Bulldog: The Characters

In reading fiction, especially fiction of the lighter sorts, readers are tempted to see the characters in abstract terms as straw men or lay figures invented to play a part or represent an idea, a virtue, or a vice.

While it is true that such a view is all too often justified by untalented writers and that even Dickens was plausibly accused by Trollope of having a simplistic black-and-white view of his characters, there are almost always--and virtually always in Dickens--ticks and foibles that challenge our hasty judgment and force us to reevaluate a fictional character.

The Sapper is hardly a great, perhaps not even a good novelist, and, though some of his characters--Algy Longworth in this novel, for example--are mere caricatures, his principal characters (with the obvious exception of Phyllis) are distinctive.

What sort of a man is the Bulldog?  As the name suggests, he is big, strong, ugly, and violent, but he is also possessed of an irrepressible sense of mirth that is almost American.

Toward decent people, he is unfailingly kind, and he even has some sympathetic admiration for the great rogue Carl Peterson but not for Lakington.  Why?  Because Peterson is only as ruthless as he needs to be.  He is bold in conception, ruthlessly efficient in carrying out his plans, almost unflappable and not without a sense of humor.  Bulldog clearly sees Peterson as a sort of evil alter ego to himself, and Peterson, who is initially mistaken about his enemy, comes to admire Drummond.

Lakington by contrast is petty--a miniaturist in crime, as he brags--and enjoys preying upon Phyllis and her weak-willed father.  Even if he were only passively evil, Lakington would be an expendable rat.

Some readers are shocked--or wish to be shocked--by the bath that Bulldog gives the villain.  This is straight out of heroic traditions such as that of Theseus who subjects villains to the tortures they have inflicted upon others.  Lakington is not only the enemy of all of England, but a man who tortures the weak.

But, some will complain, Drummond's bestial violence, when it is unleashed, is unworthy of a true hero.  My first answer is to read Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Song of Roland.  My second is to observe that Bulldog had been trained up not in a genteel preparatory school but in the trenches of WW I, an unforgiving preceptor that rewarded a moment of kindness or indecision with instant death.  As Drummond himself observes in his planning, if he can cause a moment's hesitation in an enemy, it means victory for himself.

The more obvious truth is that the Sapper knows such men and may have been one himself.  He, as much as Wilfred Owen and Hemingway, is describing what happened to his contemporaries caught up in the maelstrom of industrialized warfare.  In the idealization of Bulldog as a patriotic survivor, relentlessly cheerful and as ebulliently confident as he is ruthlessly tenacious, he has given us--and this is truly surprising--an original character who is true to the time and circumstances that produced him.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

9 Responses

  1. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Unappealing nonetheless.

  2. Thomas Fleming says:

    “Unappealing” is in its basic meaning a subjective term like “pleasing” or satisfying. The question has to then be asked, “to whom?” The books and the hero were loved by millions of readers in England and America, not all of them from the lowest classes, while the readers of Mike Hammer have been a bit more stereotypical of men who, as I once heard Mickey say in an interview, like booze, broads, and bullets. One has to subject one’s own personal judgment on “appealing” to a wider vote. For example, I absolutely loathe Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, but I would not venture to describe as “unappealing” characters that made their creator rich, and even if a character is completely unappealing, that does not necessarily entail a rejection of the work, though Aristotle did say that gratuitously evil characters should not be represented on the stage. The few people I know who have read these stories have found the Bulldog a charming mix of boyish enthusiasm and deadly force. Imagine Achilles with reduced pride and a sense of humor.

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    To me.

  4. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I read a lot of stuff in my misspent youth (teens and early 20s) that would be unappealing to me now. It was not until I left active military service that I started to read more serious works, primarily nonfiction. Possibly Drummond would have appealed to me if I had encountered him when I was younger.

  5. Dom says:

    I should have been done with the book at this point, but events intervened.
    Algy Longworth does not seem to stand out as an example of anything. All of the buddies, besides Peter Darrel, just seem like a general mass to me. That is probably my fault.

