‘This mystery is a bigger one by a hundred times than even we expected.’
Guy Boothby, A Bid for Fortune, or Dr Nikola’s Vendetta (1895)
Every habitual reader of the best fiction will certainly have to make the acquaintance of Dr Nikola and his black cat. He is as surprising in his way, and even more original, than the great Sherlock Holmes himself.
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (1895)
Arthur Conan Doyle’s story ‘The Final Problem’ was published in December 1893, to the distress of readers everywhere. Some writers, on the other hand, might have been excused had they raised a glass in quiet celebration. For the death – as we then understood it to be – of Sherlock Holmes meant that a gap had appeared in the market for detectives. Even better, the manner of his death created an exciting new possibility, because Holmes had finally met his match: the superhero now had a supervillain rival, in the shape of Dr Moriarty. And since he too had been killed at the Reichenbach Falls, there was another gap waiting to be filled.
First out of the supervillain blocks was the Australian-born, but British-raised, Guy Boothby. He unveiled the mysterious Dr Nikola in the novel A Bid for Fortune, which helped launch The Windsor Magazine in December 1894, running alongside Arthur Morrison’s second series of stories about the detective Martin Hewitt. The magazine was published by Ward, Lock, who also produced the book edition in November 1895, just as the last episode appeared in the Windsor.
The character proved successful enough to feature in four sequels over the next six years, and to be cited as an influence on the even more successful Fu Manchu, created by Sax Rohmer in 1913.
This is the first description we get of Dr Nikola:
In stature he was slightly above the ordinary, his shoulders were broad, his limbs perfectly shaped and plainly muscular, but very slim. His head, which was magnificently set upon his shoulders, was adorned with a profusion of glossy black hair; his face was destitute of beard or moustache, and was of oval shape and handsome moulding; while his skin was of a dark olive hue, a colour which harmonized well with his piercing black eyes and pearly teeth. His hands and feet were small, and the greatest dandy must have admitted that he was irreproachably dressed, with a neatness that bordered on the puritanical. In age he might have been anything from eight-and-twenty to forty; in reality he was thirty-three.
So, broad shoulders, dark olive skin, then. Or, if we believe a character in Dr Nikola (1896), the second book in the series: ‘he is most slenderly built … His face is clean shaven, and is always deadly pale, a sort of toad-skin pallor.’
Sometimes ‘his voice came from between his teeth like a serpent’s hiss’, but mostly he speaks in a ‘tone of gentle languor’. He has a hypnotic presence and an almost telepathic insight into other men’s minds. Oh, and he is generally accompanied by a huge black cat that sits on his shoulder, or sometimes in his lap, where he strokes it ‘with his long, white fingers’.
He’s a criminal mastermind, this Dr Nikola, a fiendish, malign presence in the world. Of that there can be no doubt. But what does he actually do? What’s he after? What’s his driving ambition? Perhaps we can get a glimpse from his taste in interior décor:
Round the walls were arranged, at regular intervals, more than a dozen enormous bottles, each of which contained what looked, to me, only too much like human specimens pickled in some light-coloured fluid resembling spirits of wine. Between these gigantic but more than horrible receptacles were numberless smaller ones, holding other and even more dreadful remains; while on pedestals and stands, bolt upright and reclining, were skeletons of men, monkeys, and quite a hundred sorts of animals.
The intervening spaces were filled with skulls, bones, and the apparatus for every kind of murder known to the fertile brain of man. There were European rifles, revolvers, bayonets, and swords; Italian stilettos, Turkish scimitars, Greek knives, Central African spears and poisoned arrows, Zulu knobkerries, Afghan yataghans, Malay krises, Sumatra blow-pipes, Chinese dirks, New Guinea head-catching implements, Australian spears and boomerangs, Polynesian stone hatchets, and numerous other weapons the names of which I cannot now remember.
Mixed up with them were implements for every sort of wizardry known to the superstitious; from old-fashioned English love charms to African Obi sticks, from spiritualistic planchettes to the most horrible of Fijian death potions.
Nope, I’m none the wiser. But I am impressed, because I like this sort of thing very much indeed.
One of his accomplices, ‘an Englishman, known in Shanghai as China Pete’, gives us the fullest account we have, though it doesn’t really flesh him out very much:
‘Dr Nikola? Well, he’s Nikola, and that’s all I can tell you. If you’re a wise man you’ll want to know no more. Ask the Chinese mothers nursing their almond-eyed spawn in Peking who he is; ask the Japanese, ask the Malays, the Hindoos, the Burmese, the coal porters in Port Said, the Buddhist priests of Ceylon; ask the King of Corea, the men up in Thibet, the Spanish priests in Manilla, or the Sultan of Borneo, the ministers of Siam, or the French in Saigon – they’ll all know Dr Nikola and his cat, and, take my word, they fear him.’
By his own account, Nikola seems to be interested in the exercise of power, as expressed through money. ‘There is only one sport of any interest to me in life,’ he says, ‘and that is the opportunity of making capital out of my fellow humans.’ And, as he notes: ‘half the world is born for the other half to prey upon!’
I still don’t feel as though we’ve got much of a grip on him, though. He’s an elusive figure, to say the least. Almost as though Boothby hasn’t quite worked him out either.
Our narrator, on the other hand, is a much simpler fellow. Richard Hatteras is a native of Australia (though of English extraction), he’s an orphaned adventurer, 28-years-old, and he’s made a fortune in pearls. Despite his youth, he is – like the hero of every decent adventure story – already harking back to a happier time before the bureaucrats ruined everything:
They were good days there then, before all the new-fangled laws that now regulate the pearling trade had come into force; days when a man could do almost as he liked among the islands in those seas.
