Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Full of Surprises So Varied and Extreme That They Make the Ordinary Flow of Descriptive English Look Rather Foolish"

By Louis Joseph Vance (1879-1933).
A. L. Burt.
1914. 315 pages.
A TV series was based on the character (IMDb).
The Lone Wolf: A Melodrama is Louis Joseph Vance's origin story for the character that made his writing career lucrative indeed. From three contemporary reviews, more or less:
[Full review] That very active and versatile and still young performer, Mr. Louis Joseph Vance, has, after his single excursion into realism, returned whole-heartedly, or least high-spiritedly, to that land of romantic adventure in which he has made himself a popular guide. Up to this time he has written, according to his own classification, one novel, eight romances, and three extravaganzas.
The subtitle of his new story seems to knock at the door of a fourth category. He uses the word melodrama, we suppose, not to belittle his work, but to place it. A melodrama is a deliberately conventional form of moral romance. Character in black and white, atmosphere in cloud and flame, action vainly struggling with the mandates of poetic justice—these are chief requirements.
It is now recognized that much skill is needed to employ this form at its best. Mr. Vance's story is really too slight to fit the term. It differs little from several of the earlier tales which he calls romances. Its general tone is of adventurous comedy. Its chief claim upon the august name of melodrama would lie in the conversion of the hero and the confusion of the villain and his accomplices, and an attempted infusion of serious "heart interest." The hero, to be sure, would have been disqualified as such in old-fashioned melodrama, by his profession; but we have got beyond the point of expecting heroism to set out from virtue. Many recent plays of the kind (for example, "The Master Mind," which has recently scored so marked a success) adopt the crook frankly as a new type of hero.
"The Lone Wolf" is understood to be the greatest and most mysterious member of the under-world. He operates in both continents, where his methods are recognized, but his identity remains unknown even to members of his own profession. He has magical skill in operating safes without cracking them.
The real beginning of the action finds him returned to Paris from a sensational coup in London which has put him in possession of some famous jewels belonging to a Parisienne. Scotland Yard is in pursuit; and at the same moment "the Pack," an organization of criminals more properly known as the "International Underworld Limited," identifies him as "the Lone Wolf," and attempts to force him to membership in their order.
The adventures that follow are neither more nor less plausible than is necessary in this kind of fiction. A great many thrillingly absurd things happen in rapid succession. A certain novelty lies in their happening after the "Lone Wolf," having met a girl, determines to reform. She is nurse to the consumptive Bannon, arch-villain, and the leader of "the Pack." Not until the end do we discover that [SPOILERS DELETED].
. . . The fatal weakness of the tale as melodrama is that this gentleman of crime and mystery is from the outset simply that good-humored and athletic and harmless young gentleman who has figured as hero in so many of Mr. Vance's yarns. — "Current Fiction," THE NATION (October 29, 1914; go to page 525, top left)
[Full review] Mr. Louis Joseph Vance would probably be the last person in the world to take offence at the implication that his stories are not to be taken too seriously. Indeed, it does no harm to confess that because his latest volume, The Lone Wolf, was approached in a mood of relaxation, it gave the reviewer a few hours of very genuine enjoyment.
To be frank, The Lone Wolf is a quite preposterous story set in a circumstantially accurate environment—that is to say, accurate in the sense that whether drawn from life or from imagination every inch of the background has been minutely visualised.
The hero of the title role is a waif who, on a certain stormy night, was flung as unceremoniously as one might fling a half drowned kitten—into Troyon's, a famous old, tumble-down, rickety labyrinth of a hotel—famous, even though "Badeker knew it not." It was here, as unpaid drudge and omnibus, that the wretched lad acquired, little by little, his craftiness, his dexterity, his unrivalled nimbleness in pilfering. Neither windows nor doors could shut him in; and soon he was a familiar and much respected personage in the lower circles of the Apaches of Paris.
And when in the course of time a really big thief, an Irishman by the name of Bourke, happens to find his way to Troyon's as a guest, and catches our hero in the act of purloining a ten franc gold piece, he takes the lad as an apprentice and incidentally gives him a lasting bit of advice, namely, to form no friendships: "It is the only safety for a thief, no friendships, and above all no women, no girls. That is the penalty which a successful thief must pay. The lonesome road has its drawbacks, lad—it's damn lonesome!"
Such is the opening of Mr. Vance's story, the substance of which deals with the history of the lad who chooses to become a Lone Wolf, and his adventures both before and after the time when he disobeys the warning against making friends with a woman, are full of surprises so varied and extreme that they make the ordinary flow of descriptive English look rather foolish.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if in an idle hour you want simply to be amused with a tale of extravagant adventure, that does not suddenly jolt you out of your pleasant dream by an awkward blunder a break in the pleasant continuity of conviction, you will get about what you really want in The Lone Wolf— Frederic Taber Cooper, "Some Novels of the Month," THE BOOKMAN (November 1914; go to page 311, top left)
[Full review of the 1929 reissue] The original glamour is not quite there when, after fifteen years, we reread "The Lone Wolf." Mr. Vance's story is a trifle dated; for all its vigor it is not really of our time. It is often vivid, often ingenious, but it is not good enough to be considered a classic of the literature of crime.
Furthermore, the criminal as protagonist never seems to make for the best story and the most satisfactory dénouement. The detective as protagonist is, apparently, the most effective way of portraying conventional crime. Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Thorndyke, Father Brown, Philo Vance—all these stand a better chance than "The Lone Wolf" of being remembered twenty-five years from now. — "The New Books," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (August 17, 1929; go to page 64, left middle)
- There's a THRILLING DETECTIVE article about The Lone Wolf HERE.
- Two Wikipedia articles about Louis Joseph Vance and his fictional detective are HERE and HERE.
- Previous ONTOS encounters with Vance are HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

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