‘I’m a wanderer, and I go whenever and wherever the spirit moves me. But I enjoy life.’
– Sapper, Jim Maitland (1923)
As a railway companion, Sapper may be considered ideal. You know that he will take you out of your dull, commonplace corner into a world that is bright with wonders and thrills. The hero may be stronger than Hercules, more beautiful than Carpentier or Owen Nares, more cunning than Sherlock Holmes, but you will never refuse to believe in him, or fail to adore him.
– The Bystander (1923)
Herman Cyril McNeile (1888-1937) was a professional soldier who served in the First World War, during which he was gassed, was awarded the Military Cross, and began his writing career, using the penname Sapper. His biggest hit came with the 1920 novel Bulldog Drummond.
The title character of that novel went on to star in a further sixteen books (Sapper himself only wrote the first ten), twenty-four films and three stage plays, though in truth he wears very thin very quickly. Essentially he’s John Buchan’s Richard Hannay with a sense of humour, which doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing – except that his humour is of a back-slapping, rib-digging, prank-playing, hail-fellow-well-met variety that would be considered tiresome by a rugby club on a pub crawl.
Jim Maitland, on the other hand…
If Drummond is Sapper’s Hannay, then Maitland is his attempt to create a Sandy Arbuthnot, a pugnacious take on Buchan’s most glamorous adventurer, forever restless, forever wandering the world in search of excitement. He’s much more entertaining than Bulldog Drummond, and he, at least, doesn’t outstay his welcome.
The Jim Maitland stories first appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in 1922–23 – to considerable critical acclaim – and were published in book form immediately the serialization finished. The action, however, is set some fifteen years earlier, before the war (as with Beau Geste).
Our narrator is Dick Leyton, a young Englishman who’s been travelling in the Far East and, having just inherited some money from his uncle, is planning to return home. Then he meets and falls under the spell of Jim Maitland, another young Englishman, this one with a simple philosophy: ‘A man can go round the world with a spare set of underclothes and a gun.’
Tall, thin and sporting a monocle (you should probably picture an all-action version of PG Wodehouse’s Psmith), Maitland has a ‘slow, lazy grin’ and a ‘wonderful cheery laugh’. He’s the kind of man who can wander into the furthest-flung outpost of Empire and talk ‘to many strange, dignified men in their own lingo – and every one of them seemed to know him as a friend’.
Seldom happier than when fighting villains, he can’t see a wrong without leaping in to right it, after which he deals out his own – sometimes lethal – form of justice. Certainly, he never likes to trouble the authorities. ‘He’s got his own peculiar code of morals, and they wouldn’t wash with an Anglican bishop,’ Leyton is told. ‘He never forgives and he never forgets – but he’d sell the shirt off his back to help a pal.’
Leyton duly becomes his best pal, in a relationship resembling that of Holmes and Watson, or more nearly that of Raffles and Bunny. And as in those cases, this is not a partnership of equals. Maitland is forever rushing off on mysterious missions, without bothering to explain what’s going on. ‘He wasn’t communicative, and I didn’t ask questions,’ Leyton says in one story, and, in another: ‘I kicked my heels in Cairo and waited for him’. He finds it irksome – ‘there are few things more annoying than being out of a game you know is being played’ – but he accepts that this is his lot. Maitland is clearly a hero, and any self-respecting hero needs a hero-worshipper in tow.
So, off they go, and off we go with them, whisked along from a bare-knuckle fight in an Australian mining shanty to a seedy brothel in a Chilean seaport, and on to an attempted heist on the high seas by gangsters dressed as curates. The locations vary, but the situations are variations on a theme: there are damsels to be rescued from distress, extreme peril to be faced, miraculous escapes to be made. And of course there are villains – ‘great, powerful brutes’ – to be faced, who can generally be identified as wrong ‘uns from their appearance alone. Here’s one: ‘the most unpleasant-looking individual I have ever seen in my life’; and here’s another: ‘His face was almost bloodless, and a great red scar across his right cheek emphasized the pallor.’
Some of the tales are terrific. There is, for example, a great grotesque piece about an isolated lighthouse in the South Seas where the keeper is slowly turning both mad and murderous. And – continuing the comparison with Sandy Arbuthnot – there’s an echo of Buchan’s Greenmantle in an episode where Maitland disguises himself as a Berber to forestall an Arab rising. ‘The Germans had begun their tricks,’ he explains in later years. ‘They were working tooth and nail for a Jihad to take place in August 1914. A general revolt of Islam to coincide with the world war was their idea.’