He decides to visit England, but before he leaves Australia, he spends a few days in the big city. As he’s wandering through the park, he sees a fair damsel being menaced by ‘three of Sydney’s typical larrikins’, so he intervenes and saves her. She is, he discovers, Phyllis Wetherell, the daughter of the Colonial Secretary, and they happen to be booked on the same ship. On board, they pledge their love to each other, but her father objects to them marrying for reasons that he won’t give (and which we never learn).
While in England, Hatteras hires a boat and does a bit of sailing in the Solent, where he’s again called upon to come to the rescue, this time saving a swimmer who’s been dragged out to sea by treacherous currents. The swimmer turns out to be ‘a handsome, well-built, aristocratic-looking young fellow,’ the Marquis of Beckenham, son of the Duke of Glenbarth.
He’s an odd chap, young Beckenham. He’s been educated at home in virtual seclusion by his father, who’s very big on noblesse oblige:
‘He has been brought up to understand that to be a Duke is not to be a titled nonentity or a pampered roué, but to be one whom Providence has blessed with an opportunity of benefiting and watching over the welfare of those less fortunate than himself in the world’s good gifts.’
Consequently, he doesn’t give the impression of being suited to the life of an adventurer: ‘His voice was very soft and low, more like a girl’s than a boy’s, and I noticed that he had none of the mannerisms of a man.’ But he has a natural appetite for excitement, which is just as well, because he’s destined to come into conflict with Dr Nikola. And so too is Phyllis Wetherell, the other beneficiary of Hatteras’s heroism.
The story that eventually emerges has little time for plausibility. Phyllis’s father, we discover, has come into possession of an object that Dr Nikola wants, ‘a little black stick, about three inches long and covered with Chinese characters’. Nikola offers money and is turned down, tries burglary and assault and fails, so comes up instead with an absurdly far-fetched plan. He will engineer a trip to Australia for the hitherto sheltered Marquis of Beckenham, kidnap him in Port Said, and then replace him with a double. This double will then insinuate himself into Sydney society, and thereby lure Phyllis into his (Nikola’s) clutches, whereupon Phyllis’s father will hand over the ‘little black stick’ as ransom for the return of his daughter.
Why all this rigmarole? Why not just abduct her? If ‘typical larrikins’ can get to Phyllis in a public park, then why not the supremely gifted Dr Nikola?
More importantly, what is this stick? Why is its acquisition worth so much of Nikola’s time, effort and money? The answer to that is not revealed. Which is surely cheating a little. Having got through 85,000 words, we’re entitled to some sort of explanation.
My guess is that A Bid for Fortune was probably a very good serial, spread out over the course of a year. It moves relentlessly, from Australia to the Mediterranean, London, Hampshire, Egypt and back to Australia again. There are repeated scenes of peril and danger, mysterious hints and devilish cunning. The characters are simply but memorably drawn.
As a book, though, it’s a jerky series of episodes that really don’t hang together. There’s no sense that Boothby knew what was going to happen next and, since he was writing other work at the same time, he probably didn’t. It’s a shame because there’s potential there for this to be rather good. And it doesn’t quite make it. But there are plenty of exciting bits, and some absolutely fabulous cameo appearances.
When, for example, Hatteras discovers that he has an uncle still alive, occupying the old family estate in Hampshire, we’re pleased to find that the place has fallen into complete neglect:
The drive was overgrown with weeds; no carriage seemed to have passed along it for ages. Shutters enclosed many of the windows, and where they did not, not one but several of the panes were broken … A nobler hall no one could wish to possess, but brooding over it was the same air of poverty and neglect I had noticed all about the place.
As is only proper, Uncle William is a skinflint recluse. And, even more proper, his daughter Gwendoline – our hero’s only cousin – is kept locked away from society:
She – if she it could be called – was about three feet high, dressed in a shapeless print costume. Her hair stood and hung in a tangled mass upon her head, her eyes were too large for her face, and to complete the horrible effect, a great patch of beard grew on one cheek, and descended almost to a level with her chin. Her features were all awry, and now and again she uttered little moans that were more like those of a wild beast than of a human being.
It’s characteristic of Boothby’s writing, though, that having created Gwendoline, he simply abandons her, and she disappears from the story entirely. In and out within the space of a single page and then, much later, we hear that she’s died offstage, ‘drowned by accident in a pond near her home’.
Similarly there’s a terrific pair of grotesques to be found when we enter Dr Nikola’s lair, one on either side of the fireplace:
That on the right hand was apparently a native of Northern India, if one might judge by his dress and complexion. He sat on the floor in a constrained attitude, accounted for by the fact that his head, which was at least three times too big for his body, was so heavy as to require an iron tripod with a ring or collar in the top of it to keep it from overbalancing him and bringing him to the floor. To add to the horror of this awful head, it was quite bald; the skin was drawn tensely over the bones, and upon this veins stood out as large as macaroni stems.
On the other side of the hearth was a creature half-ape and half-man – the like of which I remember once to have seen in a museum of monstrosities in Sydney, where, if my memory serves me, he was described upon the catalogue as a Burmese monkey-boy. He was chained to the wall in somewhat the same fashion as we had been, and was chattering and scratching for all the world like a monkey in a Zoo.
We never encounter either of these personages again. They don’t even get another mention in the course of the scene. Oh, and on one – but only one – occasion, Dr Nikola is accompanied by ‘an albino dwarf, scarcely more than two feet eight inches high’.
One slightly odd footnote: The book starts with a prologue in which a restauranteur discusses with his secretary a mysterious letter that requests a private dining-room be prepared for four men, money no object. These men have been summoned from around the world by a criminal mastermind to hatch a plot of deadly cunning. And in an act of blatant plagiarism, the prologue to Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond (1920) was virtually a shot-for-shot remake of the scene.