Ernest Bramah Bramah, Ernest - Essay

Ernest Bramah Smith


(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 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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

English Farming and Why I Turned It Up (prose) 1894

The Wallet of Kai Lung (short stories) 1900

The Mirror of Kong Ho (short stories) 1905

What Might Have Been: The Story of a Social War [also published as The Secret of the League] (novel) 1907

Max Carrados (short stories) 1914

Kai Lung's Golden Hours (short stories) 1922

The Eyes of Max Carrados (short stories) 1923

The Specimen Case (short stories) 1924

Max Carrados Mysteries (short stories; 1927

The Story of Wan and the Remarkable Shrub and The Story of Ching-Kwei and the Destinies (short stories) 1927

Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat (short stories) 1928

A Guide to the Varieties and Rarity of English Regal Copper Coins: Charles II-Victoria, 1671-1860 (non-fiction) 1929

Short Stories of To-day and Yesterday (short stories) 1929

A Little Flutter (short stories) 1930

The Moon of Much Gladness, Related by Kai Lung [also published as The Return of Kai Lung] (novel) 1932

The Bravo of London (novel) 1934

The Kai Lung Omnibus (short stories) 1936

Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree (short stories) 1940

J.C. Squire (essay date 1921)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Wallet of Kai-Lung," in Life and Letters, George H. Doran Company, 1921, pp. 44-51.

[In the following essay, Squire favorably assesses the Chinese stories of The Wallet of Kai Lung.]

Everybody knows about Mr. Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare, Lord Byron and Lord Tennyson. This does not detract from one's enjoyment of their works; but there is a peculiar and intense delight in good books which are not commonly known. English literature is sprinkled with them, and one's own favourites of the kind one talks about with a peculiar enthusiasm. For myself I continually urge people to read Trelawney's Adventures of a Younger Son and Coryat's Crudities,...

(The entire section is 1563 words.)

Hilaire Belloc (essay date 1922)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Preface to Kai Lung's Golden Hours, Jonathan Cape, 1922, pp. vii-xii.

[In the following essay, Belloc offers praise for the artistry of The Wallet of Kai Lung and Kai Lung's Golden Hours.]

Homo faber. Man is born to make. His business is to construct: to plan: to carry out the plan: to fit together, and to produce a finished thing.

That human art in which it is most difficult to achieve this end (and in which it is far easier to neglect it than in any other) is the art of writing. Yet this much is certain, that unconstructed writing is at once worthless and ephemeral: and nearly the whole of our modern English writing is...

(The entire section is 1522 words.)

Louise Mansell Field (essay date 1924)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ernest Bramah and His Blind Detective," in The Literary Digest International Book Review, Vol. II, No. 6, May, 1924, pp. 464-65.

[In the following review, Field highlights the extraordinary skills of Bramah's blind detective Max Carrados and calls the stories in The Eyes of Max Carrados "perplexing, entertaining, ingenious, and very well written."]

The immense contribution which failure has made to Anglo-Saxon letters is at once a curious and an entertaining subject for speculation. The failure, that is, which persons who have since accomplished worthwhile literary work made in the professions first chosen by them. Cold shivers run down one's spine at...

(The entire section is 1141 words.)

William White (essay date 1959)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kai Lung in America: The Critical Reception of Ernest Braman," in The American Book Collector, Vol. 9, No. 10, June, 1959, pp. 15-19.

[In the following essay, White surveys Bramah's writings and laments the general lack of criticism on the author's works.]

Almost sixty years ago Ernest Bramah wrote The Wallet of Kai Lung, in which Chinese ways of thinking and speaking were adapted to the English language: the most horrifying events told blandly, the most farcical situations described with a straight face, and the most evil characters tell the most transparent lies in the politest possible way, with aphorisms on every other page. For example: "It...

(The entire section is 4816 words.)

William White (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ernest Braman on China: An Important Letter," in PMLA, Vol. 87, No. 3, May, 1972, pp. 511-13.

[In the following essay, White presents a letter from Bramah to his publisher, Grant Richards, that proves the author of The Wallet of Kai Lung and several other books set in China never visited the Far East.]

If Ernest Bramah, born Ernest Bramah Smith (1868-1942), is to find a place in English literary history, it will be for his Kai Lung tales, centered on this Chinese storyteller and "philosopher" in The Wallet of Kai Lung (1900), Kai Lung's Golden Hours (1922), Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat (1928), The Moon of Much...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)

Jacques Barzun and Wendell H. Taylor (essay date 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ernest Bramah: Max Carrados," in A Book of Prefaces to Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction, 1900-1950, Garland Publishing, 1976, pp. 23-4.

[In the following essay, Barzun and Taylor briefly introduce Max Carrados, Bramah's first book of tales featuring his famous blind detective.]

Just as the classic novelist wants to make his hero or heroine differ in character or circumstance from all previous ones, so the writer of detective tales feels obliged to make his investigator in some way singular. The demand leads to some dreadful temptations, one of which is to make the detective a blind man. Ernest Bramah was so tempted, but unlike others, who have variously...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Haycraft, Howard. "England: 1890-1914 (The Romantic Era)." In Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, pp. 62-82. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1941.

Briefly mentions Max Carrados as among the last and most successful detective novels in the pre-modern period of the genre.

The following sources published by Gale Research contain additional coverage of Bramah's life and career: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 156; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 70.

(The entire section is 69 words.)