From start to finish in three tedious hours

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Unbearably long, lots of explosions, plot thinner than a randy nun’s knickers.

No.

Deadpool.

Deadpool is some sort of mercenary, either intimidating people or shagging his hot girlfriend (or she shags him; either’s good in Deadpool’s world). Unfortunately, Deadpool gets cancer and is offered a cure which will alter him physically, turning his lovely smooth skin into an approximation of a pink-coloured lunar surface and rendering him immortal. The treatment is horrible, but Deadpool eventually escapes to hunt down Frances, the man who turned him into a mutant.

There’s a big fight at the end set on a derelict aircraft carrier and with the help of a couple of cut-price X-Men, Deadpool takes out Frances and his minions.

By dint of being different, Deadpool is, to a degree, a bit more entertaining than the usual Bowdlerised superhero films. It’s not as metrosexual as the Guardian hacks gushed because it’s a parody. The girl-on-boy action is part of the mockery; so, too, when Deadpool gets shot up the bottom.

Entertaining, rather silly, and not for everyone.

Interstellar.

The Earth is dying. Well, American farmlands are dying. NASA, working in secret, has sent astronauts on a one-way mission through some wormhole that has appeared near Saturn. Cooper, an ex-NASA rocket jockey, finds his way to NASA’s secret base where Michael Caine instantly appoints him to the expedition to go in search of the pioneering astronauts on the other side of the wormhole. When the expedition arrives, they find that the whole thing has been a failure, and that Matt Damon has gone mad and causes part of the expedition’s mother ship to be destroyed. Cooper uses a local black hole to try and slingshot himself to safety, but ends up behind the bookcase in his daughter’s bedroom, trying to send her messages. Somehow he’s rescued and wakes up inside a Dyson torus.

The other half of the film is about what’s been happening on Earth while Cooper is in space. His bad-tempered teenage daughter grows up to be a bad-tempered teenage woman who hates her father for abandoning her, but ends up working for NASA and working out that Michael Caine had already solved the gravity equation, only lacking one vital piece of information, viz. what happens beyond the event horizon of a black hole.

By that stage, the audience has ceased to care about this rambling, baffling film, which seems to be a metaphor for something entirely different. Something about fathers and daughters? Oh, who bloody well cares? Lacks adequate explanatory power.

The Revenant.

A group of hunters is attacked by the Ree, who are searching for the chief’s daughter, Powaqa. The survivors start making the trek by river and overland to Fort Kiowa. On the way there, their guide, Hugh Glass, is badly mauled by a bear. When it becomes clear that the rest of the hunters cannot haul him all the way to safety, he is left behind with his son, Hawk, Hawk’s mate, Bridger, and the villainous Fitzgerald, who kills the former, tries to kill Glass, and intimidates Bridger.

In spite of his horrific injuries, and encounters with the Ree and the French (also, the man seems strangely immune to being thrown into ice-cold rivers where he ought to be dying of exposure), Glass is eventually rescued and Fitzgerald’s crimes are exposed. Even after all he’s been through, Glass insists on pursuing Fitzgerald and eventually leaves him to the tender mercies of the Ree.

The Revenant is an intense film, but drags on and on and on (which seems to be a common feature of all the films which I’ve watched recently). By the time Glass fights Fitzgerald, the whole plot has outstayed its welcome and the final battle descends into bathos with the two men crawling across the snow.

The cinematography is gorgeous, though, and the wintry American wilderness has never looked so nice.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

A considered survey of the parts of this film would almost certainly end up with it being reduced by an hour to an hour and a half with the removal of all the tedious bloat. By asking the questions “Where did the First Order come from?” and “How can the rebels be the rebels if they restored the Republic, and just who is the government?”, the film almost entirely vanishes.

The main storyline is that a BB8 droid has the final piece of a map leading to the location of Luke Skywalker, who appears to have disappeared after Kylo Ren, the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, turned to the Dark Side just as his granddad, Anakin Skywalker did under the tutelage of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The droid eventually reaches the rebels, who also have to see off Death Star++. Han Solo leads the away team, tries to get his son to return to the family fold, and gets skewered on a light sabre for his pains.

