And the winner is…

Like headlines and phone calls, rarely in my experience are emails good things. It’s usually work, spam, or a bank statement, none of which I’m particularly keen on. One of the exceptions to this rule are those from my friend Derek Wright, Director at Wordsworth Editions, who has been kind enough to allow me to contribute literary articles to the company blog. I love writing these pieces and have been using the fees to slowly restore a classic BMW motorcycle, so a line from Derek is always welcome. Anyway, one morning a few weeks ago, when we woke up and my wife checked her phone, she casually remarked that I had an email from Derek, ‘something about a prize’.

‘Cool,’ I said, ‘Wordsworth have won a prize…’

‘No,’ she said, ‘someone’s looking for you. Says you’ve won some sort of prize.’

‘Do me a favour…’

I do not win anything ever, as I reminded Gracie. Only once, when I was a kid, did I win a Marshal Law T-shirt from Toxic comics for getting a letter published, and then it never turned up, so I don’t count that. I assumed a Nigerian prince was involved, though the source was legitimate, so after a coffee I had a look. Long story short, in an email cheerily titled ‘And the winner is’, Derek had forwarded an email he’d received from Mark Jones at the Arthur Conan Doyle Society that basically said I’d won an award at this year’s ‘Doylean Honours’ at The Mysterious Bookshop in New York for ‘Excellence in Scholarly Writing’ (I’m blushing) for a piece I wrote on Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories for the Wordsworth blog. The ACD Society was trying to find me to let me know so had contacted Derek at Wordsworth. I got in touch and received a very nice certificate, a generous gift voucher from the bookshop, and an invitation to appear on the ACD podcast Doings of Doyle from Mark and Professor Ross Davies. I’ll be doing the recording on June 7, hot on the heels of taking my son to see Alice Cooper in Leeds then the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ motorcycle rally, so I’ve already warned them I might not be very coherent. The book token I have passed onto a friend of mind, who was suddenly struck down with Guillain-Barré syndrome a couple of months back. I have too many books already, and while he’s recuperating (which I’m glad to report is going very well), I reckoned he might like to catch up on some reading.

Doyle’s Professor Challenger was his most recurring character in fiction after Sherlock Holmes, one he seemed to prefer. The most famous Challenger story is The Lost World, the prototype for all ‘lost world’ dinosaur stories and movies, and multiply adapted on film and TV. What’s perhaps less well known are the two subsequent novels – one apocalyptic, the other Spiritualist – and some very strange short stories. I love The Lost World but thought it would be interesting to look at the other stories in detail as well, because they’re also great and are frequently overlooked these days. Here’s the opening part of it…

‘Dinosaurs, Disintegration Machines and Talking to the Dead: The Wild World of Professor Challenger’ (Good title, ’eh?)

On the evening of June 2, 1922, at an American Society of Magicians dinner at the Hotel McAlpine, New York, after the whiskey and cigars, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there as a guest of Harry Houdini, was given leave to set up a screen and projector. The famous author proceeded to astound his hosts with film of apparently living dinosaurs. These were special effects rushes compiled by the stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien from the ongoing Hollywood adaptation of Doyle’s novel The Lost World. The footage was so impressive that some of the viewers left convinced it had been real. When the film was released three years later, with a prologue in which Doyle himself introduced the picture, audiences had never seen anything like it. The movie was an international hit and a sensation. Not until King Kong climbed the Empire State Building with Fay Wray screaming in his hairy hand did anything even approach the impact of The Lost World, starring Wallace Beery as Doyle’s short-tempered academic adventurer, Professor George Edward Challenger…

Although Doyle had ambivalent feelings, at best, towards his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, he made no secret of his affection for his irascible scientist, ‘G.E.C.’, a man with so many honours and letters after his name that they ‘overtax the capacity’ of his calling card. Alongside the Great Detective and the largely forgotten Napoleonic Hussar, Brigadier Etienne Gerard, Professor Challenger is Doyle’s only recurring protagonist. He appears in three novels, beginning with Doyle’s best-known work outside the Holmes’ canon, The Lost World (1912), and two short stories. The last of these, ‘The Disintegration Machine’, appeared in 1929, the year before Doyle died, indicating that he remained attached to the character to the end, unlike Sherlock Holmes who, he wrote as early as 1891, ‘takes my mind from better things.’ And just as the Holmes’ stories revolutionised the genre of detective fiction, the Challenger series makes a significant contribution to the development of science fiction after Jules Verne and the early novels of Doyle’s contemporary, H.G. Wells. The Lost World quickly established a genre archetype that gives us literally hundreds of books and movies, from the original King Kong to the Jurassic World franchise. 

The five Challenger stories by Doyle are all very different, and written from three different perspectives, but what unites them all is the sheer force of Challenger’s personality. He is a man who must be right at all costs (and frequently is), does not suffer fools gladly, and who alternately inspires absolute loyalty and utter contempt among those who know him. When Peerless Jones, the narrator of ‘When the World Screamed’ (1928), is first approached by Challenger for his expertise in Artesian boring, his initial response is: ‘It was clear to me that I was dealing with a lunatic.’ In The Lost World, the scientific community views Challenger as a charlatan at the beginning of the story, while Edward Malone, the Irish journalist destined to become his Dr. Watson, is told by his editor that Challenger is ‘just a homicidal megalomaniac with a turn for science.’ Even the professor’s wife warns Malone in advance of meeting him that ‘he is a perfectly impossible person.’ And when, on the Amazonian expedition, Challenger reflects that ‘he never cared to walk on the Thames Embankment and look up the river, as it was always sad to see one’s own eventual goal,’ his long-time professional rival Professor Summerlee dryly replies ‘that he understood that Millbank Prison had been pulled down.’ As Malone explained to his readers: ‘He is convinced, of course, that he is destined for Westminster Abbey.’

Revisiting the Challenger stories, one can see the appeal for his creator. Both men are large and physically powerful (though Challenger is broad and compact while Doyle was tall), and both are possessed of equally strong opinions. These are supported by the enormous self-confidence of the upper middle class Edwardian British male, and the absolute certainty in the rightness of their cause in the face of all opposition – and opposition there was, in fact as well as fiction. Neither Challenger nor Doyle had much time for critics, and the author has a lot of fun having his hero hurl journalists down flights of stairs, bop them on the head, and in one story position them next to an experimental excavation that showers them with a ‘vile treacly substance’. There’s a lot of Doyle in Professor Challenger, and both are visionaries and dreamers…

To read the complete piece, please click here

To listen to me discussing the ‘Challenger’ stories on the Doings of Doyle podcast please click here

When I wrote this, I struggled to find any critical material on the other stories so largely pursued my own reading. I liked what I’d done but didn’t think it was one of my best either, which just goes to prove the old adage that authors are always terrible judges of their own work!

With Many Thanks to Derek Wright, Wordsworth Editions, Mark Jones, Professor Ross Davies, The Mysterious Bookshop, and the Arthur Conan Doyle Society. You all made my day, week, and year, because as I said, I never win anything! 😊

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