After reading Thomas Hanshew’s Cleek: The Man of the Forty Faces on Project Gutenberg (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, click that first link to read an essay from this past June) I knew I had to have a hard copy. So I headed over to AbeBooks and dropped twenty bucks on Cleek of Scotland Yard, an omnibus edition containing Cleek, a few of the short stories Hanshew pasted together to make Cleek, and an eponymous sequel: Cleek of Scotland Yard.
I think there’s a book missing in between. I’m pretty sure it’s one I’ve seen listed as Cleek’s Government Cases. I’m going to have to get hold of that one, too, because Cleek of Scotland Yard—which we’ll call CoSY, to save typing—is almost as good as the first. Later Cleek novels were written by Hanshew’s wife and daughter, but I think CoSY might be Hanshew’s, or was at least cobbled together from his stories. It has that authentic crazy edge the one later book I’ve read (The Riddle of the Frozen Flame) doesn’t quite manage.
(I have one caveat. In Cleek Hanshew showed some odd but harmless ideas about foreigners, but in CoSY there’s a bout of really virulent racism—brief, but enough to dim the experience of the entire book. If you’d rather avoid the worst of it, then as soon as a Japanese servant turns up skip forwards a couple of chapters.)
As CoSY opens, The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek is on the run. The Mauravanian government and the Parisian apaches—in an alliance so unlikely that the word “unlikely” doesn’t quite cover it—have banded together to hunt him down and kill him. The Mauravanians want him out of the way because he’s the legitimate heir to the throne, and his very existence is a threat to the current government. The apaches want him dead because he dumped their bandit queen and she’s still in a snit. I think the apaches need to get out more.
All this is bad because Cleek is Important. Much more important than anyone else. Probably you got that sense from the first book, if you read it. Let me tell you: in CoSY, it’s worse.
Cleek’s old house in Clarges street is bombed by the apaches. After Cleek went on the run an unsuspecting family moved in. Two of them are horribly injured; two die. Superintendant Narkom of Scotland Yard is relieved: after all, Cleek had moved out. No worries there!
Then Dollops, Cleek’s valet, rushes in to the office. Cleek had left some papers in a hiding place in the wainscotting, and may have gone back to get them. A horrible suspicion grips Narkom: could one of those mangled bodies be Cleek?
Narkom rushes to the mortuary—not forgetting Dollops, because with the bodies so mutilated “identification could, of course, be arrived at only through bodily marks; and Dollops’s close association with Cleek rendered him particularly capable of speaking with authority regarding those of his master.” Dollops gives the bodies’ extant birthmarks the eye. They’re not Cleek! And he and Narkom have a good long joyful laugh, right there over the horribly mutilated bomb victims, of whom nothing more is heard in the course of the novel.
That’s just how things go in the Cleekverse. Some people are just better than you are, y’know? Eventually even Superintendant Narkom turns out to be Important:
The great of the world may, and often do, forget their meetings with the small fry, but the small fry never cease to remember their meetings with the great, or to treasure a vivid remembrance of that immortal day when they were privileged to rub elbows with the elect.
Five years had passed since… [Narkom] had come down for a week-end with his wife and children, and during one of these brief visits, meeting Mr. Ephraim Nippers, the village constable in the public highway, he had deigned to stop and speak to the man and to present him with a sixpenny cigar.
Times had changed since then; Mr. Nippers was now head constable for the district, but he still kept that cigar under a glass shade on the drawing-room whatnot, and he still treasured a vivid recollection of the great man who had given it to him…
If you’ve ever read a Cleek story, you will find the juxtiposition of “Superintendant Narkom” and “great man” difficult to read with a straight face.
But I digress. Cleek is in good time found, ready and willing to solve Narkom’s “riddles.” You know they’ll be as glorious as the first batch when the very first story brings these paragraphs:
“What’s that? What’s that?” Cleek’s voice flicked like the crack of a whip. “Good God! Dancing round in circles? His mouth open? His tongue hanging out? His fingers thrust into his nostrils? Was that what you said?”
“Yes. Why? Do you see anything promising in that fact, Cleek? It seems to excite you.”
Man, if that doesn’t exite you, seek help at once.
Like Cleek, CoSY is a fixup novel—a series of short stories spackled into a single narrative. A typical adventure begins when Narkom receives word that two of the most ingenious jewel thieves in America, Diamond Nick and Dutch Ella, are in London right now. The situation is grim, but Cleek has a plan: he and Narkom will wander around randomly until they happen to “stumble over something.” So they do. For five full days. You don’t see police work of this caliber on CSI.
On the fifth day they stumble over Sir Mawson Leake, busily huffing fumes from a charcoal brazier he set up in his spare room. Apparently the Ladder of Light, a necklace belonging to the Ranee of Jhang, was given to him for repair, and vanished, and he didn’t feel up to the whole living-through-the-disgrace thing. Was it stolen by his eldest son, who’s racked up some serious gambling debts? No. He drives up in a cab, spouting gibberish (“Hullo, mater? Hullo, dad? you dear old Thunder Box! I say!”), and reveals he’s gotten a job as a cab driver. When he learns he was a suspect he drives off in a huff, even as the reader is still trying to work out what he’s talking about.
What about his middle son’s fiancee and her father, newly arrived from America? Could they be Dutch Ella and Diamond Nick? Apparently not. Eventually Cleek deduces that, through a series of minor domestic coincidences, the necklace ended up hanging from a chandelier… and, as the story deflates to its anticlimax, Narkom receives word that the formidable jewel thieves have been arrested in Paris.
And then there are the German spies and their improbable telegraph machine. And the neighbors who can’t tell the difference between the view through a glasshouse’s windows and a painted backcloth. And the amazing solution to the mystery of the giant bird footprints. (“You may or may not have heard that a certain Frenchy dramatist wrote a play called Chanticler… where all the characters are barnyard creatures—dogs, poultry, birds and the like—and the odd fancy of men and women dressing up like fowls took such a hold on the public that before long there were Chanticler dances and Chanticler parties in all the houses…wherever one went for an evening’s amusement one was pretty sure to see somebody or another dressed up like a cock or a hen, and running the thing to death.” And one of the servants still has her old chicken-foot boots!)
It’s good to think that, as long as there is a mystery genre, somewhere there will always be a man dancing around in circles with his fingers in his nose. And for that we can thank Thomas Hanshew.