Imperial fiction: A Prince of Swindlers

Everyone will remember the excitement which followed the first disclosure of this dreadful secret and the others which followed it. As fresh discoveries came to light, the popular interest became more and more intense, while the public’s wonderment at the man’s almost superhuman cleverness waxed every day greater than before.
Guy Boothby, A Prince of Swindlers (1900)Swindlers 1

Mr Boothby is a successful novel-writer, and doubtless his success is well deserved, but he would never have won it had he written in the style he affects in his last volume.
Pall Mall Gazette (1900)

Having had a hit with A Bid for Fortune (1895), which introduced the character of Dr Nikola, Guy Boothby knuckled down to the trade of pulp writer and started producing work at a ferocious rate. In the three years 1897–99, according to Wikipedia, there were fourteen books, of which I’ve read just a solitary example. But I’ll share my thoughts on that one, if you like.

A Prince of Swindlers was serialized in Pearson’s magazine from January to July 1897 at the same time as a new series, ‘Tales of the High Seas’, by Arthur Conan Doyle. Neither was a huge hit: Boothby’s stories didn’t appear as a book until 1900, while the Doyle tales only appeared in book form, as The Doings of Captain Sharkey, in 1925. Certainly neither had the impact or longevity of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which began serialization in Pearson’s that April.

The date of the original publication is important, because June 1897 saw the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, and A Prince of Swindlers is set in a London that is busy celebrating the high point of the British Empire:

The joyous occasion which made half the sovereigns of Europe our guests for weeks on end, kept foreign princes among us until their faces became as familiar to us as those of our own aristocracy, rendered the houses in our fashionable quarters unobtainable for love or money, filled our hotels to repletion, and produced daily pageants the like of which few of us have ever seen or imagined, can hardly fail to go down to posterity as one of the most notable in English history.

This is on the first page, incidentally, so it was written at least six months before ‘that season of festivity’; clearly there was already an awareness of the significance of the occasion. (Unless this was material added for the book – I haven’t seen the Pearson’s episodes.)

Into this jubilant season comes Simon Carne, newly arrived from India. He’s a striking, if diminutive, figure:

In height he could not have been more than five feet two. His shoulders were broad, and would have been evidence of considerable strength but for one malformation, which completely spoilt his whole appearance. The poor fellow suffered from curvature of the spine of the worst sort, and the large hump between his shoulders produced a most extraordinary effect.

Oddly, he doesn’t seem to mind his deformity; indeed, he appears, ‘for some peculiar reason, proud of his misfortune’. Perhaps it’s because he knows that his ‘beautiful’ face is so striking that it changes everything:

Its contour was as perfect as that of the bust of the Greek god Hermes, to whom, all things considered, it is only fit and proper he should bear some resemblance. The forehead was broad, and surmounted with a wealth of dark hair, in colour almost black. His eyes were large and dreamy, the brows almost pencilled in their delicacy; the nose, the most prominent feature of his face, reminded me more of that of the great Napoleon than any other I can recall.
His mouth was small but firm, his ears as tiny as those of an English beauty, and set in closer to his head than is usual with those organs. But it was his chin that fascinated me most. It was plainly that of a man accustomed to command; that of a man of iron will whom no amount of opposition would deter from his purpose.

I confess that I struggle to conjure up this image. But anyway, just to finish off this pen portrait, he is also possessed of an ‘almost superhuman cleverness,’ he’s ‘a born speaker’, and his personality is commanding. ‘His society was like chloral,’ our witness testifies; ‘the more I took of it the more I wanted. And I am now told that others were affected in the same way.’ (Chloral hydrate was widely used as a sedative in late Victorian Britain, and many had formed an addiction to it.)

All of this is implausible and overwrought, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There was a trend towards implausibility in popular fiction at the turn of the twentieth century: we’re heading towards to Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu and his ilk, a short step from the comic-book supervillains that America would eventually start inventing. swindlers 3The real question is how exciting is it when we discover – as we surely shall – that Simon Carne is also the Prince of Swindlers, as promised in the title.

And the answer is that it’s not really exciting enough.

The premise is sound enough, and the set-up is suitably exotic. Carne’s plot is hatched in the slums of Bombay, with their ‘exhibition of scented, high-toned, gold-lacquered vice’, and where ‘the most detested of all Englishmen [is] a police officer’. There he secures the support of ‘the famous Trincomalee Liz, whose doings had made her notorious from the Saghalian coast to the shores of the Persian Gulf’. She’s the most celebrated courtesan of her time:

her father, it had been said, was a handsome but disreputable Frenchman, who had called himself a count, and over his absinthe was wont to talk of his possessions in Normandy; her mother hailed from Northern India, and she herself was lovelier than the pale hibiscus blossom.

She agrees to underwrite Carne’s expedition to London, in exchange for a share of the wealth he intends to screw out of Victorian high society.

And he succeeds. He commits a string of frauds, thefts and con-tricks, ‘a series of crimes, the like of which the oldest Englishman could not remember’. He relieves the aristocracy of their jewels, the nouveau riche of their gaudy wedding presents, the Emperor of Westphalia of his gold plate, and an earthquake relief charity of all its funds.

