Well, I just got back from another trip to Lanzarote, and this time I made it there! The Piracy Museum is housed in the 15th century Castillo de Santa Barbara and is a delightfully cheesy tourist trap. You get cardboard cutouts of pirates, a mock up of a ship complete with a cabin boy taking a dump, televisions playing old pirate movies, and of course a big Jolly Roger. You even get a bit of history.
NOTE: The following article was first published on February 21, 2010. Thank you to John O’Neill for agreeing to reprint these early articles, so they are archived at Black Gate which has been my home for over 5 years and 250 articles now. Thank you to Deuce Richardson without whom I never would have found my way. Minor editorial changes have been made in some cases to the original text.
Much of what has been written about Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon focuses on the novel as groundbreaking in its realistic portrayal of detective work. More in-depth literary studies tend to focus on the significance of Hammett’s shift in protagonist from the incorruptible and nameless Continental Op of his earlier work to the jaded self-portrait of the author as Sam Spade. In my view, this transition is primarily noteworthy in that Hammett’s protagonist changed from an idealized conception of the man he might have become had he remained a Pinkerton Operative (the Continental Op is based on Hammett’s boss during his stint with the Pinkerton Agency) to a more self-reflective portrayal of a man mired in moral conflict. Hammett’s own moral crisis would color his fiction from this point until he resolved his dilemma and settled into a life alternating his celebrity status with reclusiveness – a life whose one constant was Hammett’s complete lack of creative output for his remaining 27 years.
Many have speculated why Hammett’s creativity dried up when he and his muse and mistress Lillian Hellman had settled comfortably into something approaching unwedded bliss as the Nick and Nora Charles of the real world. My own opinion has been that once freed of the conflict of whether or not to walk a path of integrity or give in to the encroaching corruption that constantly assailed his world, Hammett had nothing further to draw upon for inspiration. Resolution was tantamount to becoming a spent force and Hammett was finished as a writer. The fact that he realized this dilemma was inescapable lies at the heart of both The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key in their pursuit of empty dreams incapable of satisfying the characters whose lust is so great they are willing to die for or kill in their futile quests.
We already noted in our last installment that Arthur Henry Ward had adopted the pseudonym of Sax Rohmer for his relatively successful career as a music hall songwriter and comedy sketch writer. He would later claim that he worked as a newspaper reporter during these years, but that his articles were published anonymously. Allegedly he covered waterfront crime in Limehouse, but he also claimed to have successfully managed interviews with heads of state. There is little doubt the man was a great raconteur, but none of the anonymously published articles and interviews Rohmer credits himself with writing have ever been located by researchers. It is highly questionable whether he ever actually worked as a journalist or at least to the extent he claimed. What is factual is that he did begin having works published anonymously.
As a young man, he ran with a crowd of self-styled bohemians who occupied a clubhouse on Oakmead Road in London. Each member of the gang was known by rather fanciful nicknames with Rohmer being known as Digger. Their activities ran from simply hanging around the clubhouse to picking up girls and attempting various get-rich-quick schemes to avoid making an honest living. Some of their schemes were of questionable legality.
Around this time, Rohmer decided he would fictionalize their exploits. It is believed he authored seven stories about the Oakmead Road Gang. Five manuscripts were known to have survived their author’s death: “Narky,” “Rupert,” “Digger’s Aunt,” “The Pot Hunters,” and “The Treasure Chest.” All seven stories were submitted for anonymous publication to Yes and No. It appears only the first of the group of stories ever saw print. The surviving four manuscripts passed upon the death of Rohmer’s widow to Cay Van Ash. When Van Ash died in Paris twenty years ago, Rohmer’s unpublished manuscripts were being held by a friend in Tokyo (where Van Ash lived for many years while teaching at Waseda University). When the friend had his visa rescinded on short notice in 2000, he was forced to leave his belongings behind, where they were junked by a Japanese family who thought the storage boxes contained worthless garbage.
Less than six months ago, I reviewed indie wunderkind Ansel Faraj’s 21st Century update of Dr. Mabuse. The Rondo-nominated film garnered more attention from genre fans for Faraj’s stunt casting of veterans of the 1960s Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows than it did for his faithful recreation of Expressionism in the digital age of indie filmmaking.
I won’t claim Faraj is the equal of Fritz Lang or that his Hollinsworth Productions offers the resources of UFA at its peak, but this is a young man who impresses in spite of the limitations of budget and time. There is a dreamlike quality to his work which is helped rather than hindered by the Spartan production values. One wonders just what he would be capable of rendering given studio backing.
Faraj’s latest production, Etiopomar, is the second half of his Dr. Mabuse reboot and deftly blends elements of Norbert Jacques’s original novel that Fritz Lang and his screenwriter wife Thea Von Harbou jettisoned from their 5-hour two-part adaptation of the book in 1922, while incorporating characters from Lang and Von Harbou’s Metropolis (1927). When one considers Lang’s silent masterpieces, the visionary Metropolis easily supersedes his Mabuse pictures. Metropolis is a stunning sci-fi epic that is still influential nearly 90 years on.
David Lee White is an accomplished contemporary playwright in the Tri-State area who is also a man with a fervent mission. Through his publishing imprint, Beltham House, he has brought a number of obscure works back into print after many decades. L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s The Sorceress of the Strand (1902) and The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings (1899), a pair of obscure yet influential mysteries involving Madame Blavatsky-like female criminal masterminds, are two prime examples. However, it is with Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s Fantomas crime series that White has truly made his greatest impact. It is unlikely that any American has done more for bringing Fantomas back in the public eye in the United States than Mr. White.
Beltham House has been responsible for reprinting six long out-of-print titles in the series for the first time in decades, only to have numerous copycat public domain publishers quickly throw together their own knockoff editions. Since Beltham House is published through Lulu Press and not all of their titles are readily available on Amazon.com, it is likely that most of the specialized audience for the series is not even aware that Beltham House is the one-man operation that rediscovered these lost classics of the thriller genre. White also adapted a long-lost 1920 Fantomas serial as a novelization for Black Coat Press a few years back entitled, Fantomas in America. The book was the first new Fantomas novel in nearly fifty years and its historical significance was even greater for preserving a story that was otherwise lost to the ravages of time as no extant print of the serial has yet been recovered.
So it was that I approached Beltham House’s contribution to Fantomas’s centennial last year with a degree of skepticism. I already owned the nine original books that were back in print and White’s novelization of the serial, so why would I shell out the extra money for The Collected Fantomas, an omnibus edition collecting the first seven books in the series? If I already owned the books, the omnibus could not possibly be of interest to me, right? Wrong.