Monday, March 26, 2018

Miscellaneous Monday—Number Twenty-six

NOW AND THEN everybody gets a tinge of nostalgia for the good old days (even if, when
you think about it, the good old days were pretty bad). Such was the case over a hundred
years ago when literary critic, keen mystery fan, and sometime crime fiction author
Edmund Pearson waxed nostalgic for the books of his youth . . .

"Vanishing Favorites."
By Edmund Pearson (1880-1937).
From The Librarian at Play (1911; online HERE).
Chapter online at Project Gutenberg (HERE; HTML;

you might need two tries to get to that page).
Long before Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Carr, and the rest exploited to the full the character dynamic between the family servant and the bad guy (and especially the nationality of the latter), Pearson was calling our attention to how they were hoary cliches even in his day—
and having some fun doing it.
   "Along with the family ghost disappeared the faithful old family servant. He was usually a man, and he looked like E. S. Willard as Cyrus Blenkarn. He dressed in snuff-colored clothes, and he bent over, swaying from side to side like a polar-bear in a cage. He rubbed his hands. But he was very devoted to the young mistress.
E. S. Willard (left) as Cyrus Blenkarn.
   "Lor' bless yer, Sir, he knew her mother, he did, when she was only that high. Carried her in his arms when she was a little babby. But he is afraid something is going wrong with the old place. He doesn't like the looks of things, nohow.
   "With the superhuman instinct granted to servants, but denied to their superiors, he has become suspicious of the villain on sight. It is lucky that

no one believes the old servant, or they would pitch out the villain then
and there, and the story would come to an end at Chapter II.
   "The utter chaos into which villains have fallen has been a cause for regretful comment for years past. Long ago it was pointed out that villains no longer employ direct and honorable methods like murder and assault. The sum of their criminal activities is a stock-market operation that ruins the hero.
   "Things have gone from bad to worse.

  "Now you cannot tell which is the villain and which the hero. The old, simple days when the villain, as Mr. J. K. Jerome said, was immediately recognized by the fact that he smoked a cigarette, have long since passed away. Now, the villain and hero in Chapter I. have usually changed places two or three times by the end of the book.
   "Let no one think that this complaint is made because we regret losing our admiration for the hero. We never had any. He was always such a chuckle-headed ninny that you longed to throw rocks at him from the start.

   "The lamentable thing is to see the villain falling steadily away from the paths of vice and crime, and taking up with one virtuous practice after another.
   "Meanwhile, the hero is making feeble efforts at villainy, which result, of course, in complete failure. You cannot learn to be a villain at Chapter XXIV.

It is too late. Villains, like poets, are born, not made, and in the older books the faithful servant could tell you that the villain was bad from the cradle. Hereditary influence and unremitting attention to business are as necessary
in the villain trade as in any other.
   "There is one other phase of the making of villains which deserves consid-eration. That is, their nationality.
   "Once you had only to know that the man who appeared at Chapter III., twirling his moustache and making polite speeches, was a French count or a Russian prince, to be sure that on him would fall the responsible post of chief villain during the rest of the story.

   "If the novel were written in America, an English lord could be added to the list. The titled foreigner, whatever he might be, was expected to try to elope with the heroine, for the sake of her money. The hero baffled him finally, and seized the opportunity, at the moment of bafflement, to deliver a few patriotic sentences on the general superiority of republican institutions.
   "This is all changed. We have had novels and plays with virtuous, even admirable, English lords. Once or twice members of the French nobility have appeared in another capacity than that of advance agent of wickedness. It is time to call a halt, or the first thing we know someone will write a book with

a virtuous Russian prince in it.
   "The line must be drawn somewhere. The mission of Russia in English literature is to furnish tall, smooth, diabolical persons, devoted to vodka, absinthe, oppression of the peasantry, cultivation of a black beard, and general cussedness. We foresee that the novelists will soon have to draw
upon Japan for their villains. Much ought to be made of a small, oily,
smiling Oriental, who is nursing horrid plots beneath a courteous exterior.
   "At the time of the first performances of Mr. Moody's play 'The Great Divide,' it was pleasant to see that a sense of fitness in the nationality of villains had not entirely died out. It may be remembered that the first act represents an American man joining with a Mexican and a nondescript in an atrocious criminal enterprise. At least one newspaper had the sturdy patriotism to
call the dramatist to account for insinuating that an American could possibly do such a thing.
   "'Furriners,' perhaps, but Americans, never! Shame on you, Mr. Moody!"

- Off and on over the past five-and-a-half years we've come into contact with Edmund Lester Pearson's work, once in regard to Sherlock Holmes and The Mystery of Edwin Drood; see (HERE), (HERE), (HERE), and (HERE).

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