Saturday, July 2, 2016

H. C. McNeile's Temple Tower

Temple Tower, published in 1929, was the sixth Bulldog Drummond adventure penned by H. C. McNeile under the name Sapper.

Captain Hugh Drummond is sampling the joys of country life in his house on Romney Marsh. If you’re familiar with the character you’ll know that these joys aren’t going to keep Hugh Drummond amused for very long. He’s a man who welcomes adventure and if adventure doesn’t come to him he’ll go looking for it. In this case the adventure comes to him. From his window he notices inexplicable red and blue lights on Romney Marsh, coming approximately from the direction of a lonely farmhouse know as Spragge’s Farm. The average person would dismiss such an occurrence as being mildly puzzling but of little consequence. Captain Drummond however suspects that there may be a mystery here. If there is he intends to be in the middle of it.

He recruits his friend Peter Darrell and they set out to investigate. Drummond’s curiosity has also been aroused by his neighbour Granger. Granger, a man who speaks excellent English but with just the slightest trace of an unidentifiable accent, seems like a man with an inordinate fear of something. He has turned his house into a veritable fortress. Of course if a man wishes to fortify his house he has a perfect right to do so but al the same it is interesting. Granger’s reaction when Drummond casually mentions the red and blue lights is even more interesting.

Of course there’s a dastardly plot behind all this, and a rather complicated one at that. Granger is afraid of something in his past. Having someone from your past, someone who hates you enough to want to kill you, suddenly reappearing is bad enough - but Granger has not one, not two, but three separate groups of people all on his trail. In fact you could argue there are four separate enemies hunting him!

To add to the fun there’s an old house riddled with secret passageways, a map, a motor-bandit gang and a masked strangler. There are also ample opportunities for Drummond to wage his own private war against crime. He does briefly consider the idea of reporting the matter to the police (and he certainly has connections at Scotland Yard) but he quickly dismisses the notion. After all the police are hindered by all kinds of irritating rules, and rules are things that Hugh Drummond is accustomed to ignore.

While Drummond does have a tendency to lead with his fists (as he does with breathtaking effrontery early on as a means on inviting himself into someone’s house) he also gets to exercise his brains in this adventure. And for all his bluster it is an unwise criminal who makes the mistake of thinking that Hugh Drummond lacks brains.

McNeile’s problem was that his first attempt to create a diabolical criminal mastermind as an opponent for his hero was so successful that Carl Petersen was always going to be a hard act to follow. In The Female of the Species he gave us a villain who was a worthy successor to Carl Petersen. In Temple Tower he succeeds reasonably well. The chief villain is more shadowy and we know less about his motivations (or it might be more accurate to say that his motivations are less complex) but he certainly qualifies as suitably sinister. There are some pretty fair subsidiary villains as well.

A thriller requires action and McNeile supplies it. McNeile’s biggest contribution to the thriller genre (and his contribution to that genre was immense) was that he gave it an injection of high-octane energy. Bulldog Drummond was certainly not the first crime/espionage hero but he was a good deal less genteel than his predecessors. In fact he seems in some ways closer in spirit to the heroes of the hard-boiled school although it’s worth noting that the first Bulldog Drummond novel pre-dates the emergence of the hard-boiled style by several years. I don’t want to push the comparison too far. There’s none of the moral ambiguity of the hard-boiled school here. The hero might on occasions express grudging admiration for the courage and intelligence of his adversaries but the villains are still entirely villainous and the heroes entirely heroic.

The hero’s (and the author’s) sense of humour might not be to everyone’s taste but it’s an essential part of his character. Personally I enjoy it.

The Bulldog Drummond stories really do need to be read in sequence, starting with Bulldog Drummond. There are constant references to previous adventures and the author assumes that the reader is familiar with Captain Drummond’s background, his unconventional methods and his ambiguous status as an amateur who has on occasions been known to work on a semi-official basis with the legal authorities. 

Temple Tower is a fine rambunctious adventure thriller. Highly recommended.

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