According to a 1936 George Orwell essay, there are only three British detective writers worth re-reading: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, R. Austin Freeman, and Ernest Bramah. The first needs no introduction. The second created Dr. John Thorndyke, fiction’s original forensic scientist. The last was the publicity-shy author of tales featuring the astounding blind investigator, Max Carrados.
This Edwardian British author was so reclusive it was said that all that was known about him could be written on a matchbox. Yet in Max Carrados, Bramah created a crime fighter who would briefly eclipse Sherlock Holmes.
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During Carrados’ peak years between 1914 and 1923, the sightless sleuth outstripped the Baker Street consulting detective in both sales and popularity. When Max and Sherlock appeared together in the same edition of The Strand magazine, it was Bramah’s creation who took top-billing.
The race for literary longevity is a marathon, not a sprint, and in the end Holmes had the legs to see off all his many rivals. That doesn’t mean that Bramah’s now largely forgotten detective is not worth the modern reader’s time. Far from it.
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Max Carrados is splendid company. He is witty and ironic. His view of the world is lofty, yet empathetic. Though brilliant and logical, he has none of Holmes’ emotional frigidity. He is genuinely fond of the company of women.
Carrados is a man of his time, but that doesn’t prevent him from making wry comments on the absurdities of patriotism, the British class system, and gender inequality. In The Tilling Shaw Mystery, Madeleine Hindmarsh tells him: “You’re a man living in a town and can do as you like. I am a girl living in the country and have therefore to do largely as my neighbours like”. While that’s not the sort of remark you can picture Dr. Watson recording with approval, Max Carrados greets it with a smile of recognition. In The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem, he even offers a passionate defense of the Indian independence campaign.
Perhaps it’s Carrados’ blindness—caused by a minor riding accident in his youth—that makes him sympathetic to the downtrodden and the oppressed. On first encountering the sightless man, people tend to treat him with kindly condescension or veiled mockery, but he swiftly turns the tables on them by correctly identifying their profession from the smell of their coat.
His abilities may appear miraculous to others, but to Carrados they are commonplace. As he tells his friend, inquiry agent Louis Carlyle, “Lose one sense and the others, touch, taste, smell and hearing improve…with a little training.”
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While at times the blind detective’s skills stretch belief (Could he really read newspaper headlines by the indent made on the paper by the printing presses? Or tell from the sound of a footstep that a person was wearing an elastic stocking?), mostly they have a pleasing logic to them. Carrados is a crack shot with a revolver, aiming at the sound of his adversary’s beating heart (He practices in a shooting gallery using a pocket watch attached to the target). He can identify thousands of people from their voices, recognizes the scent of all tobacco (“The man who sat next to me smoked Algerian cigars”), the exact type of rustle produced by every material, the squeak of an individual’s shoe (“My ears are my eyes, you know?”). He can tell that a gentleman is wearing a false mustache at five paces simply by the smell of the glue attaching it.
This last exhibition demonstrates something else about Carrados. Unlike the sighted, he is never deceived by his eyes, and, since even the most cunning criminal rarely tries to fool pursuers in any other way, he often has an edge over his apparently more able companions.
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Of course, even the remarkable Max can’t do everything on his own. His disability means Bramah’s sleuth must rely on a cast of characters for help (in this way he resembles Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe). His manservant, the droll Parkinson, has been trained to observe everything he sees to the minutest detail, and to deliver his observations without interpretation (he is Carrados’ eyes, not his brain). His secretary Mr. Greatorex—a scatty young gentleman with a vague resemblance to Bertie Wooster—is on hand for legwork, reading, and driving. Louis Carlyle helps with tailings and stake-outs. So too does Inspector Beedel, a stalwart London policeman who is likened to a “slow but thoroughly trained sheepdog.”
Unlike later English detectives, Carrados does not confine his investigations to country mansions and the upper classes. His cases often feature a genuine, grimy London of cheap apartments and small brick houses, where crime is driven by desperation and you can smell the neighbors’ cooking wafting up the stairs. The Holloway Flat Tragedy, for example, reads more like Emile Zola than Dorothy L Sayers.
While murders feature in the tales, they are not as ubiquitous as they’d become in later detective fiction. Carrados is just as likely to turn his mind to forgery, theft, a confidence trick, a kidnapping, or the bizarre events in an empty city apartment block that seems to be haunted by a poltergeist.
Contemporary politics pops up in the form of Irish Republicans, a German spy, and a religious cult evidently modelled on Christian Science. The new-fangled household electricity is treated with some suspicion. In The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage, a husband plots to use it to kill his wife, while The Strange Case of Cyril Bycourt sees the heir to a fortune menaced by supernatural vibrations that emerge through the wall sockets. As well as detective fiction, Bramah also wrote weird tales in the style of Algernon Blackwood, leading to a couple of occasions in the Carrados stories where the two genres merge to strange effect.
At their best, the Carrados stories are glorious entertainment. George Orwell was not alone in his admiration. Ellery Queen thought the first collection of eight Carrados stories (originally issued under the title Max Carrados in 1914) was among the ten best ever written. The same volume also made the cut on British crime fiction expert Julian Symons definitive 1957 list of the 100 Greatest Detective Novels. The second collection of eight tales, The Eyes of Max Carrados (1923) is as good as the first.
There’s some pleasure to be had in the final collection (Max Carrados Mysteries, 1927) as well, though the plotting of some stories is labored and the writing style—once so light and lucid—has become long-winded. Carrados makes his final appearance in the 1934 novel, The Bravo of London. However, it’s a feeble finale and best avoided.
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Instead, let’s stick to those first sixteen tales and relish them. The Turrets, Carrados home in the posh London suburb of Richmond on Thames, is pleasing and cosy. We can sit back and breathe in the scent of Max’s exotic and rare cigars and fine vintage cognac, listen to the rattle of Mr. Greatorex’s typewriter, and await the polite cough of the lugubrious Parkinson as he announces the arrival of Mr. Carlye or Inspector Beedel with word of a new and baffling mystery. Like 221B Baker Street, The Turrets offers readers a delightful, warm, and safe Edwardian haven from messy modern reality.