"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bulldog Drummond's disaster: A note on The Female of the Species

The Female of the Species

The Female of the Species begins with several handicaps, almost overcomes them, but ends in failure. In this it bears some resemblance to the second Drummond novel, The Black Gang, whose anti-working-class proto-fascist celebration of vigilantism is infamous.

The Female of the Species is narrated in the first person by Joe Dixon, a self-described rabbit of a man. He blunders into a role in Drummond's gang, clever enough to help with clues but still stupid enough to show off his new companions in heroic light.

Narrator aside, the biggest blunder made by H.C. McNeile is his choice of villains. After four novels spent besting, thwarting, and finally, finally putting Carl Peterson out of his misery, we are given a fifth round with the scraps of his organization, led by his mad wife Irma.

How mad is Irma? Well, she kidnaps Drummond's wife, and forces Bulldog and company through their paces in a clued treasure hunt, trying to pick them off in the process.  Irma is one of those supervillains who basically and up defeating themselves because their too-clever plans and lengthy gloating and scenery-chewing are simply a prelude to authorial nemesis. The kind of thing Austin Powers movies had some sport with.

The "real" Irma of the first four novels would, I think, have taken Carl Peterson's death in stride and moved on to the next criminal mastermind suitor willing to keep her in the style to which she was accustomed.

The novel goes along smoothly for the first half. A creepy old house littered with booty traps is searched. Our heroes barely escape drowning in an underground chamber. But when they arrive in Salisbury Plain, the narrative begins to seize-up. Various disguises are donned, and narrator Dixon spends too much time trying to figure out whether fellow tourists at Stonehenge and a local hotel are disguised villains, disguised allies, or civilians.

Finally the whole crew, variously through bungling or by design, end up in Irma's clutches. Then we find out what she has in store for the boys: a prehistoric sacrifice on a small-scale replica of Stonehenge set up in her home.

Which made me think, inevitably, of this.

Irma spends several chapters madly bragging, gloating, and talking about her triumph over Drummond and his band. On and on she goes.  Which gives Drummond plenty of time to get all his pieces in position.

The tables are turned against her, but Irma escapes again. And Dixon is made a permanent member of Drummond's gang.

The n-word appears several dozen times in the novel. This seems gratuitous, even for 1928. And of course Drummond's great coup against Irma and her henchmen is accomplished because he has "blacked-up" to impersonate one of  her killers, Pedro.


Just a taster, from Chapter 16:

…."If by that you mean he killed Carl Peterson, I do not deny it," said Darrell calmly. "And no man ever deserved death more richly."

"Deserved death!" Her voice rose. "Who are you, you dogs, to pronounce judgment on such a man?" With an effort she controlled herself. "However, we will not bandy words. He killed my man—even as I shall shortly kill his woman."

She fell silent for a while staring at the plaster cast, and I saw Darrell's anxious eyes roving round the room. They met mine for a moment, and he shrugged his shoulders helplessly. It was out now: there was no bluff about it. Death was in sight, and the manner of it seemed of but little account. Death—unless...

Feverishly I stared around. Death, unless Drummond intervened. I looked up at the roof, remembering the sailor of the night before. But this time it was empty. And all the time the man called Paul stood watching the woman with sombre eyes.

"It has not been very easy, Darrell." She was speaking again. "My servants have blundered. Mistakes have been made. But from the moment she fell into my hands the final issue has never been in doubt. I might have had to forego this. I might even have had to forego getting the lot of you. But her life has been forfeit since that moment. I have played with her at times, letting her think that she would be free if you found her, and she, stupid little fool, has believed me. Free!" She laughed. "There have been times when only the greatest restraint has prevented me killing her with my own hands. And now I am glad, for I would like you to see her die."

"Carissima," said the man called Paul, "is it wise to delay? All has gone so well up to now, and I fear something may happen."

"What can happen," she said calmly, "who can interrupt us? The time has passed when there was danger of surprise. Your police, Darrell, are stickers. And although I did not think you would enlist their aid, there was the little matter of the blood in the ditch. I felicitated dear Phyllis on that. Paul tells me that she practically killed him with one blow of that heavy spanner—naughty girl."

"For God's sake get on with it, woman," said Jerningham harshly.

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