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By Alidë Kohlhaas
Private eye Bulldog Drummond is just slightly over 80 years old. Despite his age and controversial nature, he lives on in fond memories of many who have come across him in a variety of ways. The private detective has probably entertained and shocked readers, radio listeners, film-goers and comic book enthusiasts in equal measure. There are 10 original Bulldog Drummond novels written by Sapper, a.k.a. Herman Cyril McNeile, seven written following his death by his friend Gerard Fairlie, who had served as Sapper's model for Drummond, and a final two by Henry Reymond. All of them feature the private eye of British upper-middle-class origins in books that have the format of an unabashed thriller. Drummond is unlike Agatha Christie's cerebral, yet entertaining characters Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, who came into being around the same time as Sapper's far more muscular and robust detective.
Now Naxos AudioBooks has come out with an unabridged audio book of the second Bulldog Drummond novel, The Black Gang. Published in 1922, it pits Drummond and his clubby chums against Carl Peterson, a man reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, Moriarty. Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, admitted Peterson, in turn, served as the model for the evil Blofeld with whom James Bond battled on behalf of Her Majesty's Secret Service. Admittedly, Fleming and Conan Doyle, Holmes' creator, wrote much more nuanced books than Sapper, but the lack of refinement does not detract in the least bit from the thriller aspects of The Black Gang.
So, who is Drummond? He is described by his creator as retired British Army Captain Hugh Drummond, DSO, MC. He is wealthy and bored after serving in the trenches of France in World War I, and seeks a way to fill his time with adventure. Working as a private eye seems to be his idea of a good way to find the excitement he craves. On his first assignment in a book called simply Bulldog Drummond, which came out in 1920, he stumbles across the evil Carl Peterson, who desires world domination. Besides, Drummond's original ad for a job in The Times leads to his first assignment from a young woman, Phyllis Benton, who ends up becoming his wife. In the 1922 published The Black Gang he once again gets ensnared in Peterson's evil plans.
As for McNeile, he adopted the nom de plume Sapper because British officers were not allowed to write under their own name. As he had served in the Royal Engineers, choosing to call himself Sapper seemed a natural. He began his writing career in 1915 with several short stories about his experiences in the trenches. But instead of placing the focus on war's horror, he kept an up-beat tone that made his tales immensely popular. He served with distinction and gained the Military Cross for bravery in the first and second battles of Ypres. But he chose his friend Fairlie as the model for Drummond because he had served in the Scots Guards, had been an Army boxing champion, and served on the British bobsled team that ended up in the 1924 Olympics. He, thereby, suited the image of Drummond more than the dapper though bookish McNeile.
The Black Gang is probably the best of the four books dealing with this gang. Actor Roy McMillan is highly effective as the reader of this tale in audio book format. His vocal impersonations of the various characters, good and evil—there are no shades in-between these two—are excellent. For those who recall Bulldog Drummond from radio programs, this version of The Black Gang will lead them on a sentimental, albeit violence-charged journey into the past.
The Black Gang, as all of the other Bulldog Drummond stories, contains passages that will make today's audience squirm becauseand rightly so—the team that put this audio book on disc did not choose to make it politically correct. Consequently, the listener gets a novel of its time: jingoistic and prone to racial slurs. While we do not like such images today, to change the references would rob the novel of its original flavor, which includes the snobby attitudes of the 1920s British upper crust and the fears of the lower. One still shudders at the idea that now some schools have chosen to give their students a sanitized Adventures of Tom Sawyer to read in which the N-word has been expurgated. Talk about changing history. No matter how bad the past has been, to remove the truth from it denies what has been achieved for the better today.
Without giving away too much of the plot of The Black Gang, Peterson is once again attempting a coup d'état to enable a pro-communist takeover of Britain. He does so strictly for his own profit, not for political belief. The Black Gang, headed by Drummond and consisting of his clubby public school friends, even aided by Phyllis, manages to foil him once again. We also meet the clueless Sir Brian Johnstone, New Scotland Yard's director of criminal investigation and Chief Inspector McIver, who are disturbed by the activities of the secret, black-dressed, black-hooded Black Gang. A certain popular mystique surrounds this gang, seemingly consisting of ruffians who have a tendency to beat up London's lower class of criminals, even abducting them for re-education.
In the books that featured the Black Gang, Sapper made no attempt to give dimensions to his characters. He wrote on the surface, aiming for entertainment with a dash of melodrama, peppered by violence, and nothing more. That is why his detective attracted the movie industry and stars such as Ronald Coleman, Ralph Richardson, and Walter Pidgeon portrayed him. With such starry company from the past, Roy McMillan is in good company and listeners can be sure they will have a few evenings of good entertainment. They can also be assured that The Black Gang is no more two-dimensional than most current TV offerings. And, this audio book comes without commercial interruption!.