Meanwhile, Rey, some random girl from Jakku, goes and finds Luke Skywalker.

Not boring, but definitely flabby and full of holes.

X-Men: Apocalypse.

Terry, the first mutant, who was a bit of a bastard, is raised from suspended animation by some chanting Egyptians. How does that work? (Oh, and I’m calling him Terry because he doesn’t appear to have a name.) He goes in search of the biggest bastards among the mutants of the 1980s, including Magneto. Only the X-Men can save the world.

Actually, only Jean Grey can save the world because she seems to be the only mutant powerful enough to taking down the power-sucking Terry, which begs the question why she wasn’t brought into play sooner, thus sparing the audience considerable amounts of suffering.

Anno Dracula

By Kim Newman.

Anno Dracula is based on what might’ve happened if Dracula had defeated Van Helsing and his merry band, and had then turned Queen Victoria into a vampire. In this world, some people prefer to remain human (or “warm” as they’re called) while others, typically social climbers, are keen to become vampires. The vampires themselves are split between the elders such as Dracula and his bodyguards, and the newborns. At the same time, being a vampire doesn’t always convey fame and fortune, and a lot of vampires live in grinding poverty. In additional, those vampires who are descended (so to speak) from Dracula can have various birth defects.

The action centres around the activities of Jack the Ripper, who specifically targets new-born vampires. The killer is John Seward (one of the characters from Dracula), who was unhinged by the death of Lucy Westenra. (No, this isn’t a spoiler because Seward is revealed to be the Ripper very early on.)

Charles Beauregard is employed by the shadowy Diogenes Club to investigate the murders. During the course of his investigation, he falls in with Genèvieve Dieudonné, an elder vampire who even predates Dracula himself.

Their investigation reveals the killer, and enables Beauregard to enter the presence of the bloated Dracula himself, the intention of the Diogenes Club being to bring him down, though not in the way the reader might predict.

The book is essentially another take on the League of Gentlemen and similar tales. The cast isn’t entirely a mixture of characters of fictional and real historical people, but it is a who’s-who of certain sorts of Victorian literature.

While I like the underlying idea, I generally wasn’t much interested in the Seward chapters, and there were episodes in the story (e.g. Genèvieve being pursued by the Chinese vampire assassin) which seemed to serve no real purpose. The episode with Lily, the little girl who has been turned and dies trying to shape shift, is never resolved. Genèvieve may promise to track down the vampire who is responsible, but nothing happens.

The language is also repetitious. Where “warm” (i.e., human) might’ve added to the colour by being used now and then, it got too much airtime; and “newborn” was the same, being overused without any explanation as to when a newborn vampire might become an “adolescent”. Newman did have Lord Godalming take the next steps in his development, but the rest of the newborns seemed to be a a bunch of idiots, constantly getting caught out in the sun.

The ending was somewhat abrupt. When Beauregard uncovered who the Ripper was, it seemed there was a substantial amount of book left, but the visit to Buckingham Palace, and the confrontation with Dracula were relatively brief things, which were somewhat glibly cleared up, still leaving quite a lot of book.

The remainder, which could be safely ignored, was Newman explaining various references, listing the copious number of people who had read the manuscript, a short story, and an article he wrote for a magazine. He seems to be rather keen on explaining himself, but ought to start a Facebook group to cover this material for the fans. The appendices didn’t really add anything to the experience.

I liked the conceit that John Seward had gone stark raving mad and was Jack the Ripper, but the real reason for Beauregard to solve the crime and gain admittance to Buckingham Palace was less satisfying. The Diogenes Club, which was allegedly some powerful secret organisation, seemed to be quite widely known, and yet remained apparently immune to the attentions of Dracula.

Anno Dracula is not a bad story, but the style sometimes irks.

Vanity Fair

By William Makepeace Thackeray.

