attention to themselves at least once every few pages. A humorous example; as Drummond and his pals recover from being drugged the Captain quips, “However, while you go and put your nuts in the river, I’ll go up and make certain.” In this case “nuts” means “heads.” Another convention of the times is the inclusion of the chapter number in its title: “Chapter one in which he takes tea at the Carlton and is surprised.”
The British edition shown here is Hodder and Stoughton’s soft cover from 1953. The first of 19 in the series, ten of which were penned by McNeile and continued by his friend Gerard Fairlie after McNeile’s death in 1937. It might be considered a paperback, but its dimensions and overall feel align with Fleetway’s Suspense magazine, so I will treat it as the first of a digest series.
The quality production values and heavy-weight cover stock of this 1953 edition, made the volume easier to hold and handle than a typical 60-year-old digest. If only more publishers had followed suit.
As the story opens it’s December 1918, just a month after the end of the first great war, at the Hotel National in Berne. Count Comte de Guy gathers a trio of wealthy businessmen, Mr. Hocking, an American, and two Germans, Herr Steinemann and Herr von Gratz, to finance his scheme to mount the defeat of England. “. . . a defeat more utter and complete than if she had lost the war . . . .”
They agree on the condition that de Guy convince another wealthy American, Hiram Potts, to join them and reduce each man’s investment to a quarter, rather than a third of the total required. Meanwhile, Captain Hugh Drummond, late of the Royal Loamshires, reviews responses to his blind box newspaper ad seeking adventure. From the stack of letters, one catches his eye and leads to a meeting with Phyllis Benton, and coincidentally Henry Lakington, whom she later confides is “the second most dangerous man in England.”
Of course, this begs the question, who is number one? A man named Carl Peterson, whom Lakington reports to. It seems Phyllis’ father has somehow been unwillingly drawn into a conspiracy hatched by Peterson, and Miss Benton hopes Drummond is just the man to set things right.
Like most classic pulp heroes Drummond is wealthy, extraordinarily fit, remarkably adept at numerous fighting skills, a born leader and irresistible. (In Drummond’s case “his best friend would not have called him good-looking,” but his smile is devastating. “He smiled, and no woman yet born could see Hugh Drummond smile without smiling too.”)
His archetype is always freed from conventional problems and concerns, apparently so all of their energies can be focused on their altruistic missions—none of the normal baggage and responsibilities of life to weight them down. Unfortunately, all this damned perfection can also make them boring. Sapper was a fine writer, but his efforts to continuously ensure readers understand the remarkable character and humility of his hero is at times tedious.
At the other extreme, Drummond is transformed to near absurdity in the presence of the love of his life, Miss Benton. His normal heroic ability is reduced to the level of an awkward teenager when they’re alone on the page.
My first encounter with Bulldog Drummond, from the old time radio program, was very favorable. I was preconditioned to enjoy this novel, and if I’d read it alongside the exploits of David Innes and Curt Newton, back in high school, I may well have loved every minute of it. But coming at it fresh, nearly a century after it was written, I found it more difficult to enjoy.
After an excellent prologue sets up the impending crisis, the meandering plot takes a hundred pages or more to bring the threat back into the story’s primary focus. There are moments of excitement—paralyzing gas, a gorilla at large and an insidious chemical bath, to mention a few—but nearly every scene is mired in a verbose narrative that sucks the momentum and urgency from the action.
Bulldog Drummond was a bestselling series for thirty years. The first novel was adapted for the stage, where it ran for 428 performances. Popular radio and movie series were based on the hero’s exploits. The character inspired Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Drummond’s place in the halls of adventure fiction fame is unequivocal.
It would be ridiculous to deny the quality of the prose or the popularity of the character. It’s a classic. Just be aware it’s firmly rooted in the style and sensibilities of its era, which for me overshadowed its many merits.