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The Rim Worlds

... out on the Galactic Rim things are very iffy and if you fart really hard your're liable to blow yourself on to an Alternate Time Track.

A Bertram Chandler.






















Philosophical Gas

Durable Desperadoes

DURABLE DESPERADOES

Not so long ago I. took out from our local library a book called The Durable Desperadoes, subtitled A Critical Study of Some Enduring Heroes. It is by William Vivian Butter and is published by Macmillan. Unfortunately, from the viewpoint of the likes of us, the author confines himself to crime and secret-agent thrillers. There is no mention of the most durable desperado of them all, Tarzan of the Apes — although after Mr Farmer’s recent works no other author would dare do so much as mention Lord Greystoke.

(After reading Tarzan Lives!, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I wrote to Mr Farmer to tell him of my appreciation but, possibly, rather annoyed him by suggesting that Kipling’s Mowgli should have been swinging from one of the branches of the Greystoke family tree. I have had no reply to my letter.)

Mr Butler’s archetypal durable desperado is Robin Hood. Like the majority of his fictional successors (but was Robin Hood non-fictional?) he stole from the rich to give to the poor, no doubt making a generous deduction for operating expenses before passing on the ill-gotten gains to the deserving cases. Just as the Saint (before his emigration to the USA) had his perpetual feud with inspector Teal to keep him busy, so Robin Hood had his private war with the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Robin Hood, Raffles, Blackshirt, Norman Conquest, the Toff, the Baron, the Saint...

Mr Butler deals with them all, as well as several gentlemen who were (are?) more or less on the side of Laura Norder, although not always operating in a conventional manner, These include Bulldog Drummond, Sexton Blake, Nelson Lee and, finally, James Bond.

All in all the book is well worth reading, even if only for the account of the late John Creasey’s early struggles. What I found really fascinating, however, was the insight that it gave me into my own psychology.

My origins are proletarian. Ever since I’ve taken an interest in politics I’ve had a distinct list to port. Recent Australian political history has persuaded me to pump out the port ballast tanks, but I still have no urge to fill the starboard ones.

((In the paragraph deleted here Captain Chandler still hasn’t forgiven Gough Whitlam for his ‘childish outburst on the occasion of the Tasman Bridge disaster’, but can’t bring himself to vote for Billy Snedden, ‘and Anthony’s spiritual home is Dogpatch’. So, um, make it 1975.))

Mr Butler started reading thrillers when he was a schoolboy. So did I. He lapped up everything available. I was more discriminating. I endured Bulldog Drummond — although I was inclined to think that the Red Peril was preferable to Drummond’s smug upper-middle-class England — because there was more than a slight hint of science fiction in the stories. I put up with Nelson Lee — as well as being a detective he was a housemaster at a public school — for the same reason. Sexton Blake was relatively classless, and some of his cases verged on science fiction and, even, fantasy. I recall one with a plot based on astrology. (For real reading there was Wells, along with the rather primitive sf serials in the boys’ magazines.)

As I recall it, the Raffles novels were still available while I was at school, and Blackshirt, the first of his successors, was just making his debut. Neither Raffles nor Blackshirt made any appeal to me. They were both Gentlemen Cracksmen, and Blackshirt actually dressed in full evening regalia (but with a black shirt) for the commission of his crimes. My inverted snobbery made it impossible for me to read about the adventures of either gentleman. Besides, even at a tender age I already had a strong dislike for what I call stories by, for and about boy scouts.

The Saint I rather liked, however. He, for all his affectations, was relatively classless. He was known to stray from the Mayfair so beloved of Raffles and his uppercrust imitators. Could you imagine Raffles, Blackshirt, the Toff, the Baron or Norman Conquest having an adventure at a French nudist resort on the Mediterranean? The Saint did. Could you imagine the Gentlemen Cracksmen getting involved with giant ants, the Loch Ness Monster, or assorted goodies and baddies in someone else’s dream? Again, the Saint did.

The Toff, the Baron and Norman Conquest became available after I had left school. I tried them all. I didn’t like any of them. They were all too damned upper crust for my taste and, apart from their larcenous propensities, they were all too damned strait-laced. Most of the science fiction kicking around at that time consisted also of stories by. for and about boy.scouts — but even at its very worst it was kicking ideas around to see if they yelped.

It has been said by some critics that the James Bond stories are reeking with snobbery. This may be so, but I enjoyed them all. The snobbery is of a kind that I can appreciate, being guilty of it now and then myself — food and drink snobbery. James Bond himself is essentially classless. You don’t have to be the son of a belted earl to enjoy caviare. Len Deighton’s narrator/hero (anti-hero?) is, in spite of his proletarian origins, classless, although along the way he has picked up expensive tastes in food and drink. Callan is unashamedly lower class and rather prickly with it (although towards the end of the last tv series he was showing signs of having picked up expensive tastes). Boysie Oaks soon came to appreciate pricey booze and tucker once he was transferred from the sergeants’ mess to whichever one of the MIs it was that he infested.

I can imagine Grimes getting on quite well with my favourite durable desperadoes, but he would be sorely tempted to shove Mr Butler’s favourites out of the airlock without a spacesuit. In all fairness, I can’t imagine the Toff, the Baron, Blackshirt or Norman Conquest thinking much of Grimes either.
Originally Published in Philosophical Gas No: 51 - Jul 1980