Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Detective Lost in the Dark

A little more than a century ago, Mark Twain was testifying in front of a Congressional committee about legislation concerning impending copyright laws.  Twain had fought mighty battles to secure the rights to his books in both the United States and Europe, and had some unique ideas concerning intellectual property rights.

While the author really wanted rights in perpetuity, he was willing to settle for the life of the author plus fifty years.  At one point in his testimony, Twain seemed to contradict himself, saying for the vast majority of authors, the copyright laws were meaningless, since the life of most literary works was substantially less than the copyright law.  As Twain said:

….One author per year produces a book which can outlive the forty-two year limit, and that is all. This nation can not produce two authors per year who can create a book that will outlast forty-two years. The thing is demonstrably impossible. It can not be done!

Twain believed that the popularity of most literary works would not last long enough to matter and that the famous authors of today would be forgotten within a generation—a prophecy that was certainly borne out.  How many books published in the 19th century have you read?  For the vast majority of Americans, Twain and Conan Doyle may be the only authors of the century most of us can name, much less claim to have read.

The list of authors who momentarily burned bright in the spotlight only to vanish a few years later is seemingly endless.  Together, these forgotten works form a literary goldmine for the reader interested in just a little digging at the local library.  And since Congress did not listen to Twain, most of these works are not in the public domain, meaning that you can read them online or download them to a Kindle for free.

This brings us to Ernest Bramah.  I can just picture you saying, “Who?  Never heard of him.”

Bramah was a British writer of a century ago.  A failure at several occupations, he began his writing career by sending in letters to a local newspaper.  Supported by his father, Bramah lost a small fortune as a farmer, then lost even more money when he attempted to sell a book about his misadventures behind a plow.  After this failure, he found menial employment as a secretary on Grub Street in London. 

Grub Street was a poor section of London known for small publishers of books and magazines of low cost and perhaps of even less value.  These were the kinds of literary endeavors that would later be called “Pulp Fiction”.  It was there that Bramah eventually found employment, working for Jerome K. Jerome, the author and magazine editor.

Note.  It was only after reading the works of Bramah that I became interested in his early life and discovered his connection to Jerome, one of my favorite authors.  (If I could own only one book—a nightmarish prospect—it would be Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.)  The writing styles are not similar, either in tone or subject matter, so there is no apparent connection between the two authors, yet something attracted me—It can’t be a coincidence.

Bramah eventually wrote another book, a novel about Kai Lung, an itinerant Chinese peasant whose travels give him the opportunity to spin gentle morality tales in which peasants invariably find peace through frugality and humility.  The first book, The Wallet of Kai Lung was submitted to eight publishers before it was finally accepted.  Perhaps the reason for multiple rejections was that Bramah knew nothing about China.  Bramah simply made up a world with imaginary customs, laws and people and labeled it China.  Since his readers knew no more about the real China than Bramah, he got away with it.

Bramah is still getting away with it:  Have you ever heard of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”?  This is not Chinese, it is Bramah.  Though by now, I have no doubt the saying has actually made its way to China.

In 1914, Bramah began publishing a series of detective stories in The Strand Magazine.  Today, Tht Strand is familiar to most for publishing the Sherlock Holmes stores of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  At the time of publication, however, the magazine frequently gave top billing to a forgotten detective, Max Carrados, an invention of Ernest Bramah.

Max Carrados was a brilliant detective, very much in the tradition of the English mystery, who solved mysteries despite being totally blind.  It was this disability, perhaps, that heightened his other senses and allowed him to find solutions to crimes which even Scotland Yard had failed to solve.  The stories are nothing short of brilliant.

It is impossible not to compare Sherlock Holmes to Max Carrados and wonder why one is a household name and the other all but forgotten.  There are several obvious reasons.  Doyle developed all the characters in his stories, bringing London to life for readers of any age, while Bramah focused on Carrados and his overcoming his handicaps, assuming that a contemporary reader was already familiar with Edwardian London.  In addition, while the action stories of Doyle readily lend themselves to television and movies, Carrados—operating quite literally in the dark—can only easily exist in the imagination of the reader.  It is for this reason that Carrados has been successful produced several times on the BBC radio, but has never been tried on the big screen.  Sherlock Holmes, by comparison, appeared in movies as early as 1900.

Bramah wrote science fiction, predicting airlines connecting the countries of Europe before a plane had even crossed the English Channel.  His work of political fiction, What Might Have Been (1907), predicts the rise of Fascist Germany with depressing accuracy.  The work was even later credited by George Orwell as an inspiration for his own (slightly more well-known) book, 1984

Of all of Bramah's works, I can only heartily recommend the mysteries of Max Carrados, but it still is a shame that he has been forgotten by today’s readers.  I highly recommend that you access and read them here.  Long after Twain argued for a copyright that expired fifty years after the death of the author, the European Union extended the rights to seventy years postmortem.   Which meant for the works of Bramah, the copyrights expired five years ago.  

It turns out that Twain was correct.  The copyrights on the works of Ernest Bramah no longer matter.

1 comment:

  1. Who needs writers anyway. AS we are repeatedly told by our loved ones - you tried it, you can't make a living at it, go get a real job!

    Apparently, like artists, it helps to be dead to be respected, although publishers don't like to publish dead authors. No sequels! A dead painters work can become more valuable. A dead author's work only gets cheaper (except for first editions and you have to be dead a very long time for those to be worth more than the paper they are printed on. I shall go to my attic corner and ponder the cruel fate of the wordsmith, now.