Ernest Bramah Bramah, Ernest
by Ernest Bramah Smith

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ernest Bramah 1868-1942

(Full name Ernest Bramah Smith) English short story writer and novelist.

Primarily a short story writer in the genre of detective fiction, Bramah is best remembered for his creation of the blind sleuth Max Carrados and for his mannered tales of the Far East recited by the fictional Chinese storyteller Kai Lung. The shrewd, erudite, and superhumanly observant Carrados presides over Bramah's inventive, atmospheric, and at times humorous tales in the tradition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. With Kai Lung, Bramah ranges into satire by evoking a stylized version of the Far East peopled by rogues, hoods, and evil mandarins. Using Kai Lung's affected, aphoristic style—ostensibly intended for the moral edification of his listeners—Bramah combines humor and what Norman Donaldson called the "meticulous touch of a rare literary craftsman," to create lively and engaging tales that won him a small but ardently devoted readership in the first half of the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Bramah was born near Manchester, England in 1868 to Charles Clement Smith and Susannah Brammah Smith (in his pen name he later dropped the second "m" as well as the surname Smith). He attended Manchester Grammar School and upon graduation began a three-year period of his life as a farmer—later recounted in his humorous English Farming and Why I Turned It Up (1894). Beginning in 1890 Bramah began submitting a weekly column to the Birmingham News, his success with writing and the financial assistance of his father allowing him to travel to London two years later in order to pursue a full-time career in journalism. He served as secretary to Jerome K. Jerome, editor of the London magazine Today, and later as an editorial assistant for the publication. In 1895 Bramah left Today to become editor of another magazine, the Minister. He remained with this journal until late 1897, at which time he married Lucie Maisie Barker and embarked upon a career as what he termed an "outside writer." His first work of fiction, The Wallet of Kai Lung appeared in 1900 and featured the engaging figure of Kai Lung, a Chinese tale spinner who also narrates Bramah's later collections Kai Lung's Golden Hours (1922), Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat (1928), and the novel The Moon of Much Gladness, Related by Kai Lung (1932; also published as The Return of Kai Lung). The Kai Lung stories afforded Bramah a certain measure of notoriety, which was expanded considerably with the 1914 introduction of his blind detective Max Carrados in his collection of short stories under the same title. The popularity of Max Carrados led to Bramah's publication of three more volumes of tales, The Eyes of Max Carrados (1923), The Specimen Case (1924), and Max Carrados Mysteries (1927), and a novel, The Bravo of London (1934), featuring Carrados as its protagonist. Bramah published his last collection of fiction, a return to his early tales of the Far East in Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry-Tree, two years before his death in 1942.

Major Works

Bramah's primary contribution to English literature lies in his creation of two characters, Kai Lung and Max Carrados, both of whom appear most convincingly in several collections of short stories. More of a storyteller than an active protagonist, Kai Lung has been described by William White as a kind of "Chinese Chaucer" whose function is akin to that of Scheherazade in The Thousand and One Nights. Seized by the evil mandarin Shan Tien, Kai Lung endeavors to forestall his torture and death by diverting his captor with a variety of wondrous tales. In his at once didactic and ironic stories, Kai Lung reveals a highly-mannered society based upon Bramah's imagined conception of the Far East (an area of the world he never visited). The tales are filled with Kai Lung's stylized language and aphoristic wit, and engage in satire as much as fantasy. In Max Carrados, Bramah created one of the most enduring figures in detective fiction. Although blind, Carrados possesses a...

(The entire section is 12,552 words.)