Bulldog Drummond: Book Review
Bulldog Drummond was written by ‘Sapper’ (a pseudonym of Cyril McNeile) and published in 1920 to great commercial success. It spawned a long-running franchise of novels and movies that lasted into the nineteen-sixties.
Bulldog Drummond: Logline
In nineteen-twenties Britain, a demobilised soldier advertises for ‘excitement’. Contacted by a young woman who suspects a foreign agent is blackmailing her father, he discovers a plot to instigate Bolshevik-style revolution and attempts to thwart it.
Bulldog Drummond: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers. The major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1918 and Germany has just lost the First World War. Carl Peterson gathers a group of anti-British industrialists and tells them he has a plan to bring Britain to its knees. The industrialists agree to finance the plan, if Peterson can persuade American millionaire Hiram C. Potts to join the conspiracy.
A few months later, Captain Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond advertises in The Times for ‘excitement’, having been discharged due to the end of the war, and finding himself bored by peacetime.
Drummond receives dozens of offers of employment and romance, but is particularly taken with a letter from Phyllis Benton, and arranges to meet her. He discovers she is charming, but suspects that her story that her father is being blackmailed may simply be a joke.
Drummond motors out to Phyllis’ house in Godalming to investigate further. He regards the trip as fun, either way, packing both his gun and a water pistol. During the journey, Drummond chances upon Peterson, who lives next door to Phyllis, and takes an instant, instinctive dislike to him.
That night, Drummond investigates Peterson’s house, discovers Potts being tortured by Peterson to try and get him to sign a document. He bursts in and rescues Potts. The next day Peterson visits Drummond in London and threatens him. Drummond refuses to be intimidated, so that night Peterson kidnaps both Drummond and Potts.
But when they get back to Godalming, Peterson discovers that Drummond has tricked him, disguising one of his friends as Potts. Peterson is furious, but lets Drummond go when he realises killing him will cause too many questions to be asked.
Reading in the newspaper that Potts is at the Carlton Club, which is impossible as he is in fact in Drummond’s spare room, Drummond realises there must be an impostor in league with Peterson. He confronts the impostor and tricks information about Peterson’s plot out of him.
That night, Peterson manages to drug Drummond and his cronies and capture Potts again. When Drummond comes to in the morning he vows to do whatever it takes to stop Peterson and his gang. His friends back him up and they set off for Godalming again.
There, Drummond’s friends cause a diversion while he sneaks into the grounds of the house. Peterson has a gorilla loose in the garden which attacks Drummond, who manages to kill it, but during the struggle Peterson’s men surround him. They take him inside and Drummond discovers that Peterson’s plan involves inciting a Bolshevik revolution in Britain and that there’s a meeting with Peterson’s industrialist sponsors in Paris the next day.
Peterson is going to kill Drummond, but Drummond evades the attack and ends up on the roof, where he draws attention by singing loudly. In the confusion, Potts escapes again. When the police arrive to investigate the singing, Drummond is able to leave.
The next day, Drummond’s friends hide Potts. Drummond proposes to Phyllis, is accepted, and then heads to Paris. There he manages to infiltrate one of his men into the Peterson’s meeting and discovers who the industrialists bankrolling Peterson’s upcoming revolution are. He also works out that the reason Peterson kidnapped Potts was he was refusing to join the conspiracy, putting Peterson’s plans in danger.
Back in England, Drummond decides to steal Peterson’s ledger to discover who all the conspirators are. But before he can do that he discovers that Peterson has kidnapped Phyllis…
Drummond [blackout]rushes in and one of Peterson’s gang knocks him out. He’s left tied up until the morning, when he is to be tortured to death, but tricks his guard into untying him, kills him, and then discovers his friends have come to rescue him.[/blackout]
Together [blackout]they take control of the house, round up all of Peterson’s muscle, rescue Phyllis and, after a brief diversion to kill Peterson’s jewel-thief lieutenant, blow open Peterson’s safe and retrieve the ledger that lays Peterson’s nationwide organisation of Bolshevik revolutionaries and fellow-travellers bare.[/blackout]
Peterson’s [blackout]revolutionary dupes arrive and Drummond, pretending to be Peterson’s secretary, shows them the ledger, and the cutting assessments Peterson has entered against each name, outraging them. Drummond’s gang run the would-be revolutionaries off the premises, after dunking them in the pond to teach them a lesson. When Peterson arrives, he realises the game is up and accepts his fate without a struggle.[/blackout]
In an epilogue, [blackout]Mr. and Mrs. Drummond are on honeymoon in France when they hear that Peterson has escaped from custody. Drummond welcomes the chance to pit his wits against Peterson in the future.[/blackout]
Bulldog Drummond: Analysis
Obviously, Bulldog Drummond is a novel of the 1920s and reflects the conventions and concerns of post-first-world-war Britain. These imperialist, xenophobic and sexist views are offensive to most people these days but, as I’ve noted in many of my reviews of other classics like She, The Riddle of the Sands and The Great Impersonation, allowances must be made for the views of the time if you are to enjoy the story.