    What the heck is it with pencils? Everybody mentions pencils. These aren’t quotes – I am paraphrasing:
    “Make sure the pencil has a good point”
    “Ah, the pencil had a good point”
    “Darn it, the pencil doesn’t have a point”
    “The inspector licked his pencil point in characteristic fashion”

    Regarding the inspector, I remember cartoon representations of British inspectors (maybe Sherlock Holmes types, but I don’t know) tapping their pencils on the tongue before writing. I think “pencil” must have meant something different then. Licking graphite doesn’t do anything. . .
    I just can’t tell if this is some kind of literary thing or if maybe pencils were just notoriously unreliable in those days.

  6. Dom says:

    I was not scandalized by the acid bath. Bulldog announced the stakes before the fight, so the whole thing was more like a duel than a hit. The fact that Lakington stood no chance doesn’t really matter: a man who thrives on victimizing the helpless is never outmatched. I think “fair and just” was repeated a few times? Between the acid and the thing in the wall, which he built, Lakington destroyed himself.
    I enjoyed the Green character, but I get the sense he was kind of a prebaked American character for the time. The American detective in Murder on the Orient Express, which I believe to be roughly contemporaneous to Bulldog Drummond, is pretty much the same fellow. I recently read Murder, and the two Americans look the exact same way in my mind. (I don’t loathe Hercule Poirot, but I am not well-read in the genre, either. I got interested after picking up Death on the Nile in an airport bookstore several months ago. I had forgotten my book and wanted something to read. Anyone who has perused an airport bookstore recently will appreciate that my choice was the most nourishing – the least poisonous? I will say, it is clear that Hercule Poirot was created by a woman and Sherlock Holmes by a man.)
    Peterson’s character seemed inconsistent to me at first, but after finishing the book I don’t think so.

    Phyliss and Irma could be stereotyped; Mrs. Denny is a model woman.

  7. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I suggest Peter Bowen’s Montana Mysteries series featuring the fiddle playing Métis, du Pre. I am on my third, Wolf No Wolf.

  8. William Shofner says:

    For whatever it may be worth, I finished reading “Bulldog Drummond” about a week or so ago and found it fairly amusing with its fun house known as the Elms, which was chock full of such delights as a deadly cobra, an unfortunate gorilla, a poison dart-shooting pygmy, a bath tub brimming with flesh dissolving acid, etc. This “Marvel” comic book for adults was, as Tom announced, a reprieve from “Fire and Sword”, which I slugged thru to the end, and Herodotus’s “History”, which I am still plodding thru now. Still, I doubt that Tom directed us to the Bulldog because he thought that his readers were weary of digesting high literature and history. (He ain’t that sweet.) I found reading the Drummond book, rightly or wrongly, to be an Easter egg hunt: can you boys and girls find in all of this madcap action the hidden message of the book, i.e. the golden egg? If so, I think I found it…assuming that there was more to the Bulldog Drummond book than just pulp fiction. The egg? Ah, it is the eternal message that man is forever tempted to advance his position in this life thru corruption . As the Bulldog proclaims in Chapter XII of the book, the “bad guys” whom we “good guys” are always fight in every age and time are those who are “playing with revolution for [their] own ends: to make money out of it —to gain power”. As Peterson’s rich buffoons were, so are the Woke, Inc. fools now: playing with revolution to make money and gain power. So, if I missed the mark here and Tom had no hidden message in this bottle, I guess I have egg on my face…which would not be the first time.

  9. Vince Cornell says:

    I realize I should have put my comment on the previous Bulldog article in this one. D’oh.
    .
    I enjoyed the story, although it does have an air of comic book charm to it – Bulldog is kind of like Batman. Whatever skill he happens to need at the moment turns out he trained with an ancient expert to learn that skill or something in the war taught him that skill (i.e. training with martial arts masters to be stealthy when moving, to kill a man with one touch . . .etc.), but he’s a Batman without all the teenage angst (modern Batman) or short-pants wearing sidekicks (original Batman), which is a relief.
    .
    I agree with Dom – the soldier buddies jumble in my head with only Peter Darrell really standing out in any way.
    .
    Contrasting the Bulldog with other detectives, it is nice to have a character just wade into the middle of it and throw fists. None of this meditating in his study with a violin nonsense – drink a beer and then choke out a gorilla! Let’s see Mr. Holmes do that!