Ernest Bramah: Crime and Chinoiserie

There are plenty of long-dead authors whose names mean nothing to that dreadful entity the Reading Public, but whose works are still cherished by a self-selected few. Not so many authors have scored this "cult" success twice over in two separate genre categories. Ernest Bramah is one such.

The usual details: he was an English recluse, his full name was the less striking Ernest Brammah Smith and he lived from 1868 to 1942, when the Times gave him eight column inches of obituary. With his left hand he produced the once very popular mock-Chinese tales of the storyteller Kai Lung, and with his right the celebrated (in crime-fiction circles) cases of Max Carrados, that omniscient though blind detective.

Kai Lung came first. The Wallet of Kai Lung crept imperceptibly into print in 1900; like all Bramah's best work it consists of short stories. In this series they're normally fantastic tales related by the itinerant Kai Lung in an exceedingly mannered "Chinese" idiom. (As regretfully noted in The Listener's 1947 retrospective article on Bramah, it seems pretty certain that he never left Europe, let alone visited China.) Occasionally the teller is dispensed with, but the voice remains the same.

An archetypal example is the first story "The Transmutation of Ling", a novella filling more than a third of this book. Kai Lung appears in a simple framing narrative: captured on his travels by the dread brigand Lin Yi ("I am indeed Lin Yi ... It is a dignified position to occupy, and one for which I am quite incompetent."), he has insufficient cash to placate the robber band and instead must soothe them with the ornate story of Ling.

Ling's adventures are distinctly uneven. Aspiring to the civil service via the traditional Chinese route of public examination (of which Bramah makes repeated and increasingly satirical use), he is assigned much against his will to lead a venal defence force of archers:

Should the enemy be undisconcerted by the cloud of arrows, and advance, the bowmen are instructed to make a last endeavour to frighten them back by uttering loud shouts and feigning the voices of savage beasts of the forest and deadly snakes.

Inevitably Ling is laid low by a traditional corrupt Mandarin and the inflexible toils of bureaucracy: when the Emperor approves a false report of his cowardly death, the Imperial Vermilion Sign on this document quite outweighs Ling's trifling claim to be alive. In despair he attempts suicide with a potion which turns out to be the single existing dose of a magical elixir of wealth ... the result being that bits of his person, when detached, turn to gold.

His own interests would have been better secured had the benevolent spirits who undertook the matter placed the secret within his knowledge in such a way as to enable him to administer the fluid to some very heavy and inexpensive animal....

This ushers in new and substantially sillier complications, with Ling regaining solvency by raising money on his prospect of becoming, posthumously, a large mass of gold. A dodgy entrepreneur duly floats him as The Ling (After Death) Without Much Risk Assembly, and until our hero finally regains the upper hand his life is made very awkward by contractual small print forbidding any actions liable to reduce his post-mortem value by loss of weight, taking the slightest risk of death except when the body could not possibly be mislaid, etc.

The peculiarly addictive quality of this chinoiserie lies not so much in plot as in the unwaveringly artificial prose style. Formal politeness and elaborate diction are maintained in the most extreme circumstances, to hilarious effect. Bramah had impressive resources of vocabulary, circumlocution and euphemism, and could always find another and more ludicrous way of putting a commonplace sentiment: parodists have pulled their own heads off rather than sustain his remorseless flow for more than a few paragraphs. Meanwhile, a real fondness for mythic China shines through.

Kai Lung's Golden Hours (1922, with an enthusiastic introduction by Hilaire Belloc) perhaps contains the best of the stories. Certainly it has the best of the one-liners, and when Bramah fans exchange favourite phrases (which they are apt to do at great length), most are traceable to this volume. It is closely rivalled by Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat (1928). Both have overall framing narratives which have enabled publishers to pass them off as novels, featuring Kai Lung and his lady love Hwa-Mei versus the wicked but ever-smooth Mandarin Shan Tien and his despicable accomplice Ming-Shu ... who is celebrated in such chapter titles as "The Malignity of the Depraved Ming-Shu Raises Its Offensive Head" and "The Degraded Persistence of the Effete Ming-Shu".