Vanity Fair follows the fortunes and adventures of Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp after they leave Miss Pinkerton’s academy, where Amelia has been universally loved and Becky almost universally ignored because of her low birth.

In spite of her father’s bankruptcy, George Osborne (no, not the modern-day, loathsome oik) married her anyway, much to the anger of his father. He marches off to Waterloo, never to return, while Amelia remains faithful to him after his death; their son, Georgy, who is the spitting image of his father, also keeps the man’s memory alive. She clings to the boy, but her straitened financial circumstances mean that she has to hand him over to his generally odious grandfather, John, who instills less creditable virtues in the boy.

Becky, meanwhile, ends up working as a governess for the Crawley family, receives a proposal from Sir Pitt Crawley (the Elder), but marries Rawdon Crawley, which does him out of an inheritance from his aunt and leaves them living on nothing but credit. They, too, have a child (Rawdon; one of Thackeray’s irritating habits is to give the children the same names as their fathers; as well as the original Sir Pitt Crawley, there is his son, also called Pitt), but unlike the clingy Amelia, she loathes the child, and is often caught out when she can’t remember anything about him. She also despises her husband who does having some paternal affection for the child.

Rawdon and Becky eventually separate after he walks in on her and Lord Steyne, who has her dupe, to some degree knowingly. Rawdon becomes governor of Coventry Island and eventually dies of yellow fever.

Becky and Amelia’s fortunes are reversed as the latter comes into money and improves her social position as a consequence, while the former, penniless, ducks and dives her way across Europe until she ends up in garret in Germany and is rescued by the kind-hearted Amelia in spite of Major Dobbin’s warnings.

He was friends with George Osborne at school, and arranged his marriage to Amelia even though he himself was in love with her and continued to be so until she saved Becky. At that point, Dobbin declared that Amelia was not worthy of his love, and it was only then that she realised what a terrible mistake she had made. Indeed, Becky redeemed herself by talking some sense into her painfully innocent friend, and Amelia, now clinging to Dobbin, finally marries him.

Becky goes off with Amelia’s vain, rotund brother, Joseph (Jos), who worked as an official in India, but had fled in terror from Waterloo. He returned to India, ignoring his family, and having returned to England, he prefers to indulge his appetite on the road home to London, filling his face at every inn on the way. Having been rescued from Becky early in the novel, he ends up in her clutches and eventually dies in Aix-la-Chapelle.

Thackeray called Vanity Fair a novel without a hero. Neither Amelia nor Becky are admirable. Amelia is the very model of a martyr-like female character, who idolises her husband even though he was going to abandon her in favour of Becky, and who clings just as damagingly to her son, damagingly for both of them. Even at the end, when Dobbin, the only decent character in the whole story, finally marries Amelia, Thackeray implies that her limpet-like attachment to him will be a continuation of her unhealthy obsession with the object of her desire.

Becky is sly, but her charms only really work on men, minor female characters in the story not being deceived by her. She often, though, emerges triumphant from her encounters by ingratiating herself with her opponents. However, this is not without some cost such as Lady Southdown’s unpalatable medicinal ministrations and her tedious pamphlets.

Unlike stories about tricksters where the greater villain is outwitted, Becky is generally the greater villain, although the reader doesn’t mind that she fleeces Lord Steyne, and may only feel a slight amount of disquiet when his man threatens her with fatal consequences if she doesn’t leave Rome while his lordship is there.

It is only at the end of the book that either of them do something decent. Becky bluntly tells Amelia the truth about her late husband; Amelia marries Dobbin after recognising how badly she treated him. But Becky continues to lie, cheat and steal her way around Europe while Amelia finds someone new to smother.

Vanity Fair was originally a serial publication across 1847-48, and perhaps, if it could be read in the same fashion (in facsimile?), it might make the book seem less rambling as Thackeray turns moral essayist, trying the reader’s patience at times.

The novel ends somewhat abruptly having (so the notes say) been extended beyond the original endpoint (the Eothen chapter) as if Thackeray needed to wrap things up without worrying about the denouement too much. But perhaps the implicit message is that Vanity Fair is the way of the world, and neither Amelia nor Becky will ever really change.