Maitland’s role in this latter escapade is never quite clear, but he’s working, as he sometimes does, for the British secret services, engaged in ‘the Great Game. The only game in the world worth playing.’ (Elsewhere he describes it as being ‘on the game’, a phrase that evidently had yet to acquire a new layer of meaning.)
And the reason why such undercover work is needed? ‘You don’t suppose, do you, old man, that the British government runs five hundred million black men here and in India by distributing tracts to ’em?’
As with Edgar Wallace’s Sanders of the River, there’s not much dewy-eyed sentimentalism about the Empire to be found here. Instead, the more remote colonies are seen as places where hope and heroism are in short supply:
There was that nameless something about him which marked him instantly as one of those thousands of Britishers who spend their lives in God-forsaken quarters of the globe carrying on the little job of Empire. They generally die of some disease, unknown and unthanked, or else they return to England in the fullness of time and sink into utter obscurity in some suburb of that Empire’s capital. But while they’re in harness they live, and when the harness drops off they don’t mind dying. So perhaps it doesn’t matter very much.
‘Once native superstition gets hold of a white man,’ says Maitland, ‘it’s the devil.’ But actually the greatest temptation for these imperial officials is drink, as with this victim: ‘he took to seeing things that weren’t there, from the usual cause, and has recently gone on permanent sick leave’.
It’s a running theme in the book. Indeed the story opens on the South Sea island of Tampico, a place where the living is so cheap and easy that (a bit like Barry Pain’s Faloo) it attracts wasters and drifters from the West. Men such as Raymond Blair, an educated Englishman – a Balliol man, no less – who’s also a ‘hopeless, helpless, unredeemable’ alcoholic.
Once he’s got a bottle of gin inside him, Blair can almost pass for normal, but his problem comes when he runs out of money, which he does every month, having got through the allowance that’s sent out to him. Then he’ll do anything for a few pennies to buy another drink. Leyton finds him humiliating himself for the amusement of some low-life losers: ‘He was crawling about the floor like a dog and barking, and sometimes the spectators kicked him as he passed, and sometimes they threw him a copper which he clawed at wolfishly.’
The most pathetic moment comes when a drunken, sentimental Blair remembers what he’s left behind: ‘Does the Thames still glint like a silver-grey streak by Chelsea Bridge as the sun goes down? Do the barges still go chugging past Westminster? Do children still sail boats on the Round Pond back London way?’
This is good stuff, a bleak portrait of the imperial drop-out. But then Jim Maitland steps in, and all the careful character study is kicked out the window, as our hero promptly gets into a fight with ‘the main Blair-baiting Dago’ and we’re plunged straight into comic-strip territory:
Like a flash of light he flung a knife at Maitland. It was then that Jim did this thing – so quick that my eye scarce followed it. He sidestepped and caught the knife in his right hand by the hilt, and, so it seemed to me, in the same motion he flung it back. And the next moment it was quivering in the fleshy part of the right arm of that Dago.
The final adventure is a sequel to an earlier escapade on their travels, when they angered the adherents of an occult death-cult that has survived for millennia since the days of ancient Egypt. Retribution comes at the hands of Prince Selim after they have returned home. ‘Fabulously wealthy, and almost more of an Englishman than an Egyptian,’ Selim is impeccably dressed, speaks English ‘without a trace of accent’ and has ‘the most perfect teeth’. He is also ‘an authority on old china, an electrical expert, and a wonderful violinist’.
All of which should surely ring alarm bells. Every single reader will instantly spot that Selim’s a baddie, almost certainly a High Priest of the cult of the Sacred Crocodile. But this doesn’t occur to our heroes, and they let themselves get lured into his trap. In a thrilling climax, they find themselves trapped in a basement in Berkeley Square, at the mercy of a ‘diabolically ingenious’ electrical mechanism that will almost certainly result in their death. ‘In all his life of adventure, Jim had never stood in such deadly peril.’ And his response – delivered ‘in a bored voice’ – is to call Selim a ‘wretched little nigger’.
The language comes as something of a shock. We haven’t encountered this in the previous two hundred pages; there’s been the occasional ‘Dago’ thrown around, but that’s a very differently loaded epithet, a term to be used of Britain’s colonial rivals, a casual insult between near-equals. But ‘nigger’ here – and Maitland uses it three times in quick succession – is deliberately intended to be derogatory and belittling. Maitland is trying to provoke Selim, ridiculing his cultivation and sophistication as the pretentions of a native with ideas above his station. Which is an interesting, if somewhat back-handed, tribute to the power of the term.
