“‘Cleek!’ he said, in a voice that shook with nervous catches and the emotion of a soul deeply stirred, ‘Cleek to take the case? The great, the amazing, the undeceivable Cleek!’”
—T. W. Hanshew, Cleek: The Man of the Forty Faces
For old-school detective fans, times must come when Lord Peter Wimsey irritates; when Hercule Poirot comes off as an anal retentive with a weird moustache; when they even wish Sherlock Holmes would stop self-medicating his manic depression and get professional help. At moments like this I turn to Cleek. Hamilton Cleek. The Man of the Forty Faces.
Unless you’ve read Bill Pronzini’s Gun in Cheek, you’ve probably never heard of the great, the amazing, the undeceivable Hamilton Cleek. If you have, you may think this is one of those so-bad-it’s-good deals. Admittedly sort of yes. Bear with me. Cleek: The Man of the Forty Faces isn’t an obscurity dredged up by some tedious hipster for a round of smug, ironic superiority. In his own day Cleek, the creation of Thomas W. Hanshew, was an inexplicable success. Cleek spawned several novels—written by Hanshew’s wife and daughter after he died in 1914, a few years after Cleek’s debut—and at least one short silent film from the Edison company.
A lot of so-bad-they’re-supposedly-good things are turgid slogs. Not Cleek. Hanshew was a skilled workman. Cleek: The Man of the Forty Faces is snappy, reasonably fast-paced, compulsively readable… and goddamn strange. It’s like a tense nail-biting action thriller entirely starring clowns. It’s like a charismatic orator gave a stirring speech of pure LSD gibberish and the crowd went wild. It’s the most blissful thing you are likely to read in the near future. Cleek: The Man of the Forty Faces is available from Project Gutenberg. Download it. Follow along in the book. Maybe you too will come to understand the mysterious glory of Cleek.
Who is this Cleek guy, anyway?
First of all, it’s not Hamilton Cleek. It’s The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek. This is how he signs his letters.
The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek is “faultlessly dressed, faultlessly mannered, with the slim-loined form, the slim-walled nose, and the clear-cut features of the born aristocrat… His age might lie anywhere between twenty-five and thirty-five, his eyes were straight-looking and clear, his fresh, clean-shaven face was undeniably handsome, and, whatever his origin, whatever his history, there was something about him, in look, in speech, in bearing, that mutely stood sponsor for the thing called ‘birth.’”
Like all good pulp heroes, Cleek has a gimmick: the “nature-bestowed power” to morph his face, plastic-man style, into whatever shape he desires. Cleek explains that his mother “used to play with one of those curious little rubber faces which you can pinch up into all sorts of distorted countenances—you have seen the things, no doubt. She would sit for hours screaming with laughter over the droll shapes into which she squeezed the thing. Afterward, when her little son was born, he inherited the trick of that rubber face as a birthright.” Cleek’s face appears to “writhe” as it changes and it’s apparently a disturbing sight. I can’t help but imagine that it makes a sort of squishing noise. The noise you get clearing Jello out of a drain with a plunger.
Cleek grew up on the streets of Paris and ran with a bad crowd. By the time we meet him he’s hooked up with one Margot, the Queen of the Apaches. Jess Nevins’s online directory of Pulp and Adventure Heroes of the Pre-War Years (scroll down for the entry on Cleek) explains that “‘apaches’ was the Victorian-era phrase for street thugs,” which is good to know; I had been picturing Native Americans in berets and neckerchiefs. Hanshew tells us that “the cry of the Apache to his kind” is “Hola! Hola! La la! Loi!” File that away, in case you ever meet any and want to make friends.
Cleek and Margot set to to abstracting the overpriced minerals of London’s rich and famous. The authorities are helpless against his facial writhings and her diabolical Frenchness—until the night Cleek, out on a job, catches sight of beautiful twenty-year-old orphan Ailsa [sic] Lorne. Love does what the police could not: Cleek is reformed. From this moment on he must dedicate his life to one project: “to climb up to her, to win her, to be worthy of her, and to stand beside her in the light.” He’s known Ailsa for about ten seconds at this point. She just has that kind of face, I guess.