China’s memory manipulators | Ian Johnson

seThe Long Read: The country’s rulers do not just suppress history, they recreate it to serve the present. They know that, in a communist state, change often starts when the past is challenged

Source: China’s memory manipulators | Ian Johnson

In November of 2002, my colleague and I went to Xi’an one weekend. At the time, the walls of the ancient city were being rebuilt, but there was a gap or perhaps about a kilometre left. There were large plaques up on the new walls proclaiming that the money for rebuilding the walls had come from UNESCO (I think; I can’t recall exactly). I realised in fairly short order that there’s very little in China which is more than about twenty-five years old. There may have been a temple on some site for 1,400 years, but the current incarnation is probably a recent “fake” built during the current dynasty. 大钟寺 in Beijing was being renovated when I visited it ten years ago, but how much of the building or the site was original beyond its boundaries, I can’t say.

Such places end up being little more than museums; a bit more than a building where relics are on display, but still little more than museums. I assume that most cathedrals in Europe, even if they are mainly modern tourist traps, are more than just the remains of history and are still functioning buildings. Of course some, such as Yonghe Gong (雍和宫) in Beijing are still in use; elsewhere, such as Fuzhou, where there are a lot of temples, they appear to be largely neglected.

One of the things I’ve also noted about my pupils in China is their ignorance of history, their knowledge of which, as far as I can tell, rarely goes beyond 1911, apart from key events in the 19th century such as the Opium Wars, which serve a nationalist agenda as a shorthand for something the wicked foreigners did to the Chinese Empire and something to distract people from the truth. My own knowledge of Chinese history may not be that detailed, but it seems to be more extensive than your average Chinese schoolchild, and although I’m not overlooking potential bias, my knowledge of the subject is at least not filtered through the grimy lenses of the Party’s self-serving view of history.

“Modern” China seems to be at about the level of Tudor England when Tudors usurped the throne (“It was empty, so I sat in it,” said Henry Tudor. “That makes me Henry VII”) with no legitimate claim to the kingdom, but plenty of propaganda behind them throughout their short-lived dynasty.

Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë

Having been orphaned at a young age, Jane Eyre has been raised by her wicked aunt, Sarah Reed, in the company of her ugly cousins. No matter how much Eyre tries, she can never please her aunt, who eventually packs her off to school after Eyre rebels against Mrs Reed.

Lowood school is run by the parsimonious Mr Brocklehurst, who maximises profits and minimises nutrition until typhus devastates the place, leading to the reform of the institution. Helen Burns, who accepts all the unjustified criticism which is levelled at her, duly succumbs like the good Christian martyr she is.

Eyre thrives in the school and eventually becomes a teacher before seeking a position elsewhere as a governess. She goes to Thornfield, the house owned by the well-built but ugly Mr Rochester, where she tutors Adèle Varens, the bastard daughter of one of Rochester’s mistresses. The house is the centre of local social gatherings, but it also harbours a secret which is a danger to the occupants.

Eyre duly falls in love with her master, who shares her feelings, and they’re about to get married when it’s revealed that Mr Rochester is already married to the mad Bertha Mason, the secret in the attic of Thornfield who tried to barbecue her husband and eat her brother.

Eyre flees, disappearing into the wilds of northern England where she becomes destitute and reduced briefly to begging until she’s taken in by the Rivers, a family with whom she has a remarkable affinity. In fact, anyone would think they were all related.

Oh, that’s right. They are related.

The true story eventually comes out, with Jane learning that she’s inherited £20,000, which she shares with her cousins. While the sisters Mary and Diana are personable, their brother St John is religiously cold and austere. He wants Eyre to marry him so that she can assist him in his missionary work in India, but she has no interest in following him.

No, because she’s still thinking about Mr Rochester. When she gets back to Thornfield, Eyre finds a ruin, the house having been burnt down by Bertha Mason, who fell to her death during the conflagration. Mr Rochester did not escape unscathed, having lost an eye and a hand to ensure everyone else escaped safely.

