TAC Mystery Fiction Correspondent Mary Reed reviews a classic novel by English suspense writer "Sapper," now available for free online through Project Gutenberg Australia.

Author H. C. McNeile, aka "Sapper"H. C. McNeile, aka "Sapper," is one of the most popular and most reviled of mystery-suspense writers.

Writing largely between the two World Wars, the former British military man brought an American-style hardboiled approach to British fiction with his popular character Bulldog Drummond, a wealthy, intrepid, honorable former military officer. The Drummond tales combined suspense, espionage, and detection, rather after the fashion of Leslie Charteris’s Saint stories. The character also appeared in the movies and on television and radio.

Sapper also wrote straight detective novels, one of which is Ronald Standish, the item currently under review.

Sapper’s books sold very well indeed, and readers enjoyed them immensely, but literary critics of later decades, especially since the 1960s, have criticized his books as representing an obsolete, politically damaging, and personally vile point of view—for the narratives frankly demonstrate that different types of people behave differently. This is a reality that contemporary thought (if it can be honored with that designation) would like to deny and ignore, consigning it to the ash heap through force of career destruction of those who dare to speak it.

Hence, reading books such as those by Sapper is a dangerous act and should be undertaken only by the bold. I recommend that you do so immediately.—STK

Ronald Standish aka Ask for Ronald Standish, by Herman Cyril McNeile, aka Sapper

Reviewed by Mary Reed

About author Sapper:

British author Herman Cyril McNeile was awarded the Military Cross during his WWI service with the Royal Engineers, retiring after the war with the rank of lieutenant colonel. The Corps’ nickname (from their work at "sapping," or tunneling) is the Sappers, from which he derived his pseudonym, Sapper.

His best-known character is Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond, a wealthy ex officer who found postwar life so boring that he became a private detective. Drummond was of the hardboiled school, not to say thuggish on occasion, whereas Ronald Standish is formed in the Holmesian mold, solving cases by intellect and a good memory, although quite capable of protecting himself if necessary.

Screen image from Bulldog Drummond at Bay movie

For me, a particularly charming aspect of mystery-suspense fiction of this period is that many are largely set in an upper-crust milieu with certain expectations of men and women in various walks of life, a time with an unspoken code of honour, when men were expected to be clean and decent in thought and deed, and everyone knew their place in the social order, even if the servants were always the first to be suspected and the working class were not featured prominently, and when they were, were often shown to be criminal.

Perhaps the society of the time, as depicted in these novels—with its calling cards, changing for dinner, cigars and brandy at the club, and so on—never actually existed, but when those who love such mysteries settle down to read one, they do so with the comfortable feeling that this is a world, in great contrast with the chaos of modern times, where order will be restored and justice ultimately prevail.

In Ronald Standish, an entertaining work, the narrator, Standish’s friend Bob Miller, relates several investigations undertaken by Standish.

"The Missing Chaurffer" works for the Duke of Dorset and has done a bunk the week before Grand Duke Sergius of Russia is due to stay for a few days. A letter written in blood arrives….

Love’s young dream is thwarted by lack of cash, and when a valuable tiara is stolen, only the suspect’s beloved believes him innocent. It takes "A Matter of Tar" to show who was really responsible for the theft and associated assault.

Standish is consulted about a letter his client’s uncle received instructing certain papers be left in a specified place. Not long afterwards the uncle fell to his death, and his son came into the estate The son is sent an identical communication, and in turns dies. What will "The Third Message" say?

An extremely unpopular village resident is found murdered, and nobody mourns him. It looks bad for the man with more than one reason for a grudge against the departed. "The Second Dog" provides the clue clinching the solution to a case of revenge.

A blackmailing cur is brought to book by "The Man with Samples," in a story getting my vote for the best in the collection, not least because of the method used to catch him, which neatly sidesteps a situation in which, as is usual with blackmail, the miscreant’s victims are very reluctant to involve the police.

An obnoxious landowner is found drowned in "The Tidal River," and a young man is brought to trial on charges of murdering him in what appears to be an open and shut case. But Standish casts his line out for other fish.

An etext of Ronald Standish is avalailabe at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0607761.txt.