Through most of Golden Hours Kai Lung takes the role of Scheherazade, staving off Ming-Shu's malignity by appealing to Shan Tien's weakness for refined narrative. He has a story for any occasion, and knows exactly what each audience prefers:

The prosperous and substantial find contentment in hearing of the unassuming virtues and frugal lives of the poor and unsuccessful. Those of humble origin, especially tea-house maidens and the like, are only really at home among stories of the exalted and quick-moving, the profusion of their robes, the magnificence of their palaces, and the general high-minded depravity of their lives.

The ironic tone is now well established. On page one the storyteller first encounters Hwa-Mei and her duenna, and bows:

At this display the elder and less attractive of the maidens fled, uttering loud and continuous cries of apprehension in order to conceal the direction of her flight.

Bramah is never at a loss for gallant phrases to describe his Oriental beauties (who in the inset stories tend to be far more competent and resourceful than their often wimpish heroes):

After secretly observing the unstudied grace of her movements, the most celebrated picture-maker of the province burned the implements of his craft, and began life anew as a trainer of performing elephants.

One would have expected this style to be a straitjacket, but somehow it never quite is, even when unrestrained cursing is heard from the lowly artisans of the Harmonious Constellation of Paste Appliers and Long Brush Wielders after someone has been tearing down their posters:

"May bats defile his Ancestral Tablets and goats propagate within his neglected tomb!" chanted the band in unison. "May the sinews of his hams snap suddenly in moments of achievement!"

This narrative tone also adapts itself to a few grim and bitter stories which lurk alarmingly among the sweetmeats. Even in sunnier tales there are frequent snippets whose implications are not so jolly:

The manner by which he gained his livelihood consisted in leading a number of blind mendicants about the streets of the city and into the shops and dwelling-places of those who might reasonably be willing to pay in order to be relieved of their presence.

Alas, this ploy fails thanks to the activities of a far less pacifistic protection-racket operator, after whose violent depredations the shopkeepers can only explain apologetically that ...

"an insatiable sponge has already been laid upon the well-spring of our benevolence and the tenacity of our closed fist is inflexible."

In Chinese mode, Bramah is rewarding but should perhaps be taken in small doses, one story or chapter before bedtime to prevent over-exposure. There is a fourth, slightly inferior collection, Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree (1940) and – amazingly – a complete novel "related by Kai Lung", The Moon of Much Gladness (1932). This last is definitely too much of a good thing; the anachronistic jokes sometimes found in the short stories here take the form of gags about Western ("barbarian") detective stories, and indeed a great deal of the book is detective pastiche. What appalling fiend, later dubbed "Wang the Invisible Shearer", cut off the illustrious Mandarin's pigtail in the very nearly locked room? Never mind.

The tiny chapbook Kai Lung: Six (1974) assembles six more minor stories from Punch magazine, which had not been previously collected. Meanwhile, in another part of the wood....

The tales of Max Carrados lie squarely in the classic English detective tradition, told in plain though polished prose: Max Carrados (1914), The Eyes of Max Carrados (1923) and Max Carrados Mysteries (1927). An odd Carrados story – plus an odd Kai Lung story – found its way into Bramah's collection of detective japes and spoofs The Specimen Case (1924), and again there's a novel: The Bravo of London (1934), a disappointing performance whose most memorable section turns out to be a recycling of one of the short stories.

But those three main collections are full of pleasant things, if you can swallow the perverse idea of a consulting detective – one of the profession whose badge is the Holmes magnifying glass – being blind. Though equipped with a keen observer in the perfect manservant Parkinson, Carrados does not merely sit around deducing: he makes his own observations with ears, nose and fingertips.