Cleek ditches Margot and makes an appointment with Superintendant Maverick Narkom of Scotland Yard. “A woman’s eyes have it the way to heaven for me,” explains Cleek. There follows this extraordinary request:
“Mr. Narkom”—he whirled and walked toward the superintendent, his hand outstretched, his eager face aglow—“Mr. Narkom, help me! Take me under your wing. Give me a start—give me a chance—give me a lift on the way up!”
“Good heaven, man, you—you don’t mean—?”
“I do—I do! So help me heaven, I do. All my life I’ve fought against the law—now let me switch over and fight with it. I’m tired of being Cleek, the thief; Cleek, the burglar. Make me Cleek, the detective, and let us work together, hand in hand, for a common cause and for the public good. Will you, Mr. Narkom? Will you?”
Narkom reacts as any law enforcement professional would: “Jove! what a detective you will make. Bully boy! Bully boy!” In a moment Cleek’s record is wiped clean, Narkom apparently having the authority to unilaterally pardon anybody for anything. Neither the press nor the public mind that the consequences of Cleek’s crimes should be a job offer. Presumably this has something to do with that thing called “birth.”
Here we see the close working relationship which springs up between Cleek and Narkom:
Cleek glanced at Narkom. It was a significant glance, and said as plainly as so many words: “What do you think of it? You said there was no motive, and, provided Carboys fell heir to something of which we know nothing as yet, here are two! If that will was destroyed, one man would, as heir-at-law, inherit; ditto the other man if it was not destroyed and not invalidated by marriage. And here’s the ‘one’ man singing the praises of the ‘other’ one!”
“Collusion?” queried Narkom’s answering look. “Perhaps,” said Cleek’s in response, “one of these two men has made away with him. The question is, which? and, also, why? when? where?”
Later, in a quiet moment, Cleek glances Narkom the unabridged text of Middlemarch.
Cleek uses his fees and rewards to make restitution to his former victims. Narkom is astonished to learn this and seems to think it’s the most noble and self-sacrificing gesture in, like, ever. Such generosity towards people who, not having that thing called “birth,” are so much less special! But Cleek knows that until he has expiated every crime he will never be worthy of Ailsa’s hand. Which seems hard on Ailsa, who in the meantime is not getting any. For now Cleek consoles himself with “that small pleasure—so often indulged in—of adopting a safe disguise, prowling about the neighbourhood where [Ailsa] lived until she should come forth upon one errand or another, and then following her, unsuspected.”
As Peter Wimsey has Bunter, as Frodo Baggins has Sam, as Mr. Burns has Smithers… so Cleek has Dollops.
Dollops is a nineteen year old cockney orphan (lots of post-adolescent orphans in this book; I think their families ditched them on purpose) at the point of starvation, unable to find work, and desperate enough to mug Ailsa. Luckily Cleek is as usual following her around. He sees something of himself in the boy and takes him on as a sort of valet.
Dollops is as instantly devoted to Cleek as Cleek was instantly devoted to Ailsa. Presumably this has something to do with that thing called “birth.” By chapter six Dollops tells Cleek, “I’d like to walk at your heels all the rest of my blessed life.” By the middle of the book… I can’t describe how things have developed by the middle of the book. Allow me a lengthy excerpt:
“Good. Then ‘phone through to Mr. Narkom and tell him that you and I are going for a few days up the river as far as Henley, and that we are going to break it on Wednesday to go to the Derby.”
“Gov’nor! Gawd’s truth, sir, you aren’t never a-goin’ to give me two sich treats as that? From now till Thursday with jist you—jist you, sir? I’ll go balmy on the crumpet—I’ll get to stickin’ straws in my bloomin’ ‘air!”
“You ‘get to’ the telephone and send that message to The Yard, if you know when you’re well off,” said Cleek, laughing. “And, after that, out with the kit bag and in with such things as we shall need; and—Hullo! what’s this thing?”
“A necktie and a rose bush wot I took the liberty of buyin’ for you, sir, bein’ as you give me ten shillin’s for myself,” said Dollops sheepishly. “I been a-keepin’ of my eye on that rose bush and that necktie for a week past, sir. I ‘ope you’ll take ‘em, Gov’nor, and not think me presumin’, sir.”
