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.
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.
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 keen intelligence, uncanny powers of observation, and highly trained senses that allow him to, for example, read newspaper headlines with his fingertips. The beneficiary of a large inheritance from an American relative, Carrados is foremost a gentleman who undertakes sleuthing only as an avocation. Among his most memorable exploits is that related in "The Tragedy of Brookbend Cottage" (1914), in which Carrados attempts to prevent a jealous husband from making his wife's murder appear to be an accident. This story, considered among Bramah's best, demonstrates his skill with dialogue and characteristic blending of tragedy and lighthearted humor.
Between the publication of The Wallet of Kai Lung and Max Carrados Bramah produced his first novel, a work of science fiction entitled What Might Have Been: The Story of a Social War (1907). The book's near total neglect by critics illustrates the common opinion that Bramah's greatest successes have been in short fiction. Since their publication in 1900 the earliest Kai Lung stories have maintained a modest but devoted readership.
Bramah's Max Carrados tales were also much praised by contemporary reviewers and have likewise earned him a noteworthy position in the history of the British detective story, making him one of the most admired practitioners of the genre from the prewar era through the 1920s. In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, Bramah's writings have elicited very little scholarly interest, though the original Kai Lung and Max Carrados stories are still considered highly readable examples of genre-writing, and many have since been reissued.