The Eyes of Max Carrados opens with a somewhat defensive essay which chronicles astonishing feats of the blind. Most of the anecdotes come from an 1820 book of blind notables and some might have improved in the telling. Carrados himself outdoes them all and perhaps combines a few too many amazing abilities for real conviction. One memorable moment comes when he blindly confronts the murderous spy whose gun is already out and who has already taken a pot-shot at Parkinson:

"Damn," came the low murmur to his ear. "Ein anderer!"

It was not the time to ask for explanations. [...] As [Carrados] once stopped to explain to Monsieur Dompierre, upon an occasion less hurried but quite as tense, he aimed by sound and practised round a watch. He fired now into the centre of the "Damn!" ...

Exit one snarling Teutonic villain.

(There is a long-standing character in the superhero comics who is blind but nevertheless dons red tights to perform incredible feats of acrobatic derring-do as "Daredevil", steering his mighty leaps by aural radar. I've always wondered whether this chap's creator had been a Carrados fan.)

Such violent action is very unusual, though. Like Kai Lung, Carrados normally maintains an unbroken flow of smooth talk, especially when being menaced or kidnapped, and many of the little deductive treats he offers his acquaintances are plausibly implausible in the genuine Holmes manner:

"The man who sat with me bit his finger-nails, smoked Algerian cigars and wore an elastic stocking."

This time, explanations are not given. Anyone can smell cigar smoke, and Carrados has no doubt written a monograph on it. Perhaps a trained ear might interpret the little muffled sounds of nail-biting. We're left to puzzle over whether, by walking a little way with an unsuspecting blackguard, Carrados could really make that last deduction from his tread. Thrusting one's hand up his trouser leg, however unobtrusively done.... But there are some nice coups, as when that fine-tuned sense of touch detects the groove in a wooden ruler where the highly sinister and significant measurement of four and seven-eighths inches has been marked by a villainous fingernail.

It's fun to chart the progress of Carrados's reading ability. The key to this is of course the impression made by the type on the paper in those pre-photolitho days. Initially we find him reading newspaper headlines. By and by it emerges that he can finger-read the small print too, "though not with the same facility"; in subsequent stories he extends his range to handwriting and, most absurdly, the print on playing cards. Introducing Best Max Carrados Detective Stories (Dover, 1972), E.F.Bleiler not unjustly called him "a blind man who can see perfectly well."

In similar vein, our hero unseeingly penetrates disguises, detecting false moustaches at five yards' range by the pong of spirit gum; smells the anaesthetic from a drugged posy placed momentarily on the ground, out in the open, two weeks previously; and with sensitive fingers observes not merely that an "ancient" coin is forged but that the forgery carries the unmistakable stylistic marks of Pietro Stelli of Padua.

Genuine erudition creeps in whenever the story turns on numismatics: Carrados is a coin collector and his creator's major work of nonfiction was A Guide to the Varieties and Rarity of English Copper Coins: Charles II-Victoria (1929). Elsewhere, the inside knowledge tends to be bluff. Bramah sometimes affronted the purists by simply making up new instant anaesthetics, mushroom poisons, or explosives. A "24lb. thorite shell" sounds nice and thunderous, but unfortunately thorite exists and is merely the inert silicate of thorium.

Some of the charm of these stories lies in the less magical uses of Carrados's blindness. It's vaguely pleasing when, as so often happens, his skills lead to his being taken for a sighted man until the moment of revelation. It's a useful disability, too: a blind investigator has the perfect excuse for wandering "accidentally" into private gardens, blundering into darkrooms, and the like – and when the lights go out he has the upper hand at once. A typically neat point is simply that Carrados does not hold playing-cards up to "read" them, and thus defeats the piquet-playing automaton of an ingenious though ultimately pathetic con-man.

In the better tales, Bramah improves on fairly standard situations by doing a little more work than necessary and adding his own quirky, often humorous twist. The elaborate robbery of an impregnable safe-deposit ends in sheer farce with a Wodehouse-like reform of the burglar, thanks to the uplifting ministry of the Salvation Army. The benevolent kidnapping in the famous "Disappearance of Marie Severe" rebounds as a deplorable but luscious attack on the dottier excesses of early Christian Science. On a darker note, "The Tragedy of Brookbend Cottage" has Carrados penetrating and foiling a clever electrical murder-plan ... but, with a touch of human insight rare in crime fiction of that era, even his success destroys the intended victim.