Cleek faced round and looked at him—a long look—without saying anything, then he screwed round on his heel and walked to the window.
“It is very nice and very thoughtful of you, Dollops,” he said presently, his voice a little thick, his tones a little uneven. “But don’t be silly and waste your money, my lad. Lay it by. You may need it one day. Now toddle on and get things ready for our outing.” But afterwards—when the boy had gone and he was alone in the room—he walked back to the potted rose bush and touched its buds lovingly, and stood leaning over it and saying nothing for a long time. And though the necktie that hung on its branches was a harlequin thing of red and green and violent purple, when he came to dress for that promised outing he put it on and adjusted it as tenderly, wore it as proudly as ever knight of old wore the colours of his lady.
I guess what I’m saying here is that if Edwardian England had had the internet, Cleek/Dollops slash fanfics would have accounted for at least 17.9 percent of all traffic.
The Elements of Cleek
1. A silly crime. When Superintendant Narkom has a mystery too stupid or crazy for the police, he sends a message to Clarges Street, where “Captain Burbage” lives—Cleek, for no adequately explored reason, chooses in his daily life to disguise himself as an elderly sea captain—and arranges to meet. Here is a typical problem:
“Necromancy—wizardry—fairy-lore—all the stuff and nonsense that goes to the making of ‘The Arabian Nights’!” said Narkom, waxing excited as his thoughts were thus shoved back to the amazing affair he had in hand. “All your ‘Red Crawls’ and your ‘Sacred Sons’ and your ‘Nine-fingered Skeletons’ are fools to it for wonder and mystery. Talk about witchcraft! Talk about wizards and giants and enchanters and the things that witches did in the days of Macbeth! God bless my soul, they’re nothing to it. Those were the days of magic, anyhow, so you can take it or leave it, as you like; but this—look here, Cleek, you’ve heard of a good many queer things and run foul of a good many mysteries, I’ll admit, but did you ever—in this twentieth century, when witchcraft and black magic are supposed to be as dead as Queen Anne—did you ever, my dear fellow, hear of such a marvel as a man putting on a blue leather belt that was said to have the power of rendering the wearer invisible and then forthwith melting into thin air and floating off like a cloud of pipe smoke?”
This is less impressive once you learn the man disappeared from an unlocked, unwatched room sometime over the course of several hours. On the other hand, it’s astonishing that, before luring the guy off and shooting him, the villain took the trouble to construct an elaborate shaggy dog story about a magic belt, just as though there were the remotest chance anyone other than Superintendant Narkom might be taken in.
The criminals of the Cleekverse have a code. Never just steal papers from a diplomat when you can also dress up as a creature “neither spider nor octopus, but horribly resembling both,” and scare him silly. Never poison your enemies when you can kill them with an allergic lion. If you must use poison, administer it via a six-fingered mutant skeleton or a rare South American worm or something. Anything else is bad form.
(And yet this is not as stupid as it seems. In the “golden age” of mystery, a respectable author like Dorothy Sayers could write, without embarassment, wild tales of killers electroplating their victims and decedents willing their own digestive organs to their heirs. It was an age of mad hatters and moving toyshops. Killers built Rube Goldberg deathtraps, lured housefuls of victims to deserted islands, and conspired elaborately on trains. And then at some point mystery writers decided their work had to be not just sort of plausible but downright realistic. Grit and accurate criminology and scrupulously researched investigative procedure came in, and the fun went out of the genre altogether.
For all their faults, the Cleek stories are never dull. Which is why I’m writing this essay and not an exigesis on Kinsey Millhone or V.I. Warshawski, either of whom would be so much more interesting if they faced off against the Red Crawl.)
2. An alias. Cleek almost invariably begins work under the name of “George Headland.” His reasons are unclear. He sometimes expresses concern that the mighty Cleek reputation may frighten his quarry. On the other hand, sometimes it seems more like he doesn’t feel obligated to give his name out to just anyone. He reveals himself once he’s decided, based on some whimsical criteria, that his latest client is okay:
He was evidently an Englishman, despite his Italian nom de théâtre, and Cleek decided out of hand that he liked him.
