Sunday, March 16, 2014

Knock-Out (1933), by Sapper (H. C. McNeile)

The once hugely popular English Golden Age thriller writer Sapper (pen name of Herman Cyril McNeile, 1888-1937; "Mac" to his friends) has been, of late decades, a much-criticized figure in mystery genre histories, his famous spy smasher Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond now being seen as less a lovable, sports-enthusiast "clubland hero" than an anti-intellectual, proto-fascist bully (representing the general view from on high, one academic source describes him as "a thuggish, authoritarian vigilante with fascist tendencies").

This perception is fueled by Captain Drummond's highhanded behavior and the offensive comments he makes about racial and ethnic minorities in 1920s Sapper novels, most notoriously The Black Gang (1922).

In the 1930s, however, Adolf Hitler was consolidating power in Germany and shocking much of the world with his bellicose, often antisemitic, rhetoric and behavior. Sapper continued publishing Bulldog Drummond thrillers up until his premature death in 1937. What was the tenor of this later work, which gets much less attention from critics? Here I look at one of Sapper's 1930s Bulldog Drummond novels, Knock-Out (1933).

Knock-Out opens with not with Bulldog Drummond, but another one of Sapper's series characters, Ronald Standish (he appears primarily in a 1930s series of Sherlock Holmes inspired tales, which ideally should have been collected in one volume, under the title Knock-Off).

Ronald and his friend Bill are in Ronald's flat discussing a vital matter--golf--when the telephone rings. It's Ronald's friend Sanderson and he wants Ronald to come over to his place immediately because--

Suddenly the line goes dead!

Ronald and Bill rush over to Sanderson's place, only to discover Sanderson has gone dead as well--there's a vicious puncture wound made through one of his eyes.

At Sanderson's flat Ronald and Bill also encounter Hugh Drummond and his friend Peter (what's the good of being a series hero if you can't have a sidekick to tag along with you).

The impetuous Hugh is about to pound Ronald and Bill into the floor, when Peter pipes up with an important piece of information: "It's Ronald Standish.  I've played cricket with him."

Ronald's bona fides as a sportsman having been established, the four good fellows--Hugh, Ronald, Bill and Peter--unite to find the slayers of Sanderson.

They find that that Sanderson was on the trail of some sort of BIG criminal conspiracy to alter life in England as we know it.  Of course, letting the duly constituted authorities (the police or the intelligence service) in on the "show" in any significant way is unthinkable, this naturally being a job for impetuous, high-spirited, public-schooled sportsmen.

Thus, Hugh, Ronald and their junior subordinates soon are on the hunt themselves for the conspirators, who include a noted society doctor, a sadistic American film actress and, most fearsome of all, a bald-headed, cross-dressing Greek male with lacquered fingernails.

H. C. McNeile and pal
A number of elements from earlier tales are shamelessly recycled: Hugh again indulges his odd penchant for disguise; the Wodehouseian nitwit Algy is made to take notes of Hugh's (inch) deep thoughts (to what purpose is not evident); there is a doting "old nurse" of one of the lads on hand to help out whenever she is needed; and, of course, there is a pretty, plucky girl, Daphne Frensham ("an absolute fizzer"), who pops up to provide love interest for one of the subsidiary characters (Peter, I think--or maybe it was Bill--it couldn't have been Algy, surely).

The heroes' headstrong, headlong assault on the villains' country house headquarters also will seem familiar to readers of earlier Sapper novels, as will the fact that it is defended by a loathsome, fearsome beast (here, a mastiff "the size of a donkey"--young apes were not available this season, evidently).

Hugh also goes into one of his patented berserk rages, splitting open one filthy swine's head and throwing another off a railway embankment, but in mitigation of his wanton slaughters his victims really were rather bounders, to be sure (they had already committed one act of terrorism and were attempting another).

Yet not all the novel is devoted to action.  The presence of the relatively cerebral--compared to Hugh, anyway--Ronald Standish gives Sapper an excuse to indulge in the exercise of a bit of noggin work. There is much speculation over exactly how Sanderson was killed and a cipher plays a role in the tale.

Unfortunately, since during the course of the action Standish is drugged, kidnapped, rescued, kidnapped yet again and concussed by a  bomb, his brains are not always fully operational throughout the tale, leaving us with the dubious companionship of Hugh. Happily, Hugh and his great hams of fists are enough to save life in England as we know it.

In regard to the question of antisemitism in Sapper's novels, I was very interested to note Sapper's sympathetic portrayal of a Jewish shopkeeper named Samuel Aaronstein, along with his wife and son. They are friends, we learn, of Hugh's (It should be noted as well that the sadistic American film actress who is aroused by seeing men tortured to death is not exactly a cozy concoction.  I could never quite figure out why she was necessary to the success of the conspiracy, but she certainly added a dollop of depravity).

H. C. McNeile
So, while Knock-Out is hardly the most original of Sapper's thrillers, it is not as offensive as some of his earlier books.

Sure, the lower class characters all speak exaggerated cockney-ish dialect, the street boy with the message for our heroes is invariably referred to by them as "the urchin" (I was half-expecting ragamuffin) and the head villain is a Greek hermaphrodite (or something like).  But it is easy to find books from the period that are far more obnoxious than this one (virtually anything by the egregious Sydney Horler, for example).

I have to admit that I am not a great admirer of the Bulldog Drummond saga, although I do like some of Sapper's (Drummondless) short stories.

Nevertheless, it seems that  in Knock-Out Sapper tempered some of the objectionable features of his Bulldog Drummond novels.  Perhaps the real-life horrors that were being committed in Nazi Germany were making an impression on Mac.

Sapper's father, Captain Malcolm McNeile (1845-1923), was a governor of English naval prisons at Lewes and Bodmin (Sapper was born in Bodmin) and has been described as "a 'rod-of-iron' officer from the old school" and "a disciplinarian of the meanest type."  This may help explain some of the elements in the Sapper books, particularly The Black Gang, that people deem fascistic.

Incidentally, Sapper's paternal grandfather, Reverend Hugh Boyd McNeile (1796-1879), was a minister considered by one source "unquestionably the greatest preacher and speaker in the Church of England" of his day.  Reverend Hugh McNeile obtained his first living in 1822 from the wealthy banker and politician Henry Drummond.  If we put together the names "Hugh" and "Drummond" from these two men we get the name of Sapper's most renowned hero.  Coincidence?  I think not!


  1. An interesting post about a character of whom I have heard just vaguely. I like the public-school ethos and the fact that playing cricket could give one a character certificate.

    1. Neer, I suppose they don't say "that's not cricket" for nothing! Glad you liked.

  2. Fascinating post Curt though I must admit, I don't see myself heading off to read another Sapper book any time soon - I'd rather, much rather, read what you have to say about them instead!

    1. Sergio, I have to read I read Sapper's Drummond novels more for their historical content, but I do like some of his stories.

  3. It is good to be awake and consider the options open to the good guys. Given facts along the way one expects some of the things that happened. A good read and takes me back to a tv serial which I saw the day before the 11+ and never got to see what happened until 60 years later.

    1. Life is more exciting when it comes in installments!