On rare occasions, and to the annoyance of later crime-fiction purists, the solution might be supernatural: Carrados is involved in one peculiar case where sinister emanations from a plague pit travel along the power-lines to emerge from a wall socket, and another where a good-luck charm that actually seems to work is identified by him as a nail from the True Cross. Bramah wasn't afraid to think big; another audacious and much more successful narrative deals with a scheme to steal Shakespeare's bones and ship them to America.

Lastly, one of the espionage plots anticipates a great deal that was to follow in fiction several decades later, with its political cover-up (for the sake of entente) of the awkward fact that the "enemy" spy is in fact from our ostensible ally France. Carrados himself offers the mature suggestion that it's only sensible for allies to keep track of each other's defence plans, although in this case the unearthed English secret documents might not be very worthwhile:

Mr Carrados looked extremely mysterious and half-reluctant for a moment. Then he spoke: "Do you know, Louis, of any great secret military camp where a surprise fleet of dirigibles and flying machines of a new and terrible kind is being formed by a far-seeing Government as a reserve against the day of Armageddon?"

"No," admitted Mr Carlyle....

"Nor do I."

Is Ernest Bramah's writing now sliding into complete oblivion? All his actual novels are already forgotten, including two not yet mentioned. The Mirror of Kong Ho (1905) looks suspiciously like an attempt to make something more commercial of his favourite style by transplanting it, via a wordy Chinese visitor, to London: the good passages are separated by too many long and euphemistic descriptions of Western doings unsuited to the idiom, while Kong Ho with his endless comic naivety may get the best of most situations but is nevertheless treated rather too patronizingly. The SF What Might Have Been alias The Secret of the League (1907) features individual mechanical wings for all – "Hastings permitted mixed flying. It was a question that had embittered many a town council" – and a very Edwardian-Tory vision of the middle classes boldly going on strike against the loathed workers.

It's an unfortunate paradox that Bramah's finest and most original works, the three major Kai Lung collections (assembled as The Kai Lung Omnibus in 1936 and excerpted as The Celestial Omnibus in 1963), don't fit all that well into modern publishing categories. Two volumes were released as genre fantasy in the 1970s, but on the whole it seems that the fantasy market prefers big questing blockbusters and distrusts irony. (The same American series, Lin Carter's "Ballantine Adult Fantasy", included several of James Branch Cabell's almost equally ornate, ironic and distrusted works.) The Wallet was paperbacked as a "twentieth century classic" in the 1980s, and duly remaindered under the same label. A better category might be "humour", but elaborate prose which requires attention and never breaks into overt belly-laughs does not sit well on the humour shelves between such sophisticated modern mirth-makers as Wicked Willie and 101 Uses For a Dead Yuppie.

Three boos, by the way, to Frank Muir for failing to include even a snippet from these stories in his otherwise dreadfully exhaustive The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose.

Conversely, we can surely expect some further interest in the more obviously dated but easily categorized detective stories. Max Carrados would seem ideal for one of those lush period TV series with a plethora of shiny old cars: his blindness could readily become a trademark as notable as Poirot's moustaches or the monocle of Lord Peter Wimsey – another quoter of Kai Lung, incidentally.

Next year might see a small revival. I remember the early-80s lull in G.K.Chesterton reissues, before the free-for-all when copyright on his works expired in 1986. If my dates are correct, Kai Lung and Max Carrados enter the public domain in 1992. Are any publishers listening?

Footnote: discerning readers (of jewel-like intellect) will have noted that changes in European copyright law took Chesterton's works out of the public domain again. The extended post-mortem copyright period of 70 years leaves Chesterton protected up to 2006 and Bramah to 2012. Tra la.