Having said that, even at the time Sapper’s novels were regarded as reactionary, so if you are easily offended I wouldn’t recommend reading them.
Bulldog Drummond has a Mission plot with some mystery elements (see Spy Novel Plots).
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the Mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes).
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
The characters in Bulldog Drummond are to put it rather mildly, stereotypes.
Drummond himself is undoubtedly brave. His main solution to any problem is to wade in and give it a swift thump on the chin. And of course, it being fiction, this simple approach is enough to run rings around Peterson, the supposed ‘most dangerous man in Europe’. Drummond’s only other somewhat interesting characteristic is his supposed ‘ugliness’, though the narrator claims his smile makes up for it, and Phyllis never seems to appear repulsed by him.
Sapper characterises Peterson as a cold-blooded manipulator. Despite this ruthlessness Peterson seems helpless to stop Drummond ruining his supposedly masterful plan. Admittedly, he is hamstrung by his insistence on repeatedly capturing Drummond and then giving him a, swiftly-seized, opportunity to escape. This capture/escape plot device is quite simply overused in the novel.
Phyllis, after a brief flurry of spirit in her first scene, largely disappears as anything other than a trophy for Drummond, ceasing to have any agency, and instead simply following Drummond’s orders and occasionally murmuring in admiration of his daring.
Finally, the minor characters, Drummond’s group of friends, appear as an undifferentiated group of Hoorah Henries – loud-mouthed, arrogant and snobbish.
The writing style in Bulldog Drummond is straightforward, at best, reminiscent of E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Great Impersonation, which was published the same year.
It’s pacy, and the dialogue is somewhat witty, with both Drummond and the narrator rather droll and prone to humorous understatement, but there’s a lot of upper-class 1920s slang, which can be a bit hard to understand.
But let’s be clear, if you’re looking for a novel with literary merit you won’t find it here Bulldog Drummond is an unabashed melodramatic thriller.
The Bulldog Drummond novels were extremely popular, and very influential on a range of thriller authors.
For example, Ian Fleming acknowledged that James Bond was strongly influenced by Bulldog Drummond, though he also admitted to influence from Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, as well as his own service in the Naval Intelligence Division.
It’s true that in it’s celebration of ‘righteous’ violence (Drummond kills three men and a gorilla in the novel) and it’s unthinking reactionary politics, Bulldog Drummond is reminiscent of Spillane’s One Lonely Night.
The politics of Bulldog Drummond are the conservative politics of the time – this was the height of the First Red Scare, when after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia there was hysterical fear in Britain and the USA that the revolution might spread. Some of the concern was justified, in that there were radical elements who sought a worldwide communist revolution, but much of the anger and fear was expressed in repression, legal and illegal, employed to blunt the ‘threat’ of socialism and trade unions.
Even so, Sapper’s insertion of political speeches in Bulldog Drummond gets a bit tiring: railing against the iniquities of socialism, the evils of trade-unionism, the machinations of well-meaning but foolish agitators, and bemoaning the lack of leadership by the upper classes that has led to dissatisfaction on the part of the working man with his lot. It’s all very reactionary, and there’s no attempt to provide balance: those who don’t share Sapper’s views are simply evil (Peterson), fools (the revolutionaries), or part of a nefarious foreign plan to destroy Britain (the industrialists).
Reality: German Plots and Lenin’s ‘Sealed Train’
In 1917, during World War One, a revolution broke out in Russia, the Tsar abdicated, and a new moderate government formed. The German government seeing the advantage to them of Russia collapsing in internal turmoil, allowed Lenin to leave exile in Switzerland and cross Germany in a ‘sealed train’ (it was metaphorically sealed, not literally). They then financed Lenin to the tune of a hundred million dollars, modern equivalent, to destabilise and overthrow the moderate government. After Lenin seized power, he signed a humiliating surrender to Germany, which enabled the transfer of fifty divisions to the Western Front and very nearly facilitated a German victory.
Bulldog Drummond: My Verdict
Easy reading and pacy, but dated now. Worth a read as a curiosity more than anything.
Bulldog Drummond: Movies
There were over twenty Bulldog Drummond movies in the nineteen-twenties, thirties, forties and fifties.
There were also pair of comedy movies featuring an updated Bulldog Drummond in the nineteen-sixties.
In all honesty, I can’t recommend the movies, even as curiosities.
Want to Read It?
Bulldog Drummond is available free from Project Guttenberg here.
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