“We can shelve ‘George Headland’ in this instance, Mr. Narkom,” he said, as the superintendent led forward the pair for the purpose of introducing them, and suffered himself to be presented in the name of Cleek.
The effect of this was electrical; would, in fact, had he been a vain man, have been sufficient to gratify him to the fullest, for the girl, with a little “Oh!” of amazement, drew back and stood looking at him with a sort of awe that rounded her eyes and parted her lips, while the man leaned heavily upon the back of a convenient chair and looked and acted as one utterly overcome.
(What did I tell you about the mighty Cleek reputation? There it is. I guess it has something to do with that thing called “birth.”)
3. Weird suspects. In a world where criminals screw around with magic belts, you’d think mysteries would be easily solved: just look for the suspect who plans like he’s hopped up on goofballs. It’s not that simple. Take the great magic belt mystery. The victim’s fiance has for the past three days entirely forgotten she owns homing pigeons. “They may be dead by now,” she observes. “But at such a time I could think of nothing but this hideous mystery.” These would be the pigeons she and her fiance used to send each other love notes. You know, as is common among young people.
The victim’s roommate, an indifferent sculptor working on an abominably incompetent life-sized nymph, is unimpressed with “Mr. Headland.” He earnestly endorses the skills of the great Cleek and wishes he would take the case. Which is odd because the roommate is the killer. You’d think he wouldn’t want to give the police any bright ideas.
That’s how things go for Cleek. He has any number of idiots to choose from. And those are just the English suspects. It is a rule of the Cleekverse that the further from London, the fruitier the locals. European insanities are predictable. Scotsmen are grouchy. Germans are evil, and probably spies. The French are “apaches” working for Cleek’s ex-girlfriend Margot. This is not too sweeping a statement. In the Cleekverse, the entire gross national product of France is derived from street crime.
For the very loopiest people, look further east. Arabs often leave their fortunes to near-strangers, and at death send their coffins to their offspring to be set up in the parlor and prayed at. Buddhists worship the Buddha’s tooth. (Probably you did not know this. You never can anticipate what new fact you will learn from Hanshew. He’s a rare font of curious and forgotten lore.) When safety of their sacred tooth is threatened these Buddhists smuggle it away in the barrel of a gun; and if that gun is accidentally fired, and the tooth embeds itself in a bystander’s leg, they will thereafter reverently bow down to that person without bothering to explain why.
One thing Cleek sees a lot is the May-December romance. The woman is invariably the younger. Three turn up in The Man of the Forty Faces and even Cleek is moved to comment on the coincidence, insisting earnestly that “Young women before Mlle. Marie de Zanoni’s day have been known to love elderly men sincerely: young Mrs. Bawdrey, in the case of ‘The Nine-fingered Skeleton,’ is an example of that.” I know it’s a bad idea to look for autobiography in a writer’s work, but I would be interested to know the respective ages of Mr. and Mrs. Hanshew.
4. Hidden information. Students of the classical detective story believe readers should have all the clues they need to solve the mystery themselves. Cleek laughs at such an idea. Seriously: don’t even try to guess. As often as not, the solution will hinge on a fact about some obscure poison only Cleek knows. In one case Cleek reveals that the murder was committed via the rare Mynga Worm, a Patagonian reptile maddened by the smell of sassafrass. I’m pretty sure Hanshew just made that thing up. In another story not included in The Man of the Forty Faces, Cleek solves a locked room mystery by revealing a hitherto unhinted-at secret passage between the victim’s bedroom and the killer’s. That’s Cleek for you. He just knows more than you do. You’ll have to trust him.
5. A trap for the criminal. Cleek can never just come out and tell the police who to arrest. Theatrical fellow that he is, he always insists on setting a trap. In the case of the magic belt he gets Narkom to announce that Cleek—who has so far still been calling himself “George Headland”—has taken the case and will meet everyone in the sculptor’s studio. The sculptor suggests that he should go home first to let Cleek in. Not to worry, says Narkom—Cleek will considerately break in, and save him the trouble. But the sculptor insists. This is probably intended to seem suspicious. Indeed, as soon as he gets home he checks the spot where he’s hidden the body, at which a nearby statue of a Roman senator comes to life and handcuffs him.
