The Ethnic Humour Prevention Act of 1932

My fondness for ancient mystery and adventure novels continues unabated, and lately I’ve been enjoying the various adventures of Cleek.

Whom?

Why, Detective Hamilton Cleek, of course, the erstwhile hero of many a Thomas Hanshew novel and story.

Cleek is mostly forgotten today, possibly thanks to, as Wikipedia so helpfully puts it:

“Hamilton Cleek is laughably unrealistic, at least to the modern reader, not only for his ability to impersonate anyone but for his physical derring-do and his frequent melodramatic encounters with Margot, “Queen of the Apaches”, and her partner-in-crime Merode.”

I’m sure the unreality, if any, has nothing to do with – despite having been written by an American, for largely American audiences, mind – taking place in London and various parts of the British Isles and even continental Europe, or at least vaguely charming caricatures thereof…

Don’t get me wrong, Hanshew was quite a skilled writer, though much of his work has aged rather badly in the last century, through no real fault of his own. Indeed, I very much admire his skills, particularly with dialogue. He had a skilled hand for conversation, I have to give him that, but he was – quite typically of the period, I might add – very much taken with the creative, charming, and not infrequently annoying phonetic representation of the world’s many and varied accents.

In his 1922 novel “The Riddle of the Spinning Wheel” (a/k/a The House of Discord), the inimitable Mr. Cleek finds himself investigating murder, untaxed whisky distilleries, and sundry other sinister things somewhere in the Scottish highlands. Many of the Scotch encountered speak perfectly decent English; a few rather more peripheral characters, however… don’t:

Cleek raised a detaining hand.
“Please don t be in any hurry,” he said pleasantly. “I’ve all day here before me. Come down to do a bit of fishin’ doncherknow. Fine sport in these parts, they tell me. And that’s Aygon Castle, is it? I know the young lady Miss Duggan slightly. Grand place it looks, to be sure.”
Mr. Fairnish raised his eyes ceilingwards. His hands followed them.
“It’s a heavenly spot indeed,” he said piously, as one might speak of some religious place of worship. “One of the grrandest in our whole country, sair. You’ll be visitin’ there, no doubt?”
“Oh, possibly. A friendly call, doncherknow. What’s the old chap like who owns it?”
Mr. Fairnish cast a hurried look on either side of him. The canny Scot showed uppermost in his visage. But the coast was clear. Only a boy of ten or twelve played at the other end of the bar with a roughly made engine of wood, dragging it to and fro over the tiled floor.
“Sair Andrew’s a harrd mon – a dour, harrd mon is Sair Andrew,” he said in a low harsh voice and with a wrinkling of face muscles which spoke volumes. “I wudner cross his path unless I could help it. Harrd sair, harrd as nails. And wi’ a grrasp on him for every penny!”

Okay, maybe that’s not so horrible. Let’s skip ahead a couple of pages:

“Like her, do ye say, sair? Like her? Show me th’ pairson in th’ whole deestrict that does and I’ll tell him he’s a liarr, if ye’ll pardon my language. There’s nought in the countryside that does like her, a black haired weecked foreigner like hersai’f, though ye’ll no repeat my worrds, I pray, or twould go harrd with Robairt Fairnish when next rrent day comes round. But never a bairnie that has ought to say that’s plaisant o’ her th’ black eyed witch wummun! An’ that’s a fact. She speaks a heathen tongue, sair, an’ I never trusts a foreigner. They re suspeeshus characters, the best o’ them.”
Cleek threw back his head and laughed laughed heartily.

If you wrote anything like that today, well, I dare say there’d be at least one or two special-interest groups in an uproar over your obviously and overtly “racist” writing. Ninety years ago, obviously, things were a bit different, though I dare say the world has not yet come to a conclusion as to whether this is a good or a bad thing.

Personally, I think it’s tolerable, even amusing, in small doses – the sort of thing that you rather miss out on when you only read contemporary novels. But it definitely makes you feel for the editors and proofreaders of yore… dunnit? 🙂

“The Riddle of the Spinning Wheel”, from 1922, isn’t the first Cleek novel, but it’s a decent enough introduction to the series – a good fast-paced adventure/mystery lacking some of the more avant-garde stuff a few of the other novels included. Courtesy of Google’s digitization efforts, you can download the book for free a an Adobe PDF file (7MB). Courtesy of Project Gutenberg, you can download it as an ePub file (202KB) for most e-readers. (The Gutenberg epub is vastly preferable to Google’s unedited, uncorrected version – but if you want that one, it’s available right here (485KB).) If you’re on the hunt for an entertaining (and free!) read, you could certainly do worse than to try it out.

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on April 7th, 2011| No Comments »

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