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that Maitland succeeds in thwarting Selim’s evil plan. And then all that’s left is for our heroes to get married and settle down.
Settle down? Really? Well, yes. Maitland and Leyton each find a topping girl, and decide that their globe-trotting days are over; their future is matrimonial. This is the oddest aspect of the book. Sapper knew the value of a recurring character – he’d already published the first sequel to Bulldog Drummond – but here he goes out of his way to retire his hero after just one collection of stories. And he does so in a way that doesn’t really ring true for a wandering hero such as he.
But then Maitland isn’t entirely convincing as the wanderer.
There are certain key elements to this stock character in adventure fiction. First, in the inner core of his being, he knows that this is who he is; it is his fate and his destiny to be forever alone and apart, an adventurer, perhaps even an outsider. Second, he should understand the psychology of the villain, however twisted, because there, but for the grace of the gods, goes he. Third, he will always – because of his fatalistic turn of mind, because he has a deeper knowledge of himself, and because his values are inherently sound – defeat the villain. Confident in his cause, he will take greater risks in pursuit of honour than the villain will ever take in pursuit of his baser goals. In addition, the very best of these heroes (by which, of course, I mean Sherlock Holmes, the greatest hero of them all) has an exceptional intelligence.
Judged by these criteria, Maitland is a little disappointing. He’s only been wandering the world for seven years, having left England when a woman rejected his suit in favour of that of the fifteenth Marquis of Sussex. And when he eventually gets the opportunity, he chucks it all in to become a married country gentleman in England.
His inability to understand the criminal mind is illustrated by his complete failure to spot that Prince Selim is a bad sort. This is entirely in keeping with his judgement elsewhere, which is frequently at fault. In fact, I think that Jim Maitland is the least insightful, least perceptive, most downright stupid hero of action adventure stories that I’ve ever encountered. Hard to believe, perhaps, of a monocle-wearing toff, but there you are.
The one thing he undoubtedly has going for him is extraordinary physical courage. When it comes to derring-do, you really can’t fault the man: he does derring with considerable panache. And for most of the book, that’s sufficient to sustain us. But in this sort of story, if the valour doesn’t stem from a devil-may-care embrace of destiny, then it runs the risk of looking foolish and reckless rather than epic and heroic.
We were expecting more than this. When Leyton first hears tell of Maitland, he is a little perplexed. ‘Yes – but what’s he do?’ he asks. ‘Do?’ his informant snorts. ‘Why, man, he lives. He lives: he doesn’t vegetate like nine out of ten of us have to.’ That’s the swashbuckling ideal we’re looking forward to, and when we do finally meet him, Maitland seems like the real deal. Certainly he talks a good game, immediately pooh-poohing the idea of settling down: ‘You’ll be able to do all that when you’re fifty,’ he tells Leyton.
It’s all wrong, then, that just a couple of years later, we find the two men, comfortably sharing brandy, cigars and reminiscences, as they contemplate what will be a double-wedding: ‘They were good years to look back on, those we had spent together,’ records Leyton, ‘and now he, as well as I, had the wonderful years to look forward to also.’
Or, as Maitland puts it: ‘Fine weather, old Dick; fine weather in front. And happy days behind. Surely the world is good.’
In short, the ending simply doesn’t work. It retrospectively recasts our image of Jim Maitland. It gives the impression that he was just playing at being a doomed romantic hero, that in reality he was little more than a gap-year adventurer. He’s still more attractive than Bulldog Drummond, mind, but he’s not the archetypal wanderer we were promised.
And there’s also something very strange about that prediction of ‘fine weather in front’. Because we know it’s wrong, wholly wrong. The date of this conversation isn’t given, but from internal evidence, it must be the spring of 1914. And Leyton has made it clear that he’s writing this nearly a decade later – so he knows perfectly well what happened next.
A few months on from the end of the book, Maitland would have been back on active service, still in his fighting prime and eager to do his bit. But we get no hint at all that his vision of a good world is misplaced.
Did Sapper assume that his readers would fill in the blanks? Or did he not want to taint the romanticism of his fantasy by allowing the Great War to intrude? I have no idea, but it’s a rum old way to leave us.