In The Last Express (1937), Baynard H. Kendrick introduced the figure of Captain Duncan Maclain, the tall, handsome war hero turned private investigator who is blessed with the gift of analytic reasoning and a flair for the dramatic. This description is typical of many detectives of the 1930’s. The plots of the early Maclain books, in their love of the bizarre and the complex, are also representative of the era. What separates the Maclain novels from the rest is a marked shift in emphasis.
In many classic novels of detection, the sleuth, even though he may be endowed with a variety of affectations and idiosyncrasies, is a subordinate figure. The star attraction is generally the plot, on whose intricacy and brilliance the success of the novel depends. Therefore, even if the reader cannot tolerate the detective, the ingenuity of the problem and its resolution can still be admired. In a Duncan Maclain novel, however, the opposite is true. The work stands or falls on the credibility of the characterization of Maclain himself, for he is blind. Consequently, the things that a physically able detective takes for granted become magnified in importance and, in some cases, must be explained in great detail. For example, a sighted detective may explain why he shot at a fleeing criminal and missed. Maclain must explain why he did not—he shoots at first sound.
It is essential to point out that Kendrick’s choice of a blind detective is not a gimmick. Supposedly based on a friend of Kendrick who was blinded in World War I, Maclain is not blind simply to be different. Passionate in his support for the disabled and an authority on the training and rehabilitation of the blind, Kendrick deliberately created a detective who could stand as a symbol not only for the sightless but also for those who could not accept the blind as valuable members of society. Kendrick admitted that he wanted his novels to be used as propaganda in the fight for the understanding and the mainstreaming of the handicapped. Therein lies the artistic problem inherent in the portrayal of Duncan Maclain. It is very difficult to be a propagandistic symbol and, at the same time, an interesting and credible human being. Yet Maclain must be interesting and credible because of his complete domination of the novels in which he appears. The plot is secondary to the man and the detective. How does one portray the vulnerability and humanity of the man when one also wants to emphasize his invulnerability to the accidents of fate?
Kendrick’s solution was to surround Maclain with an array of secondary characters, both friends and servants, who function as his own personal support group. Unfortunately, too often they are just that: merely members of a group with little or no individuality. At times they are stereotypes, such as Cappo, Maclain’s manservant-chauffeur. As chorus characters, they exist simply to provide transportation for the captain or to comment on his brilliance. Even his wife is a vague, shadowy figure. The only memorable auxiliary figures are his Seeing Eye dogs, Driest and Schnucke, who generally seem more human than the humans themselves. Schnucke acts as the detective’s guide, and Driest, an attack dog, is his bodyguard. The two are lovingly described in the novels, and when they are wounded trying to protect their master, the reader feels more sympathy for them than for any of the human victims, including perhaps Maclain.
This stance seems to be a deliberate decision on the author’s part—he wants no sympathy for his blind detective. He wants Maclain to be judged according to his skill and intelligence as a detective. In the understandable desire to prove that Maclain can compete and even excel in his dangerous career, however, Kendrick sacrifices the human credibility for the professional and surrounds Maclain with an aura of rigid perfection. Kendrick was aware of this difficulty and frequently has his characters comment on their reactions to the captain’s personality or lack of it. The typical response is one of awe:She returned to her apartment feeling a little awed. There was a quality of frightening perfection about Duncan Maclain. She knew he was engaged, but sometimes Bonnie wondered. Was Maclain’s fiancée in love with the handsome, virile man, or fascinated by the cold perfection of the disembodied human machine?
The second reaction to Maclain is usually one of disbelief on discovering that he is actually blind. Here again, given the didactic motives underlying the creation of Maclain, Kendrick was faced with an almost unsolvable dilemma. On one hand, he was adamant in his belief that the blind are not different from others and should not be set apart or perceived as special in any way. In fact, Maclain does not even agree that he is blind in the accepted sense of the word:“I’m not...
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