Meanwhile, his yacht wins the Queen’s Cup at Cowes, and his horse wins the Derby, though this latter victory is only achieved after he kidnaps the main rival, ‘one of the greatest horses that ever set foot on an English racecourse’. It’s a crime so audacious that even his most trusted henchman blanches: ‘You might murder the prime minister, I believe, and it wouldn’t count for so much with the people generally as an attempt to steal the Derby favourite.’

Despite his anti-social tendencies, however, he does render Britain one great service, as he foils a bomb plot by Irish Americans, ‘one of the biggest Fenian conspiracies ever yet brought to light’.

All this is made possible by his ‘marvellous power of disguise and his extraordinary faculty of imitation’. He adopts a great many roles from a blind beggar to ‘a furniture remover’s foreman’ to an ‘ascetic-looking curate’. Most notably he has an alter ego, living a parallel life as the great consulting detective Klimo.

(He’s not really a hunchback, incidentally; it’s just that he wears ‘a large papier-mâché hump’, which is ‘nothing but a hoax intended to produce an effect which would permit him additional facilities of disguise’. Which is all very well, but it’s surely a strange choice to use that for your real identity, thereby burdening yourself unnecessarily on a daily basis. Perhaps he – or Boothby – hadn’t really thought it through. Certainly it’s hard to reconcile that early mention of him as a 5’ 2” hunchback with the later claim that ‘he was an excellent dancer’.)swindlers 2

He also has in tow a number of key associates: crooked craftsmen, for example, who can deceive a woman by making a perfect replica of her jewel-box, but with the addition of a secret compartment that not even she can detect. Their presence in the tale is a shame, because it’s a pretty key requirement of a master criminal – as of a master detective – that he be self-reliant. Crane displays a cool nerve and a cunning mind, but in most of his escapades, he’s utterly dependant on others and on lavish spending. He’s less supervillain than Vegas conjuror.

There are, as often in these sort of books, some incidentals that make it worthwhile. I very much like, for example, his brief but efficient description of the Seven Stars Music Hall in the East End:

a fair-sized building, upon the floor of which were placed possibly a hundred small tables. On the stage at the further end a young lady, boasting of a minimum of clothing and a maximum of self-assurance was explaining, to the dashing accompaniment of the orchestra, the adventures she had experienced ‘When Billy and me was courting’.

And I like the name of ‘old Sir Mowbray Mowbray next door, who was a gentleman of the old school, and looked down on the plutocracy’.

There’s also Lady Caroline Weltershall, ‘the ugly duckling of an otherwise singularly handsome family’, who has ‘a not unhandsome face, the effect of which, however, was completely spoilt by two large and protruding teeth’. She’s the kind of charitable lady satirized (much more effectively) by Wilkie Collins as Drusilla Clack in The Moonstone (1868), and Boothby has some fun at her expense:

Philanthropy was her hobby, and scarcely a day passed in which she did not speak at some meeting, preside over some committee, or endeavour in some way, as she somewhat grandiloquently put it: ‘To better the lives and ameliorate the conditions of our less fortunate fellow-creatures.’

She’s constantly badgering the good and the rich for one of her many good causes, though she tends not to match their generosity: ‘It is well known that while she inaugurated large works of charity, she seldom contributed very largely to them.’

So there’s good stuff, but really none of it really hangs together. Towards the end, Carne tells his sidekick they have to make a run for it because a man named Bradfield, ‘who has been after us so long’, is on their trail. We learn nothing more about Bradfield, and he never makes an appearance.

And then there’s the writing, which is not good. In particular, Carne is given to endless soliloquizing, to an extent that I can’t remember having encountered before. It’s awfully clumsy. A Victorian melodramatist at his hammiest would shrink from including this many monologues.

There are suggestions in some critical quarters that, as a respectable figure in society who’s also a crook, Crane is a precursor of A.J. Raffles, but this is very wide of the mark. Because, regrettably, there’s none of the subtlety, none of the subtext, none of the imagination that made E.W. Hornung’s creation so wonderful.


Postscript: A parody of A Prince of Swindlers – and of Boothby’s prose-style – appeared in the Bristol Magpie in 1898, titled ‘The King of Swingers’ and attributed to Busy Booby. These are the opening paragraphs:

The sun’s rays fell slanting-dicular upon the marble towers of the Palazzo de Jokes, and through the alabaster dome which served the purpose of a window, or rather skylight, shed a bilious lustre upon the scene within.

Lying neglegently [sic] upon the richly clad divan, Nicota Vanque puffed the rings of smoke from a cigarette which dangled between his lips. His right eye was firmly fixed upon the now closed drapery which hung at the further extremity of the apartment, his left hand upon the bank passbook, whose leaves he turned from time to time in a semi-abstracted manner.

Throwing the parchment covered volume upon the rich turkey carpet, Nicota Vanque clapped his hands twice. There was a moment’s pause, and then upon the right hand the velvet drapery was shaken in a somewhat demonstrative manner.

Nicota Vanque, turning his now disengaged pass-book eye impatiently in this direction, again smote his hands together, this time with greater force, and after a further oscillancy of the curtain upon the prompt side, the canvas rolled upwards from the ground, revealing one form divine which occupied the central position. The costume of this houri was the strange one, for whilst her form was yet clothed in the gossamer like costume of the goddess Venus, upon her feet she wore a pair of Balmoral boots of the latest European pattern, and upon her head was a striking specimen of the matinee hat…

from the maker of:

Dr Nikola

see also:

The Beetle


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