Eyre finds him in Ferndean, where they rekindle their love, get married, and live happily ever after.

Jane Eyre is a Bildungsroman, the story of Eyre’s life over a period of about ten years as she goes from being a child and dependent to a financially independent woman. Like Cinderella, she wins Prince Charming, although unlike the fairytale character, she gains financial independence as well.

Jane Eyre is a Gothic-style novel with the mystery of the mad woman in the attic, and the remoteness of Thornfield and Ferndean, and Whitcross. However, it’s not principally a Gothic novel, but the elements are present.

Jane Eyre is a romance with Eyre falling for the athletic, but unattractive Rochester, who likes his plain Jane. This contrasts with St John Rivers, who has the physique and the looks, but lacks the personality or humanity, and is too concerned with his grand plan to annoy people in India with his religious views.

Jane Eyre is semi-autobiographical, appearing to be based in large measure on Brontë’s own life from the ghastly aunt to the dreadful school to her affection for a man who did not return her feelings. (Well, the novel is semi-autobiographical.)

Jane Eyre is probably wish fulfilment because unlike Brontë, Eyre gets her man, rejecting the blandishments of Rivers in favour of returning to her true love, who is largely dependent on her because of his injuries stemming from the fire that destroyed Thornfield.

Jane Eyre is a tale of incipient penury-to-riches, and, therefore, financial independence. Although Brontë may not have liked Austen, the concerns seem to revolve around financial security for the genteel classes.

Religion also plays a significant part in the novel, but is not always portrayed positively, and for the most part, the piety seems to be about a century or so too late to be convincing in an age when, I get the impression, the populace were mostly Sunday Christians or, if they weren’t, they were regarded as slightly cracked.

There is also quite a lot of parallelism. Helen Burns is what Eyre probably ought to have been in contemporary eyes at the time – a quiescent little creature forever accepting she is at fault. The Reeds and Rivers contrast with John, Eliza and Georgiana contrasting with Mary, Diana and St John. John Reed fritters away his inheritance and eventually commits suicide, while Eliza becomes a nun, and Georgiana, who has morphed into a lardy, marries well. Mary and Diana Rivers become good friends with Eyre while St John, mirroring John Reed, wastes his life in another way.

Jane Eyre is a book of its age, being somewhat windy and turgid at times. It’s one of those books where a lot of nothing happens (which can be safely skimmed), but the reader knows when it’s worth paying attention, and when he or she can go and have a shower, come back, and find they’ve missed nothing in the interim. It also stretches credulity where it turns out that Eyre and Rochester have fancied each other all along, but the revelation is so abrupt that it lacks plausibility, and Eyre never ceases to sound like a governess. Her flight from Thornfield into destitution is also somewhat ridiculous because unless people of the period were already half-starved, they were at no risk of dying of hunger within a couple of days or even collapsing from it, but Victorian-era women did seem to have a habit of wilting at a moment’s notice.

Life and Death in Shanghai

By Nian Cheng.

Because Nian Cheng (properly, Zheng Nian) had worked for Shell in Shanghai, her house was ransacked and vandalised before she was eventually hauled off to prison where she was detained without trial in terrible conditions and frequently berated to confess to being a spy for the British. Throughout this time, she steadfastly refused to admit to some crime she’d never committed, and often pointed out how absurd the arguments and claims of her interrogators were.

After six years, Zheng was released, although because she wanted to be exonerated, she initially refused to leave prison, but had no choice in the matter. Even outside prison, she was still under surveillance from her neighbours and her student, Da De. She also discovered, as she had feared, that her daughter, Meiping, had died. Officially, the girl was supposed to have committed suicide, but this, it became clear, was a lie. She had, in fact, been murdered when the extremists were trying to force her to denounce her mother.

Her daughter’s killer only received a nominal sentence.

After the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Mao, life gradually started returning to normal, and Zheng was eventually able to leave China, first for Canada and then the US where she died at the age of 94.

