British adventure fiction is full of retired captains and colonels, but the most successful of them all was Bulldog Drummond, the former captain who returns from World War I to find a new career as a private sleuth. Sapper, who had written several fictional works based on his experiences in the trenches, patterned Drummond partly on himself and partly on his friend Gerard Fairlie, who in fact carried on the series after 1937. (The new series continued until 1954; most of the seven novels written by Fairlie were not published in the United States.)
Sapper wrote a brisk, accomplished prose, with few frills. He had no pretensions as an author, and there are those who believe that his first Drummond novel is his best. Nevertheless, his last novel, Challenge (1937), contains the standard ingredients of plot and style and may serve as a model. There is fast-paced dialogue, very little descriptive prose, and a wide range of characters. Sapper’s plots are lively, and there is very little cogitating over a cup of tea. Although his prose was close to that of the pulp writers, it was definitely a notch above it. The style is clean and strongly influenced by American popular fiction. Note this dialogue from Challenge:“Come on, Captain Talbot,” cried Molly. “If we stop here talking all night, their meeting will be over.” “Dash it, Molly,” said Algy. “I don’t like it.” “Dry up,” she laughed. “Now what are you going to do?” She turned to the soldier. “Go with you and show you the room. Then lurk round a corner out of sight, but within hearing. And if anything happens, just give a call and I’ll be with you.”
This dialogue from Sapper’s last Drummond novel shows a strong American influence (“Dry up”) as well as a traditional British touch (“Dash it”). To some readers, the mixture seems odd; to others, who do not take their detective fiction so seriously, it adds interest. At any rate, Sapper tried to blend modern American slang with traditional British expressions. Indeed, Sapper could not and did not want to escape the British tradition of good schools, good breeding, and decent behavior.
Above all, one must understand that Sapper was writing for a British audience, for whom the gentleman sleuth was a beloved figure. From Sherlock Holmes to Sexton Blake and Lord Peter Wimsey, the detective with a “good background” has always been popular. This detective often has a sidekick, a Dr. Watson; in Bulldog Drummond’s case, it was Ronald Standish—whom Sapper featured in several novels—as well as Algy Longworth and James Denny. His sidekick serves, in most cases, as an admirer and supporter. In Challenge, Standish tells another character, “You can take it from me that there is generally a reason for everything that Drummond does.”
Perhaps one reason for Bulldog Drummond’s popularity was that the detective did not flaunt his background, except to show a fondness for the military and officers (honorable British officers, that is). Drummond’s business was to solve the crimes put before him, and he wasted little time with salon chitchat. Sapper learned this lesson from The Strand, where the editors insisted on straightforward fiction.
Another aspect of Bulldog Drummond that appealed to his fans was his steely determination to get the job done. He had little patience for the slowness of the police, because he generally believed that they did little more than get in his way. Drummond cut through red tape and solved mysteries. It was this perhaps more than any other quality that made Drummond so attractive.
Yet one must never forget that, as Colin Watson maintains in his book Snobbery with Violence (1972), “Bulldog Drummond was a melodramatic creation workable only within a setting of melodrama .” Many of the novels have pulpish plots featuring international conspiracies and fiendish villains. These are the materials of a bygone fiction, a fiction that championed such figures as the...
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