The statue was Cleek, of course. The handcuffs are his favorite part: in every case, he announces the guilty party by quickly and unexpectedly slapping on a pair of handcuffs in a creative fashion:
[Cleek] forthwith set down his cup, and, turning to Anita, said with an inane sort of giggle, “I say, you know, here’s a lark. Let’s have a game of ‘Slap Hand,’ you and I—what? Know it, don’t you? You try to slap my hands, and I try to slap yours, and whichever succeeds in doing it first gets a prize. Awful fun, don’t you know. Come on—start her up.”
And, Anita agreeing, they fell forthwith to slapping away at the backs of each other’s hands with great gusto, until, all of a sudden, the whistler outside gave one loud, shrill note, and—there was a great and mighty change.
Those who were watching saw Anita’s two hands suddenly caught, heard a sharp, metallic “click,” and saw them as suddenly dropped again to the accompaniment of a shrill little scream from her ashen lips, and the next moment Cleek had risen and jumped away from her side—clear across to where Zuilika was; and those who were watching saw Anita jump up with a pair of steel handcuffs on her wrists, just as Dollops vaulted up over the verandah rail and appeared at one window, whilst Petrie appeared at another, Hammond poked his body through a third, and the opening door gave entrance to Superintendent Narkom.
It gets kind of creepy. I really don’t want to know what his quiet nights at home with Ailsa will be like.
The Secret of Cleek
In time, Cleek’s fame spreads so far that he receives a commission from the government of Mauravania, a small European country that, two or three decades back, threw out a previous royal family complete with young princess and infant heir. (You know Mauravania, right? It’s the same region as Ruritania, Freedonia, and the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.) Cleek is unusually pissy with his client until he learns that (1) the current Queen of Mauravania is the long-lost princess, and (2) the famous “Rainbow Pearl” has been stolen by the current king’s Russian ex-girlfriend, Madame Tcharnovetski. Cleek freaks out:
“A Russian?” Cleek’s cry was like to nothing so much as the snarl of a wild animal. “A Russian to hold it—a Russian?—the sworn enemy of Mauravania—the race most hated of her people!”
Attentive readers will already suspect that Cleek’s behavior may have something to do with that thing called “birth.”
So Cleek sets off to smuggle the pearl out of Madame Tcharnovetski’s house. You will never believe how he does it. His plan is to pick up a stray puppy, keep it as a pet during his visit, starve it, cover the pearl in beef extract, feed the pearl to the puppy, chloroform the puppy, and cut it open to get the pearl. The damndest thing about this plan is that he must have come up with it off the top of his head back in England, as he bought the beef extract before leaving.
Even as we’re still reeling over Cleek’s ingenious jewel-smuggling plan, Hanshew hits us with another revelation.
“Monsieur!” exclaimed the Count, “monsieur, what juggle is this? Your face is again the face of that other night—the face that stirs memory yet does not rivet it. Monsieur, speak, I beg of you. What are you? Who are you?”
“Cleek,” he made answer. “Just Cleek! It will do. Oh, Mauravania, dear land of desolated hopes, dear grave of murdered joys!”
“Hush! Let me alone. There are things too sacred; and this—” His hands reached outward as if in benediction; his face, upturned, was as a face transfigured, and something that shone as silver gleamed in the corner of his eye. “Mauravania!” he said. “Oh, Mauravania! My country—my people—good-bye!”
“Monsieur! Dear Heaven—Majesty!”
Then came a rustling sound, and when Cleek had mastered himself and looked down, a figure with head uncovered knelt on one knee at his feet.
Yep. Not only is Cleek the greatest thief who ever lived. Not only is he the greatest detective of his time. Not only does he have superpowers. He’s royalty. Anyone familiar with the fan fiction term “Mary Sue” will at this point wonder just how closely Thomas Hanshew identified with Cleek.
Upon discovering another new aspect of Cleek’s character, Narkom asks his remarkable friend:
“Tell me—I’ll respect it—tell me, for God’s sake, man, who are you? What are you, dear friend?”
“Cleek,” he made reply. “Just Cleek! The rest is my secret and—God’s!”
It sure is, Cleek. It sure is.