Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Beetle - Richard Marsh


There are many reasons for adopting a pseudonym.  One of the best has to be Bernard Heldman.  He had a reasonable reputation as a writer but then, in 1884, he was sentenced to eighteen months for issuing dud cheques.  Since many of the recipients had been literary people, Heldman wisely took the name Richard Marsh on his release, and it was as Marsh that he published the hugely successful The Beetle in 1897.

How successful was The Beetle?  Initially it outsold Dracula, published the same year.  That is not the case today and I had never heard of Marsh until I came across Penguin's shortlived yellowback horrors in 2011.

It's perhaps the first Revenge-of-the-Pharoahs chiller.  A mysterious Arab pitches up in London.  He (or perhaps an entity he brought with him) takes control of a homeless man who is sent to burgle the house of the rising star of Parliament, Paul Lessingham.  Lessingham captures the burglar in the act but rather than tackle him or summon a constable, he is overcome with horror.  This, we eventually learn, is due to a youthful misadventure Lessingham suffered in Egypt.  In the meantime inventor Sydney Atherton bumps into the naked burglar (yes, there is a phenomenal amount of male and female nudity here - no wonder it sold well) in the street outside Lessingham's house.  Atherton and Lessingham are already at loggerheads because both are enamoured of Marjorie Linden.

Marsh uses Wilkie Collins' technique of multiple narrators - we have Holt (the homeless man), Atherton, Marjorie, and finally and least successful, the account of the Hon Augustus Champnell, confidential agent.  Champnell fails to engage us because he is not caught up in the main narrative and because he seems to have too much pre-knowledge.  His involvement starts when Lessingham consults him on the very last day of the story yet Champnell doesn't bat an eyelid when he's told there is a gender-bending Egyptian priest(ess) on the loose in London whose party trick is to transform into a giant scarab beetle.  I wondered if Champnell is a Holmesian super-detective, perhaps carried forward from another strand of Marsh's prolific output.

Nevertheless The Beetle ends with a train chase, and you can't get more Victorian than that.  Marsh also cleverly leaves many key questions unanswered.  Perhaps he intended to write a sequel.  In the end Heldman/Marsh died relatively young (58).  His grandson, interestingly, was that master of the supernatural short story, extensively reviewed on this blog, Robert Aickman.

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