Monday, 6 July 2015

Review: An African Millionaire, by Grant Allen

Sir Charles Vandrift, ruthless South African diamond mogul, meets his match in Colonel Clay. Masquerading as a Mexican Seer, Clay, with little more than a few parlour conjurings, makes away with five thousand pounds of Vandrift’s fortune. And Clay’s not finished, he’ll swindle Vandrift to his last pound. After all, how can Vandrift fight a master of disguise, a hawk who can be anyone and anywhere?  

The series in a line: Gentleman swindler cons a millionaire over and over again. Sounds repetitive, doesn’t it, twelve stories performing the same dance. But Allen avoids stagnation by differentiating the stories just enough. Of course the stories have a formula, but they never descend to the formulaic. In each story Allen introduces one or two new characters – It doesn’t take a mystery aficionado to spot the criminal. But the unmask never hogs the climax. Allen doesn’t tease and hint at where, oh where, is that damned Colonel Clay. He focusses on the con, rather, on how that magnificent bastard Clay will swindle that petty bastard Vandrift.

As such, Allen’s decision to write the short stories as parts of a serial narrative seems the optimal, if not only, choice for avoiding banal repetition. Unlike with Holmes or Raffles, Allen’s reader cannot just open the volume anywhere and start reading. They must start at the start and go from there. By this, Allen controls where the reader is at, and where the reader thinks the characters are at. In a non-consecutive collection Story 4 must fit just as well before Story 5 as after Story 8. To manage this the characters and status quo must remain static. Story to story Vandrift could gain no experience in dealing with Clay; he would fall into the same traps, making for dull reading after the fourth story. But the stories’ consecutive nature means that in Story 4 Vandrift, and the reader, have accrued assumptions about Clay from Stories 1, 2 and 3, assumptions which Allen can now diverge from and subvert. With each story Vandrift’s paranoia and cautiousness increases, forcing Clay to adapt his methods to exploit Vandrift’s blind spots and wariness. Clay’s biggest charm is his cleverness, and by having his mark possess above average intelligence, Clay appears more intelligent by extension.

Allen, besides having a knack for plots and twists, is a good writer. His prose, concise for a Victorian, reads easily as it jogs through the story. Every story runs for around five to ten pages, so one can easily read each in a sitting. An added bonus of his brevity is that he doesn’t clutter his prose with copious scenic descriptions, as works set in exotic landscapes are wont to do.

Given the narrative’s predator and prey are a charming conman and a scumbag diamond-mogul respectively, the book presents overt and subtextual social commentary. None of it is particularly incisive or searching, but it’s there nonetheless as a pleasant flavour. Numerous times Allen shows Sir Charles Vandrift acting, or intending to act, immorally. If it nets a profit, or saves himself, he’ll betray trust and exploit weakness. Clay limits himself to the rich, and we only see him prey on Vandrift. By contrast Clay seems honourable, the lesser of two evils, if he’s evil at all. The subtext congeals to text when Clay gives his rendition of ‘We’re not so different, you and I’.

‘Sir Charles Vandrift, we are a pair of rogues. The law protects you. It persecutes me. That’s all the difference.’

Less restrained writers would suffocate the readers with lines like this, hammering the point home in a misguided attempt to give their entertainment depth. Allen keeps himself to a few lines and an undercurrent, imbuing his stories with edge, but not preachiness.   

A treat of Victorian Roguery, An African Millionaire holds twelve stories of unwaning intrigue with a side of social consciousness.

Alternatively, you can get it bundled in The Victorian Rogues MEGAPACKTM from Wildside Press:

1 comment:

  1. His match!? I could excuse an elegant witty form with anything. Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil can be called a match to Vicomte de Valmont (even though Marquise is more superior for she understands his enemy much better, and Vicomte sacrifices himself to destroy her scheme), and here we have Colonel Clay who is the cat and Sir Vandrift as the mouse, (even though such relationship is mutual, for they haunts each other), but I guess such story (I assume) we would stay mainly with Vandrift’s perspective (as a detective) trying to spot the criminal, (but their relationship is actually the reverse form).
    But of course, it can work the other way, as one can stay with Robin Hood. Cleverness is a fatal charm in fiction, and if other is so stupid by comparison, (that is, if Vandrift becomes clever and clever as well, or not clever, but more experienced then), I wonder how their relationship will change. Seriously, a clever character in fiction is different from such person in real life, for the writer has the benefit to work backwards and fill the gap in-between, and let their intelligence shine (for example, Batman always has Plan B).
    If it is a suspense story, what is the use of lengthy description and flowery language? Is not Holmes’ story short as well? It is perhaps only Charles Dicken who has the notorious reputation for lengthy description that we shall cherish brevity (“Brevity is the soul of wit” for which I could not achieve nor I try to achieve at current stage). Why shall a narrator or a character go on about landscape if there is a mystery? An axe falling above you, and you want to sniff the flower. No, Sir! That will never do.
    They are quite different, for people could not tolerate stupidity on paper, (unless you are innocent, not stupid, but since Vandfrit is ruthless…). Besides, it is le roman populaire, 大衆小説(たいしゅうしょうせつ), but all in all, as a reader, I sometimes just want a good story.