Black Orchid

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Nicholas Meyer and his co-author Barry Jay Kaplan are popular novelists. Nicholas Meyer is the better-known, having recently written The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The West End Horror. Before coauthoring The Black Orchid, Barry Jay Kaplan had written and published numerous romances and gothic novels under various pen names. Both authors are thus well equipped for this present task—the creation of a historical potboiler which presents itself firmly as light reading and looks fondly toward film sale.

The donee of this adventure story is its Brazilian setting—the city of Manaus, the center of the late nineteenth century rubber monopoly, and the adjoining Amazon River. Manaus is truly extraordinary—the result of the attempt of suddenly rich rubber magnates to create a European city and culture on the sweltering banks of the Amazon. Electric trains, copies of European architecture, an opera house, and cobblestone streets are part of the physical imitation; fashionable clothing, French food, and the latest dances are part of the cultural. Everything—the marble, the food, the cobblestones—must be imported. And the effort is a gigantic failure, a case of substance without spirit.

The phenomenon of Manaus is by no means treated seriously. In fact, the details seem conveniently woven into the novel from note cards gathered specifically for the purpose: “The Hobby Horse Quadrille (the latest New York rage) was succeeded by the Alice Wonderland Quadrille, which was in turn supplanted by the first waltz of the evening, regarded as slightly daring in Manaus.” This short passage taken from the costume ball scene is one of many examples of pointless attention to detail. It is bad enough that it is unconnected with plot or character; it is worse that it makes little sense to call a waltz “slightly daring” in a society as dissipated as that of Manaus. The authors know the names of some popular dances; they know that the initiation of the waltz created a mild sensation in Europe. Mindlessly, they combine these facts into a pointless and inappropriate sentence. It is this continual name-dropping which is, in fact, the novel’s chief means of suggesting historicity.

The defender of light adventure fiction might well answer that such name-dropping is a harmless, painless method of education: a bit of history has been woven into an exciting format. One may be permitted some doubts. The authors have not attempted to give history life, but have used history for their own melodramatic purposes by making “free with events and dates, telescoping time willy-nilly.” And one wonders too whether the details are really accurate, or just seem so. When we are asked to eat in a “formal salle à manager” or to heed to the views of “grandes homens,” we may well be taken aback. If the other details of the novel are as uneven as the authors’ French, perhaps none are reliable.

The City of Manaus is the centerpiece of the novel, but the Amazon River dominates the opening scene as well as the exciting close of the story. In their use of the river, the authors are far more successful in integrating setting and plot. The size and menace of the Amazon are effectively conveyed. One can feel the stifling heat, the constant annoyance of insects, and the incredible width of the river. The menace of the Amazon is also very clear: alligators, piranhas, killer ants, and the thick jungle that reaches to the water. The climax of the book—a chase down the river—weaves all of these elements into an exciting, suspenseful series of episodes. Of course, even in this, the novel’s climax, some may entertain skepticism concerning the authors’ true inventiveness. They trot out a piranha episode, an attack by killer ants, and so on, in faithful sequence, almost as if they were following a list entitled “useful melodramatic dangers.”

If the novel’s setting...

(The entire section is 1613 words.)