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NA639112 - SAPPER: Black Gang (The) (Unabridged)

Sapper (1888–1937)
The Black Gang


For Bulldog Drummond, ‘clubbing’ always had two meanings. On the one hand, there was the affable, cocktail-sipping, upper-middle-class chumminess between himself and his friends, full of jocular bonhomie; and on the other, there was biffing the bad guy with whatever came to hand. Both were key to the morals and mores of one of England’s more contentious literary heroes, one whose forebears include Baroness Orczy, Conan Doyle, Kipling and Buchan, and who inspired the likes of Leslie Charteris’s The Saint and Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

The Black Gang (published in 1922) is Drummond’s second outing, and it pits him once more against his magnificent adversary, Carl Peterson, the model for Fleming’s suavely evil Blofeld. He is the evil mastermind who plans global domination, of course, with a selection of vicious henchmen; there are chases and gunfights and fist-fights and last-minute escapes, naturally, with a beautiful heroine to be saved. There is also a corrupt MP, a Bolshevik uprising and—slightly less predictably—a poisoned doily. And at the centre of it all is the dauntless (indeed undauntable) Bulldog Drummond himself. Muscular if unattractive, he is a charming, big-hearted man-of-action who after service in the First World War found life dull and wanted a bit of adventure to spice things up a bit. Peterson is at the head of a monstrous plot to bring a Communist revolution to England, but it is not his Bolshevik friends who are the Black Gang. That honour goes to Drummond and his public-school colleagues, who have adopted the role of gentlemanly vigilantes and have taken the punishing of thoroughly bad types into their own hands, thereby stumbling across Peterson’s plans.

The Bulldog Drummond stories are straightforward thrillers, unashamed adventure stories, with all the action on the surface. The villains are bad, the hero good, and the distinction is not hard to draw. There is almost no sub-text, no tortured psychology, no strutting and fretting. The attitudes and language are of their time, with no attempt to consider their implications. This is where the contention arises. Drummond, and presumably Sapper as well, clearly did not feel there was any need for temporising—the issues were clear and unquestionable. References to Jews, for example, are almost invariably associated with criminality; anyone whom the gang capture is sent to a remote island to be subjected to a physically forceful regime to correct behaviour. Most foreigners are dubious types at best, and referred to in derogatory terms. The legitimate fears and concerns of the working class are dismissed. The England (and it is England rather than Great Britain) that Drummond is desperate to preserve is the kind of class-ridden, exploitative, unjust one most don’t want at all.

And yet, and yet…it is also the world that Wodehouse described, the one in which Agatha Christie flourishes, a post-War version of that of Lord Peter Wimsey and Raffles, the Gentleman Thief. Bulldog Drummond manages to suggest the carefree attitude of these times whilst touching upon the real and deep concerns of the public at large. Communist revolution was hardly an idle threat just five years after the Revolution in Russia. And, if the idea of seeking a means to keep the thrill of wartime action alive once there is peace seems far-fetched, it was clearly true to Sapper and to his thousands of readers.

Sapper was the pseudonym of Herman Cyril McNeile, a career soldier who was born in Cornwall and served with the Royal Engineers from 1907 until the end of the First War. He served with considerable distinction, too, gaining a Military Cross for his bravery and seeing action at (among other places) the first and second battles of Ypres. He had started writing before the War and continued during it, producing stories that were enormously popular. This was because they had unquestionable authenticity while maintaining a sense of adventure rather than horrific despair. McNeile had to write under a false name, as officers were not permitted to write under their own, and he chose Sapper—the slang term for an Army engineer.

Once demobbed, his short stories continued to sell extremely well, and McNeile moved to Sussex, where he remained for the rest of his life. He married and had two sons, wrote a great many short stories for magazines (generally of the twist-in-the-tail variety), and other adventure stories and thrillers; but his reputation now rests almost entirely on Bulldog Drummond. Drummond was a huge success, and was turned into equally successful plays, radio adaptations and films, with the likes of Ralph Richardson, Ronald Coleman and Ray Milland playing him. There was just something about his dedicated yet cavalier attitude, his grim-faced determination allied to his dashing charm. Like many a boy (and man) dreams of being, he was a dead-shot, a prize-fighter and a dab-hand with a cocktail shaker. Debonair and deadly with no need for doubt, surrounded by like-minded chums and with an easily identifiable enemy, Drummond was so popular he continued to appear well after his creator’s death. His friend and collaborator, writer Gerard Fairlie, continued the stories until 1954, and two more novels by different hands appeared thereafter in the late 60s, and as recently as 2004 Drummond was reinvented for the American comic market.

Of all those who either played or adapted the character, Fairlie has by far the best claim, even without the fact that he continued writing the stories at McNeile’s request Fairlie can be said to have an even better claim to the character of Drummond than McNeile himself, for while it is always tempting to ascribe heroes to the authors’ view of themselves, Fairlie was in fact the model. During his time in the Scots Guards, he captained the Army in golf and rugby as well as being a champion boxer, went on to be a member of the British bobsleigh team at the 1924 Olympics, and may possibly have been a secret agent as well. This sporting prowess, military dedication and clarity of thought, this bravery and modesty, are absolutely the hallmarks of Drummond’s nature.

Notes by Roy McMillan

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