A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The Max Carrados stories are a perfect storm of geekiness for my inner research ferret, since they embrace Edwardian magazine stories, disability in fiction, detectives and social history. They were written by Ernest Bramah, a curious and overlooked stalwart of Edwardian popular fiction most remembered now for his response to Edwardian Sinophobia, The Wallet of Kai Lung (1900). Dorothy L Sayers completists will have already read this and its successors The Transmutation of Ling (1912), Kai Lung Unrolls his Mat (1928), The Mirror of Kong-Ho (1930) and The Return of Kai Lung (1937), since Lord Peter and Harriet Vane quote in Kai Lung style incessantly. (A sample of the splendid chapter titles is the irresistible ‘The Malignity of the Depraved Ming-Shu Rears Its Offensive Head’.) After the success of Kai Lung, Bramah the journalist and magazine writer created Max Carrados the blind detective, in 1913, the same year in which E C Bentley created Trent, the first modern fictional detective to follow police procedural lines.
However, the Max Carrados stories are desperately Holmesian, in that the Great Detective is usually to be found in his London home, attended by a faithful servant, and shadowed eagerly and gratefully by a less brilliant partner in detection. He solves crimes from random clues, and seriously specialist knowledge, often by simply sitting at his desk and thinking about the clues. His Watson is an inquiry agent, Louis Carlyle, who first encounters Carrados when he is looking for a coins expert to help him prevent a fraud. Carrados and Carlyle were, conveniently, at school together, so when Carlyle realises that the eminent numismatist to whom he has been sent is his old friend Max Wynn, now with a changed name due to an inheritance, we have a really natural, pleasant scene of Englishmen meeting again and returning easily to the chaffing relationship of their schooldays. Carrados has none of Holmes’s eccentricities, or sociopathic tendencies, so the Carrados stories are driven by human feeling than the dry desire to simply solve a crime. The first Carrados story, ‘The Coin of Dionysius’ sets up the scene nicely for a long run of detecting adventures, completely unhindered by the fact that the lead detective is blind.
His blindness was caused by lesions from a whipping tree branch, so, with the advantage of recalled sight, and money (of course), Carrados has trained his footman Parkinson to be his eyes and to use a phenomenal visual memory. Regular remarks in the stories about his ‘disability’, and characters falling into embarrassing traps of using idioms about sight, make solid statements about how blindness was thought about in Edwardian Britain. Since Bramah was a magazine man, he was probably influenced by the story of the great Edwardian magazine magnate Sir Arthur Pearson, who began to lose his sight from 1910, and who founded what would become the Royal National Institute for the Blind.
These are not great detective stories in the classical sense, since too much information is hidden from the reader, brought out with a flourish by Carrados at each dénouement, but they are fine stories of detection and puzzles. This is mostly due to Bramah’s understated but exceptionally strong writing. Bramah collector Peter Gaspar wrote that ‘Bramah gets full value from a word, so that each Carrados short story is a miniature novel with fully developed characters and plot’, and I agree with him completely. The other aspect of the Carrados stories that I enjoy so much is that they are a mirror to Edwardian London and commuter life. Written to be read on the train, the stories have settings familiar to people travelling by train without the income for chauffeurs: Surrey commuter belt, tramlines and railway stations, the difficulties of renting and getting good servants, hopes for promotion at the bank, how to prevent your inquisitive neighbour from seeing you digging for treasure at night, and how to negotiate an auction room. There are plenty of jewel robberies and thefts of valuable objects, and missing persons mysteries galore. The stories written in the 1920s don’t betray much evidence of the war that came between the first Carrados volume and its successors, but are still packed with excellent social trivia. These are great stories: do go out and find them.
For pretty much everything you need on Bramah and Carrados online, see this page.
Kate blogs about books she can’t put down at katemacdonald.net.