European crime fiction in the crosshairs
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Dr Nikola

Michael Koltan
Translated by Jeffrey Tabberner with additional
suggestions by Anne Foster and Anna Reissert

 

“Dr No was at least a head taller than Bond, but his rigid, immobile stance made him look even taller. His head was long and narrow and his skin was of a deep, almost transparent yellow. It was impossible to assess his age; but as far as Bond could judge, his face was unlined. Even the sunken cheeks under the prominent cheekbones were as smooth as ivory. The eyebrows were thin, black and so arched upwards that they looked as if they were painted on. Beneath them sat slanted jet-black eyes. They had no eyelashes and looked like the mouths of tiny revolvers. The finely curved nose ended just above the wide, firmly closed mouth, which in spite of an almost permanent grin only gave an impression of evil and a thirst for power. The chin was thrust forward. Dr No stood three paces in front of him. ‘Forgive me if I do not shake your hand.' The deep voice was expressionless. ‘Alas, I cannot.' Slowly he pulled aside the sleeves of his kimono. ‘I have no hands.' He exposed two steel pliers, raised up as if praying to God.”

When Ian Fleming set his hero James Bond up against this arch-villain with the academic title, the career of this type of criminal was already well under way. The film starring Joseph Wiseman as Dr No already came close to the borders of parody – and with Dr Evil in the Austin Powers films, Mike Myers finally gave this character the kiss of death.

One can trace this character as far back as Victorian times. When Conan Doyle decided to jettison the (for him) unlovable detective Sherlock Holmes, he provided him with such a redoubtable adversary that Holmes could only hunt him down at the cost of his own life (that Doyle later brought his hero back to life is another story). Even so, as a character, Moriarty remains rather grey and featureless.

The period around the First World War was the real heyday of this type of super-villain, who pursued his crimes not only for filthy lucre, but whose ultimate object was the destruction of the social order, and to erect from its ashes a new dictatorship. Two of his number are still alive today: Dr Fu-Manchu and Dr Mabuse. Both were conceived explicitly as a personification of societal angst, and are wholly representative of a violent period of social upheaval during which Europe erupted into two world wars.

These characters had, however, another predecessor besides Professor Moriarty. As early as the end of the nineteenth century there was another doctor up to mischief, who at the time became extremely popular but is now completely forgotten: Dr Nikola.

His first appearance in A Bid for Fortune or Dr Nikola's Vendetta (1895) begins in very mysterious circumstances: writing from Brazil three months in advance, a certain Dr Nikola books a private dining-room in a London restaurant. His guests are three rather dubious characters, who have already carried out some commissions for the doctor, which, whilst unspecified, seem not to have been wholly above board, but who he has never actually met. Dr Nikola arrives on time, and after the meal he reveals that he is planning an act of vengeance against a man named Wetherell, who has done him ‘great and lasting damage', which he can no longer ignore.

Whilst he is giving them their orders, there is a large black cat sitting on his shoulder – a characteristic typical of super-villains. To some degree, all the super-villains who follow Dr Nikola carry around a similar sort of animal. Fu-Manchu has his little monkey, Blofeld has a white cat, and Dr Evil also has a cat, but one which has lost all its hair.

And then the three under-villains are sent off with complicated instructions, anticipating another characteristic of later super-villains: their plans are much too complicated to have any prospect of success. In view of this evidence, Lawrence Knapp on his excellent Fu Manchu website can be forgiven for seeing Dr Nikola as the direct forerunner of Dr Fu Manchu.

A more careful reading of the five Dr Nikola novels quickly reveals, however, that this is not so straightforward. The first novel comes closest to the image of the super-villain . The actual story is recounted by a certain Richard Hattaras, an adventurer who is in love with the daughter of the aforementioned Wetherell, and is therefore the man against whom Dr Nikola's vengeance is directed. The plot is quite confused and leaps around the world a lot, from Australia via London to Port Said and then back to Australia and the South Seas. What makes the most memorable impression is Dr Nikola's secret laboratory in Port Said, where H is held for a period (incidentally, his attempted escape clearly served as a source of inspiration for Jacques Futrelle's legendary short story The Problem of Cell 13). Otherwise it's a matter of an adventure story, which one cannot expect to be wholly logical. A Bid for Fortune is, like most of Boothby's stories, a serialised novel, in which he moves from one event to another without any overall plan. In fact, Dr Nikola's campaign of revenge turns quietly into something quite different: it appears to be centred around a small wood block, perhaps ten centimetres across, decorated with Chinese characters and a gold cord, which he finally gets possession of . Later he shows himself to be very conciliatory, and honours Hattaras and his wife with a generous wedding gift.

Before we turn to the later metamorphoses of Dr Nikola, it seems appropriate to give a few facts about his life. Guy Boothby was born in Glen Osmond, South Australia in 1867. At the age of eight he travelled to England with his siblings, and then at age sixteen returned to his father in Australia. He began work in the civil service, and alongside this he attempted, more or less unsuccessfully, to become a playwright and actor. From 1891 he began to lead a more unsettled life, amongst other things as a sailor and a pearl diver. His biography, which Boothby later dedicated to many of his heroes, is clearly influenced by these footloose years.

In 1894 he settled down again in England, and published first an autobiographical account of the recent years, and then his first novel In Strange Company. Over the next ten years Boothby was extraordinarily productive: around fifty titles came off his assembly line, including the five titles of the Dr Nikola series. The critics panned his books, but Boothby himself was quite happy: ‘I give the public what they want... and in return my readers give me what I want.' At the end his annual income was estimated to be around £20,000. This successful career came to a sudden end, however, in 1905, when Boothby died from pneumonia at the age of 37.

