The Bravo of London (Max Carrados) by Ernest Bramah

Fun!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A criminal gang, led by the evil and monstrous Julian Joolby, have a plan to flood the money markets with forged banknotes. For Comrade Bronsky of Soviet Russia, this is designed to bring the financial systems of the corrupt capitalist West crashing to its knees. For Joolby and his pals, though, being, one suspects, corruptly capitalist, they just want to get rich. But before they can put their plan into action, they need to get the right paper for their banknotes from the sole paper-mill that supplies the Bank of England. They have a plan to get past the super-tight security, but they haven’t factored in Max Carrados, blind amateur detective extraordinaire, and his delightfully interfering niece, Nora.

The book starts by introducing us to Joolby and some of his gang, and I really wasn’t sure whether I’d stick with it. Joolby is evil indeed, but he also has some kind of physical disability that leads to his body being misshapen – a huge bloated upper half, perched on small weak legs. In tune with the time of writing – the book was published in 1934 – Bramah has no hesitation in mocking his physical appearance, describing him as so repulsive that people are repelled and disgusted by him. To add to this, Joolby has a Chinese assistant whose appearance and difficulties with English are also the subject of much light-hearted humour. My initial reluctance was lessened, though, once I realised that much of this was being done tongue-in-cheek, Bramah almost mocking his own mockery and stereotyping. In fact, he does later on suggest that Joolby’s wickedness may have developed in part as a response to the unkind treatment he has received from “normal” people, and Bramah redeems himself in other ways later on too, though I can’t be more specific without spoilers.

So I found the first fifty pages or so a bit of a struggle, with my own political correctness getting in the way of my sense of humour somewhat. But then the scene moves to Tapsfield, the small town which is home to the paper-mill, and the book becomes much more standard Golden Age fare – middle-class people, country cottages, tea on the lawn, a touch of romance. Max Carrados himself is too good to be true, so a hefty suspension of disbelief is required. His blindness has made all of his other senses more acute, so that he can pick up on all kinds of clues that sighted people miss. I believe he had a usual sidekick in the short stories he normally appeared in, but in this, the only novel about him, the sidekick role is taken on by his niece, Nora, feisty but feminine – a lioness when her young man is threatened.

The plot is silly but fun. In fact, fun is the most important feature of the book. I’m aware that my review hasn’t made it sound overly appealing, but that’s because I haven’t mentioned the humour. In Joolby’s world, Won Chou is the main source of comedy, and though at first it feels a bit cruel, as if we’re laughing at him, gradually it begins to feel as if actually we’re laughing with him at the other characters. Comrade Bronsky is delightfully amusing too – Bramah has a lot of fun with him at the expense of the still new communism of Russia. In Tapsfield, the maid Ophelia is comic gold – yes, I know it’s such a cliché to laugh at the lower orders, but again it’s affectionately done and she really is one of the stars of the show. And frankly, Bramah is just as wickedly funny about Ophelia’s employer, Miss Tilehurst, and her susceptibility to all things romantic.

Ernest Bramah

By about a third of the way through, I’d settled into Bramah’s style and from there on thoroughly enjoyed this romp. It’s very well written, with lots of great descriptions of the alleys and backstreets of the less salubrious areas of London contrasting with the idyllic rural scenery around Tapsfield. The baddies are bad and the goodies are good and there are one or two in between who provide a nice touch of moral ambiguity to add a little variety. If you can put aside your modern sensibilities and get into the spirit, then this is highly entertaining. After a rocky start, I ended up loving it!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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20 thoughts on “The Bravo of London (Max Carrados) by Ernest Bramah

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this, FictionFan. I know what you mean about getting used to an author’s style, and I think I’d have to do the same with this novel. It sounds as though the payoff is worth working one’s way into the book, though, and that’s the most important thing!

    • I’m more willing to keep going despite my initial reluctance after reading so many of these vintage crime books, because if I can get past the outdated attitudes it’s usually worth it. It certainly was in this one – well written fun!

  2. It’s interesting FF, how that seems to be coming up more and more in your classical reads-the political correctness of today getting in the way of enjoying what is meant to be humourous in older books. Although I rarely read classics now (damn these book publicists and their unceasing bookmail) I think I’d have the same problem as you-trying to get past my personal opinions to simply enjoy the book for what it is. It’s a great exercise, either way.

    • It’s odd and I do find it interesting, because I’m old enough to remember life before political correctness. If I’d read this back in the ’70s, I wouldn’t have had a problem with it at all, but my brain has clearly been reprogrammed! A good thing overall, but I do think we’ve become so sensitive now that it’s pretty hard for authors to be funny at all. Maybe we need to be more willing to be laughed at ourselves, so we can laugh at other people without guilt… so long as it’s all done with a kind of affection…

  3. I’m a huge fan of Bramah, and bought all his books from second hand bookshops, with the result that they are all quietly crumbling away on my shelves, so I’m glad to see them coming back into print. You might enjoy his Kai Lung books too – comic chinoiserie at its best – a sort of antithesis to Fu Manchu.

    • These Collins Crime Club books are great – they seem to be more willing than the BLCC to go for books where the attitudes are really outdated and they give a warning to that effect on the inside. It takes an effort for me to switch off my PC monitor, but it’s usually worth it…

  4. I appreciated your comment about the challenge of trying to reconcile your sense of humour with your political correctness, as it can be hard to let go of our own ideas when reading stories from different times or cultures. The characters sound as if they are caricatures but I wonder what a reader’s impression of them would have been when the story was first written. The author looks as if he saw the funny side of things too.

    • You’re right about the caricatures – thinking back, there’s something almost Dickensian about the villains in this one. I do find it a struggle with some of these vintage crime books, but usually it doesn’t feel deliberately offensive – just casual stereotyping from a then very insular country. I was thinking when I read this that I don’t think I’d ever even seen a Chinese person till I was into my thirties, so to people back then they’d have been as unreal as aliens. The mocking of Joolby’s physical deformities was harder to take, but at least Bramah acknowledged its cruelty…

  5. I agree, it is difficult when our pcness gets in the way of our sense of humour (very nicely put!) but we do have to keep reminding ourselves that this is a completely different time etc and be thank full that the times they are a changing – and what a cover!

    • I’m getting better at it since I’ve been reading so much vintage crime – you can kinda tell the ones who’re just using stereotypes from the ones who really are racist/sexist or whatever after a bit, I think. And yes indeed – they do make me realise we’ve come a long way already! The covers of these Collins Crime Clubs are brilliant… 😀

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