Unlike Jung Chang, whose parents were part of the Party elite until they were brought down by the Cultural Revolution, Zheng was from a wealthy, privileged background, which made her a class enemy. Although life in China was different after 1949, she still had a nice house with servants and a collection of some clearly very expensive objets d’art. Even when she left prison, she still behaved very much like a 太太, partitioning off her accommodation and having a garden. Her attitude seems to have been that her case should be dealt with immediately in much the same way that people in China barge up to the counter in a bank and expect the teller to deal with them even though someone else is standing at the window.

The dialogue in the book is often a weak point. Early on when Mr Hu first turns up, he fires off a staccato outburst of unconvincing clichés. When Zheng is summoned to the first meeting for Shell’s former employees, the conversation with Chi (Ji? Qi?) has a rather stilted quality to it. The “reconstructed” dialogue works better in the interrogation scenes where Zheng can skewer the warped logic of her interrogators.

Why do Zheng’s friends, Winnie and Henry, have English names (and ridiculous ones at that) and not Chinese ones? Does cook not have a name? And Ah-yee, who is Zheng’s servant after her release from prison is, er, 阿姨 [āyí] which means “nurse; nanny; housemaid”.

At the start of the book the Cultural Revolution is meant to be new and unknown, but in one passage Zheng says “Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the number of slogans everywhere had multiplied by the thousand”, and yet this implies that it’d been in progress somewhat longer. The incident with the cat, where Fluffy leaps to Zheng’s defence against the Red Guards, is pure feline theatre.

I finished the book with a feeling of ambivalence. On the one hand, this is yet another tale of human rights abuse from China from a period the Party barely acknowledges and doesn’t want to talk about; it’s a historical document of a sort that needs to exist even if professional historians might not find it so useful; on the other hand, I never entirely warmed to Zheng or found her a sympathetic figure, and I wonder what sort of character she might have been if this book had been written by some neutral third party.

Time for a new bike?

Watch where you’re going, peasant.

I was on my way back to school from lunch, and had stopped at the junction where 香榭街 meets 人民西路 when some inattentive geriatric peasant on an electric scooter rear-ended me. It was just a nudge, but it was sufficient to break the rear mudguard of my bike.

As I correctly guessed, the service centre didn’t have a replacement mudguard for a Giant Hunter 3.0, and my thought was to replace it.

The bike still works, but the issue is the parts. I’ve replaced the drive train twice now (quite recently), which is an expensive proposition, and I’d decided that if that needed replacing again, I really would buy a new machine.

I went to the Giant bike shop nearby in the hope they might have a Hunter 3.0, but they didn’t, and they have such a plethora of bikes (which all seemed to be aimed at teenagers who are too stupid to appreciate the value of a decent set of mudguards) that I wasn’t really certain what might suit me, or what compromises I might have to make (e.g. stupid mudguards and no carrier).

I went over to the shop on 广瑞路 because I knew they’d had a Hunter 3.0, but that had gone. Sigh. I got them to use a tie to hold the remains of the mudguard in place.

When I went to the service centre, the boys didn’t have a mudguard, but they wanted to replace the rims instead. Yes, that would be cheaper than buying a new bike, but unlike the Chinese, I don’t believe in hanging onto something forever when it should’ve been retired long ago. I’ve seen a lot of bikes and electric scooters in the most dire state of repair because the owners have been too cheap to maintain them properly.

Giant no longer appears to do the sort of steel-framed bikes that I had when I first lived here, although I want something lightweight and with gears; and disc brakes. The Giant Escape is one possible replacement or the FCR 3100, although the Giant China website is coy about prices, which, I suspect, won’t be cheap. One of the Escape models appears to be carbon fibre, and the model I saw on the Giant UK website, which had mudguards and a carrier was £499. Eek! Or perhaps I’m just being cheap.

Later. I bought myself a Giant XCR 3700, which is the most expensive bike I’ve ever bought, and a bit bigger than the Hunter 3.0. It’s another bike with an aluminium frame, but this time black with orange highlights, and disc brakes (about time). The gears are a bit of a mystery, but I seem to have found about the right range for my particular tastes. The levers both hang downwards so that at the moment, I keep raising my finger to change up a gear only to waggle it ineffectively in thin air.

