Don’t get me wrong; Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond series was sexist, racist and seriously anti-sematic, but despite these vile prejudices I would still recommend that everyone read these books.
This may sound like a bold statement, but please hear me out. There is definitely a lot that can be learned from these books, both from a literary and an academic standpoint. Sapper, or Herman Cyril McNeile (at the time serving British Army officers were not allowed to publish under their own names) was a solider first and foremost; as such his work is directly shaped by the conflict, and there is much to be learned about the First World War from the thrilling tales of Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond, the author’s demobilized solider protagonist.
In addition, these novels, which spawned many popular films, form the basis for several crime fiction genres. Although not directly linked to the pulp fiction movement in America that gave rise to the hardboiled detective, it can be argued that Drummond forms the blueprint for these tough, droll and suave characters. He is also one of the original private eyes, setting a trend for wealthy detectives with nothing but boredom to motivate them.
This might not sound like the ideal premise for a series as prolific as the Bulldog Drummond stories (there were 10 novels and several short stories written by McNeile himself, with the franchise then being taken over by numerous other novelists and later also becoming a highly successful film series), but it was the characterization that led to the longevity of Sapper’s detective. Drummond and his band of merry men (a group of soldiers with names that could have come straight from a P.G Wodehouse novel) stumble across their crimes and dive in headfirst, often causing chaos, but in doing so they created a narrative which is now highly copied throughout the crime fiction market. They were also highly memorable, and are now the template for many other famous characters, with Ian Fleming once famously stating that James Bond was based on Drummond.
However, it is villains that are McNeile’s true forte, and in the early novels the enigmatic and truly evil Peterson and his vile accomplice Irma, designed to compliment Drummond and his client turned wife Phyllis are the perfect criminal masterminds. The pair are both equally scheming and jealous and devoted exclusively to each other and money. Through his strong characterization of the criminals McNeile is able to create the perfect, uncomplicated thriller; the reader constantly knows where their key alliances are, and is therefore able to relax and enjoy the action. There is no whodunit involved in the Bulldog Drummond novels. The villain is always clearly marked to allow the action to remain the central narrative drive, and this is a great way to insert various social commentaries and insights (not all particularly subtly; as previously mentioned Sapper’s hatred for the Jewish is well documented in these stories).
Similar to the Bond novels, these books focus instead on the action and characters rather than the plot itself. Although the plots are forumalic and often somewhat repetitive, it is in his use of the secondary characters that Sapper shows originality. The thuggish but honest and moral Drummond is always assisted by a veritable army of former soldiers that break the sidekick mould due to their versatility as characters and the sheer number of them present in any one novel (there are anywhere between two or three to half a dozen, each with backstories, dialogue and narrative uses).
The same goes for the use of the police in these stories; often they are not merely a means of obtaining information, nor a sly dig at the establishment- rather they become Drummond’s guardians, in a manner of speaking, watching as he clumsily rampages until they find him with an actual suspect or some tangible evidence. By no means stupid, Drummond is portrayed as perfectly capable to handle himself, however the police are often used as his official minders, and the complicated relationship they share, alongside the intelligence Sapper gifts his constabulary characters, complicates the age old trope of the private detective as the hired thug and the copper as the shining bastion of morality (bent coppers, or those with secrets, are another key feature in Sapper’s tales).
Overall I would thoroughly recommend that you check out at least the first four (known as the Carl Peterson novels), which are a match for Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books for in terms of wit and act as a blueprint for hundreds of hard boiled writers throughout the 1920s and beyond.
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