Thursday, August 28, 2014
Old Bestsellers: Cleek of Scotland Yard, by T. W. Hanshew
Cleek of Scotland Yard, by T. W. Hanshew
A review by Rich Horton
Back to a book that really is old (1914), was apparently at least something of a bestseller, and is pretty much forgotten. This is Cleek of Scotland Yard, by T. W. Hanshew.
Hanshew was an American, born in 1857 in Brooklyn, but he lived in the UK from 1892. He died in 1914. He was an actor, playing when very young with the famous Ellen Terry, but he became a writer, and a very prolific writer of early pulp fiction. Wikipedia claims he wrote some 150 novels, many as by Charlotte May Kingsley. His wife, Mary E. Hanshew, was also an author, and they apparently collaborated while he was alive, and further books and stories were published under his name or both their names for some years after his death -- they may have been finished by his wife, or written entirely by her with his name included on the byline for better sales or for some other reason. There is some evidence that their daughter, Hazel Phillips Hanshew, also an author, may have written some later books published under her parents' names, including some of the later Cleek stories.
Hanshew was well enough known in his life for his prolificity that he was identified -- apparently wrongly -- as the author of the "Dora Thorne" stories as by "Bertha Clay" -- I found an extract from a New York Times article that appeared shortly after his death claiming to have disproved this assertion.
I should add, by the way, that the most useful source for this information was the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, despite that Hanshew was at the best only marginally a writer of fantastika -- Cleek has a mild "superpower", the ability to change his looks by mental effort (supposedly, rather absurdly, because his mother played with a rubber toy while he was in the womb). This is not the first time the SFE has proved the best source of online information about a non-SF author -- it is a thoroughly wonderful resource.
Cleek was by far Hanshew's most famous character. The first Cleek book was The Man of the Forty Faces (1910), a fixup of a number of short stories. The book at hand, Cleek of Scotland Yard, reads like another fixup: it's a set of separate crime-solving episodes, linked to some extent by an encompassing plot arc. The SFE says it was published over a number of issues of Cassell's Saturday Journal as "Cleek of the Yard" in 1912 (and, I suspect, 1913, based on my edition's copyright dates: 1912, 1913, 1914). The book appeared, then, in 1914. My copy is from Doubleday and Page.
The book is illustrated, interestingly, "from photographs of the motion pictures", "by courtesy of Thomas A. Edison, Inc.". Thus I presume there were a number of films (perhaps shorts) made from the stories herein. (The photographs, and there are quite a few, do illustrate scenes from the book, always featuring the same actors as Cleek and his friend and sort of boss, Narkom.)
Update: Jess Nevins and (I presume) John Grant have pointed me to references to the Cleek films -- there were quite a few, from 1911 to 1914, all shorts, based on single episodes, presumably from both books.
(Another bit of publishing trivia: at the end their is a seal for "The Country Life Press, Garden City, NY". What is the relationship of this press to Doubleday and Page (also located in Garden City)? Is it the printers as opposed to the publisher? Update: Richard Fidczuk found a reference to the still-extant Country Life Press Railroad Station, on the Long Island Railroad. Apparently this was originally a station explicitly for the use of the Country Life Press, which was indeed part of Doubleday, presumably the place the books were printed.)
The book itself opens with a prologue featuring Scotland Yard Superintendent Maverick Narkom. Several men have been mysteriously murdered, and he hasn't a clue (or clew?) what is up, and he has no idea where his former helper Hamilton Cleek is to be found. Then comes news that Cleek's old house in Clarges Street has been dynamited, and Cleek's old enemy (and one time fellow thief), Margot, the French "Queen of the Apaches" is implicated, along with the rulers of Mauravania (a country which, as Langford and Clute write in the SFE, might as well be called Ruritania), which has become embroiled in revolution led by Count Irma, who is loyal to the former Crown Prince, once thought dead but now rumored to be alive ... All this turns out to be important in the end (and it's easy to guess why eventually), but first a chase into France to try to capture Margot ...
Not surprisingly, Cleek turns up -- he wasn't in the house after all -- but Margot escapes. The rest of the book is a series of mysteries that Cleek solves, usually by leaping to far-fetched conclusions that are invariably correct. Cleek also occasionally uses his mysterious power to disguise himself. He is also often on the run from the Mauravanian Count Waldemar, who wants revenge for Cleek having fouled up some scheme in the past.
The mysteries really are mostly a bit absurd, though sometimes amusing. Some of the weapons are curious -- I liked the secret of the projectile used to shoot someone with curare (mainly I suppose because I figured out what it was immediately). In a couple of cases Cleek realizes that no crime was actually committed. Narkom, his constant companion, is something of a buffoonish foil, though not completely so.
The mysteries are interposed with occasional scenes of Cleek preparing a house for his fiancee, the saintly Ailsa Lorne, who "redeemed" Cleek from his former life of crime. Cleek plans to marry her once he has paid back all the victims of his burglaries. But towards the end, a strange secret from Cleek's past threatens their happiness ...
As noted, it reads mostly like a fixup of separate stories, but there is enough connecting material, and something of an overarching story arc, to consider it ultimately a novel, if a bit of a broken backed mess. One issue is that we see little and learn little of Ailsa Lorne, so that Cleek's relationship with her does not affect the reader at all. I would rank it as one of the less impressive examples of "old bestsellerdom" that I've encountered.