Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Guy Boothby's The Lust of Hate

The Lust of Hate was the third of the five Dr Nikola novels written by Guy Boothby (1867-1905). Boothby was an Australian writer who enjoyed international success until his career was cut short by his untimely death.

Dr Nikola was one of the earliest fictional diabolical criminal masterminds although his interests extend well beyond mere crime. He has interests in the occult and what might be termed the paranormal. In fact his motivations make him resemble the less scrupulous medieval alchemists and his criminal activities serve the purpose of financing his researches.

Dr Nikola made his literary debut  in 1895 in Boothby’s novel A Bid for Fortune. Dr Nikola Returns followed in 1896. The Lust of Hate appeared in 1898.

Dr Nikola plays a subsidiary role in The Lust of Hate although it is his latest criminal scheme that drives the plot.

The hero of this novel is Gilbert Pennethorne, younger son of a Cornish baronet. Gilbert seems to have remarkably bad luck. His mother died giving birth to him and as a result his father has never had any affection for him. His school career is undistinguished and although he claims to have been entirely innocent of any disciplinary breach he is sent down from Oxford after his first year. His father settles his debts for him and throws him out. Gilbert has enough money to take him to Australia where he is determined to make his fortune.

Ill luck continues to dog him. His investments invariably turn out badly. He hopes to find riches on the goldfields but always without success. Then his luck suddenly turns, or so it appears, but this turns out to be another illusion. He is cheated of a vast fortune.

Gilbert receives a paltry inheritance when his father dies and returns to England. He can think of nothing but avenging himself on the man who cheated him. Then he meets Dr Nikola. Nikola assures him that he can have his revenge without the slightest risk of arrest by the police. Nikola has devised a method of murder that is entirely perfect and foolproof. And he requires only a small share of the riches that will accrue to Gilbert as a result.

Gilbert by this time is perhaps not quite in his right mind and he succumbs to temptation. The plan does not turn out as expected. Gilbert decides to flee and takes ship for South Africa. He hopes to start life afresh and eventually to make amends for the terrible sin he has committed. At this point Gilbert’s adventures have only just begun, and extraordinary adventures they are (even if they do strain credibility quite a bit). 

While the earlier Dr Nikola books were true diabolical criminal mastermind thrillers The Lust of Hate is pretty much pure melodrama. Personally I have no objection to melodrama and this one is entertaining enough.

The book’s greatest weakness is that Dr Nikola effectively plays a supporting role only and the story doesn’t add very much to our knowledge of Nikola. Which is a pity since he is a splendid character.

Gilbert Pennethorne veers between abject self-pity and sudden bursts of insane heroism. He really does seem to be have become, temporarily, just a little unhinged by his misfortunes. Modern readers will need to take into account that Gilbert’s self-sacrificing tendencies which might seem excessive today would have been considered to be quite praiseworthy in 1898.

The highlight of the book is Dr Nikola’s ingenious scheme for committing perfect murders for profit. Nikola’s slightly ambivalent attitude towards his victims (and there are sings of this in the earlier books as well) make him an interesting villain. For Nikola evil is merely a means to an end.

The Lust of Hate is odd but enjoyable in its own way and Dr Nikola fans will certainly not want to miss it. Worth a look.

Boothby also enjoyed success with his stories of the gentleman-thief Simon Carne, collected in A Prince of Swindlers.

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