Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Female of the Species

The Female of the Species was the fifth of the Bulldog Drummond novels produced by H. C. McNeile (under the pseudonym Sapper). It first appeared in print in 1928. It’s one of the best of the series and is a must-read for fans of the British thriller stories of the 1920s.

Captain Hugh Drummond is perhaps the most politically incorrect of all the politically incorrect heroes of the British thrillers of the interwar years. Quite apart from this he is perhaps a hero who will not be to everyone’s taste, and McNeile is a writer who is not to everyone’s tastes. There’s a great deal of humour in the Bulldog Drummond books but it’s a blustering schoolboy style of humour. McNeile’s literary style is not exactly subtle. Personally I have no problems with his writing but it’s a case of your mileage vary vary.

A major asset to any thriller is a colourful villain of the diabolical criminal mastermind type. McNeile created such a villain in the early Drummond books and in this fifth book he gives us an equally colourful villainess.

At this point it would be as well to point out that the Bulldog Drummond novels really need  to be read in sequence, beginning with Bulldog Drummond. It is absolutely imperative that you read the four Carl Petersen books (Bulldog Drummond, The Black Gang, The Third Round and The Final Count). The first novel provides vital background information on Drummond and on the circle of friends who assist him in his clandestine activities. It also explains his initial motivations and the way in which his crime-fighting career began.

The Female of the Species takes up where The Final Count left off. For the benefit of those who have not read the four Carl Petersen novels I will be as vague as possible in talking about this book’s links to the four earlier volumes, and I will be as careful as possible to avoid giving away any spoilers to those volumes. Suffice to say that if The Final Count seemed to have closed a chapter The Female of the Species re-opens that chapter in a logical and highly satisfying manner.

One of the most hackneyed of thriller clichés is to have the villain capture the hero’s wife or girlfriend, with the hero then required to rescue her. This cliché forms the core of the plot of The Female of the Species and it is greatly to McNeile’s credit that he manages to make it not seem hackneyed. In fact he utilises it quite cleverly. The art of writing a great thriller is not to make it dazzlingly original but to employ the standard plot elements of the genre as skillfully as possible. This is what McNeile does here.

The novel’s villainess is holding Drummond’s wife captive, but she has little interest in Phyllis Drummond. Her objective is revenge, with not just Hugh Drummond as her target but Drummond and all his loyal followers. But this is not to be a simple revenge. It is to be a revenge worthy of a true diabolical criminal mastermind. The abduction of Phyllis Drummond is the first move in an elaborate psychological game.

The novel is narrated by a newcomer to Drummond’s circle. It has to be admitted that Joe Dixon has few qualifications for engaging in the perilous anti-espionage and anti-crime activities of Drummond and his crew. Dixon does however display a certain defiant pluckiness and that is enough to endear him to Drummond.

The novel builds to a climax that provides McNeile with the opportunity to indulge himself in a spectacular suspense set-piece. He throws in plenty of delightfully entertaining trappings including what can only be described as a gloriously elaborate infernal machine,

As for the politically incorrectness I promised earlier, this novel ticks just about every politically incorrect box one can think of.

Drummond is his usual larger-than-life self. He deals out summary justice to a variety of miscreants, he consumes huge quantities of ale, he cracks the sorts of jokes dear to the hearts of public schoolboys, he sings very loudly. He is never disheartened by setbacks, nor is he dismayed by the fact that much of the time he has no coherent plan to guide him. Drummond is the sort of hero who never considers the possibility that the ungodly might triumph.

The Female of the Species is immense fun. Highly recommended, but do read the four earlier Bulldog Drummond novels first.

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