I had mudguards, a stand and a carrier added, although the lock is a liability because the carrier doesn’t hold it firmly in place, and it bounces and flips over if I hit any bumps, or rattles alarmingly (especially on the fake cobblestones on the lanes throughout Jinma). I don’t have an answer to that, and a bracket isn’t an option because instead of the lock being inline with the frame, it stuck out to one side, which would cause me to bash my knee against it unless I rode my bike in some ungainly, splay-legged style.

I seem to be able to push this machine along at a slightly faster pace than the old Hunter 3.0, although it seems less good at turning when I’m at speed.

Overall, I generally like the feel of the XCR 3700.

The Final Count

By H.C. “Sapper” O’Neille.

Following up work he began during World War I, John Gaunt perfects a means of delivering an utterly lethal contact poison, and before you can say “Jack Robinson”, Carl Peterson, this time in the guise of the wealthy Mr Wilmot, gets his hands on him and starts to manufacture the poison, and the antidote (well, a barrier cream which prevents the active agent from coming in contact with the skin).

Before you can say “Jack Robinson” a second time, Hugh Drummond is on the case, along with his chums, to thwart Peterson’s nefarious plan to load up a dirigible with the poison and spray the unwitting and unprotected British public.

Drummond soon discovers the safe house where Gaunt had been being held and where the man had left clue about the poison and the antidote. But the raiding party gets trapped in the cellar of the house until one of Inspector McIver’s men believes that it is his superior on the other side of the door.

Our heroes eventually find their way to the Black Mine where Peterson has been manufacturing the poison, and where it traps them for a time until Gaunt himself, already one isotope short of a chemical element, saves them, and they go after Wilmot’s dirigible.

That is the location for a very exclusive party for which Drummond already has tickets (which confirms in his mind that Wilmot is Peterson, who is trying to kill his nemesis once and for all). When the boys get on board the vessel, the rank smell of flowers later subconsciously alerts Drummond to the plot. When Wilmot asks him to give the loyal toast, he realises the poison is in the supposedly exclusive Chinese liqueur that Wilmot has had served to his guests. The poison has a particularly pungent smell which is being masked by the scent of the flowers.

Drummond shouts a warning to the guests, and then forces the poison on Peterson, who gets it spilt on his wrist. The antidote only gives him some protection before the toxin kills him.

The final volume of the Carl Peterson quartet ends with his girlfriend, Irma, appearing at Drummond’s side as he surveys the wreckage of the dirigible and claiming, as Peterson claimed at the end of the previous volumes, that this is not the end, although according to the narrator, Drummond never sees her again.

Unlike the other books in the series, this is told in the first person from the perspective of John Stockton, a friend of Robin Gaunt’s who gets caught up in the affair and becomes part of Drummond’s circle. Like other books in the series, it tends to be waffly. There are long chapters devoted to Robin Gaunt’s story whereas the conclusion to the novel is comparatively abrupt. The encounter with Peterson on board the airship and his demise is, perhaps thankfully, not recounted at unnecessary length, but it does seem to be a little anticlimactic after four novels. Somehow, of course, he had to be hoisted by his own petard and the circumstances prior to his death (i.e., a formal dinner) didn’t lend themselves to, say, a prolonged chase.

And so ends the career of the notorious supervillain, Carl Peterson.

The Third Round

By H.C. “Sapper” O’Neille.

When Professor Goodman reveals that he can create flawless diamonds for a fiver a go, Sir Raymond Blan­tyre of the Metropolitan Diamond Syndicate seeks out the Comte de Guy (aka Carl Peterson) to make sure that only the syndicate’s diamonds are forever.

Peterson sees an opportunity to enrich himself, and devises a plan to fake the professor’s death so that the man can share his secret with him. Unfortunately, without his notes, which have fallen into Hugh Drum­mond’s possession, Goodman hasn’t the faintest clue how to get the process to work.