To return to Dr Nikola, in the second volume of the series entitled simply Dr Nikola (1896), but also published as Dr Nikola Returns, the demonic image of the Doctor as a super-villain is conjured up for the first time. The hero, that is to say the narrator of the story, Wilfred Bruce, is a bit of a failure, who after a life as a drifter, finds himself penniless in Shanghai. Nikola makes him an offer: if he is willing to join him in an adventure, in the course of which it is quite possible that he will lose his life, he will receive £5000 immediately, and at its conclusion, if he survives, he will receive a similar sum. Although he receives warnings from all sides, Bruce enters into this Faustian pact. What then follows is an adventure story that has absolutely nothing to do with the super-villain image of Dr Nikola. We discover at the end, what the Doctor's object is. It is not at all world domination, or any other lofty ambition of a super-villain, but quite something else – immortality.

In the first novel, Dr Nikola already possessed occult powers, for which it would be difficult to find a rational explanation. Now, together with Bruce, he is on the way to a Tibetan monastery, where a mighty Asiatic secret society guards the secret of eternal life. Dressed as two Chinese, and legitimised by possessing the selfsame wood block that had come into his hands in the first novel, they attempt to snatch the secret away from the monks. Their plan succeeds, but now the secret society to which the monastery belongs is on the heels of Nikola and Bruce. Nikola, who is presented to us at first as the sinister villain, mutates into the real hero who in the end saves Bruce's life.

The third novel, The Lust of Hate (1898), doesn't really fit into the pattern. Nikola only appears briefly at the beginning and at the end. A being with the name of Dr Nikola offers the hero, on whom a terrible injustice has been wreaked, the possibility of bringing down his evil opponent without any suspicion falling on him. However, the main part of the novel is again an adventure story, which includes a journey half-way around the globe, with a shipwreck included, in which Dr Nikola plays no part. I believe, without being able to confirm it, that this novel was not written as part of the Nikola series, and that the name of the villain was changed to Dr Nikola after the success of the first two Nikola books. Anyone who fails to read this novel will not, in any case, miss anything essential to the Nikola saga.

The fourth novel, Dr Nikola's Experiment (1899) carries on from where the second one left off. It's once again a sort of failed character who relates the story to us, though this time not about an adventurer, but about an unlucky doctor called Douglas Ingleby. Nikola employs Ingleby in order to obtain his help in a medical experiment. It's a question of exploiting some scientific knowledge which has been stolen from Tibet. The subject of the experiment is the extremely elderly Don Miguel de Moreno (together with his oldest granddaughter Mercedes), who wants to regain his youth by means of a complicated cure. That it all takes place in an old, crumbling castle on the Northumberland coast, situated miles from any other dwelling, is due to the unpleasant fact that the Chinese secret society is still looking for Dr Nikola.

Whoever wants to know whether the experiment was successful and whether Ingleby and the beautiful Mercedes survive an attack by the sinister Chinese must read the book.

The four novels so far discussed cannot be said to justify rescuing Boothby and his Dr Nikola from obscurity. It is not that the novels are unappealing to those who like pulp fiction, but in the final analysis we are dealing here simply with Victorian adventure novels, whose modest literary quality would hardly justify a renewed interest in Boothby. And the concept of Dr Nikola as the ancestor of super-villains from Dr Fu Manchu to Dr Evil (who first awoke my interest in Dr Nikola), cannot take us any further either.

But in fact the fifth and last book in the series, Farewell, Nikola from 1901, shows that Boothby's early death deprived us of a very promising talent. If Boothby had not died so young, he could have become one of the big names in popular literature, as Farewell, Nikola is simply exceptional.

In his last Dr Nikola novel, Boothby no longer goes back to the old formula of putting Dr Nikola together with an adventurer or a loser and launching them into hair-raising adventures. Instead we meet Richard Hattaras, the hero of the first novel. This man, as we already know from A Bid for Fortune, has been married for a long time and as a rich legatee (Had I forgotten to mention that? Of course, in the best Victorian tradition, at the end of the first novel he inherits a sizeable fortune), he leads a law-abiding life. The first sentence sets the theme straight away. ‘We were in Venice; Venice, silent and mysterious; a city of which I would never tire.'

Hattaras, who is on holiday in Venice with his wife, encounters Dr Nikola again, and they begin to get to know each other socially, but their relationship remains quite a strange one, and the atmosphere is uneasy.

In fact Dr Nikola hatches another plan of vengeance, though not against Hattaras and his friends, but against a shadowy being, Don Jose de Martinos, who forces his way into Hattaras's circle. Thanks to this plan of revenge, which is to do with an injustice, when the young Nikola and his mother were injured, we learn a lot about Dr Nikola's past, and how he turned into this strange and enigmatic figure. And even more than in the earlier books, his occult powers play an important role: dreams, mysterious illnesses, and strange visions create a heavy, eerie atmosphere, which Boothby, in occasional witty passages, skilfully manages to lighten up. This is no longer an assembly-line adventure story, but a minor masterpiece of popular literature.

In this last novel nothing finally remains of Nikola's super-villain image. Even so, because of this last novel, it is worthwhile downloading the books from Gutenberg Australia (http://gutenberg.net.au), and in Farewell, Nikola to discover a jewel of fantasy literature.


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