Peterson soon has Drummond and the notes in his clutches, and persuades the professor to show him how it’s all done. Drummond feigns concussion, which in his world is like short-term brain damage, but is spared because Peterson wants him sane and sound before he kills him once and for all.

Drummond and Goodman are transferred to Peterson’s yacht, the Gadfly. The villain is going to throw his captives overboard and blow up the yacht with all hands, but, as luck would have it, Drummond manages to get a message to Toby Sinclair while Bulldog creates panic on the vessel by pretending he thinks Goodman is Peterson in disguise. This enables them to escape, and Peterson destroys the yacht soon afterwards.

Drummond reasons that his arch-enemy has headed back to Switzerland, where he confronts him and manages to force him to destroy the only remains notes which detail the professor’s formula. He then offers Peterson a sporting chance, a fight on a glacier, man-to-man. It seems that it isn’t the villain’s day because Irma appears to have abandoned him utterly.

Off to the glacier they go where the tricky Peterson deceives his nemesis by catching him off guard and scarpering.

Drummond suddenly realises that he’s been had because Irma was only pretending to abandon Peterson when, in fact, she was hinting where they should meet on the French side of the border.

The Third Round is a return to something like the original story. There are some touches of humour such as Drummond mistaking Professor Scheidstrun, who mimics Peterson’s nervous tic, for the man himself in disguise.

Peterson’s escape at the end by distracting Drummond’s attention and thumping him seemed a little weak. Of course, Peterson did have a four-book contract, and probably got most of the fan mail. But Drummond’s vague hope that he might spot Toby Sinclair on his yacht as the Gadfly passed by wasn’t much better.

Mind you, without such coincidences, where would fiction be?

The Black Gang

By H.C. “Sapper” O’Neille.

A gang of men dressed entirely in black has been going round abducting Communist agitators, and thrashing Jewish human traffickers. All extrajudicial, but perfectly all right because the victims are not the sort of chaps a chap invites to his club, or up to the country for the weekend.

When Count Zadowa chucks a bomb at the Black Gang, destroying a desk, it provokes the arrival of the mysterious leader of the agitators… Yes, yes, it’s Carl Peterson, now disguised as the Reverend Theophilus Longmoor, who had secreted some very rare diamonds in the desk, which have now come into the pos­ses­sion of the Black Gang… What? Yes, that’s Hugh Drummond and his chums.

Drummond soon encounters Longmoor, and quickly penetrates his disguise because of the man’s tic of tapping his knee with his left hand.

Drummond is drugged and an accident is arranged, but he manages to extricate himself more by luck than judgement, and he find his way to Peterson’s lair, which is surrounded by an electrified fence. He rescues Phyllis, and is about to escape himself when Peterson and Count Zadowa turn up, having recaptured her.

Peterson is about to have the pair of them murdered when the lights go out and the rest of the Black Gang come storming in.

Not surprisingly, Peterson and Irma manage to escape (again) while Drummond has a chat with his old schoolmate, Sir Bryan Johnstone of Scotland Yard, who has identified him as the leader of the Black Gang, whose days of fun and frolics are now over.

The Black Gang is somewhat darker and more violent than the first volume in the series, and Drummond and his vigilantes are disquieting, it being acceptable for the toffs to act outside the law, but not anyone else.

O’Neille restates his view that the people behind the Communist agitators were only in it for themselves, but that’s also essentially the people who benefit from Drummond’s activities, who aren’t necessarily making life better for the workers.

This is also a waffly book with little sense of an approaching climax as the writer appears to have been stretching out a fairly thin sort of plot. At one stage, wondering how much more of the book remained, I discovered I was far closer to the end than I’d imagined, with no sense that the big finale was nigh.

Drummond seems to work best where he’s a cartoon character. It would not take much to change The Black Gang into a story of tyrants and their brutal thugs abusing the rule of law and human rights instead of heroic chaps ensuring the stability of the realm.

At least this time, no one’s getting gay with anyone or anything.

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.