GUY BOOTHBY – A Bid for Fortune. Dr. Nikola #1.  Appleton, hardcover, 1895. Published earlier in the UK by Ward Lock, hardcover, 1895. Reprinted as Enter Dr. Nikola. Newcastle, UK, paperback, 1975. Later reprinted by Oxford University Press, US, paperback, 1996; then many POD editions. Silent film: Unity-Super, 1917.

   Searching for books is often a frustrating task, not merely because (as we all know) some books simply won’t be found but also because those that are located often turn out to be disappointments. In my experience, many highly touted classics have not lived up to their publicity. That is not the case, I’m glad to report, with Guy Boothby’s first novel about Dr. Nikola.

   I leave it to others to discover whether Dr. Nikola is fiction’s first arch-criminal (is Moriarty in the same category?), but it seems likely that the Nikola books form the first sustained series featuring such a nefarious malefactor. A Bid for Fortune has coincidences galore and occasional purple prose (“Oh, my girlie! my poor little girlie! what have I brought you to through my. obstinacy?”), but it is generally well-told and well-plotted. Boothby keeps the reader interested not by overwhelming use of violence – indeed, I don’t recall a single murder in it – but by a sense of mystery.

   The book opens with Dr. Nikola meeting 3 co-conspirators who plan, for an unnamed reason and by unspecified means, to ruin a man named Wetherell: “My toils are closing on you … you will find yourself being slowly but surely ground into powder. Then you may be sorry you thought fit to baulk Dr. Nikola.” The scene then shifts to Australia, to young Dick Hatteras who has made a fortune pearling and who plans to visit his ancestral home in England. He falls in love with Wetherell’s daughter, and on shipboard they pledge their troth (as they used to do; nowadays they just shack up).

   Once in London, his fiancee is forced to 1eave him; he meets Dr. Nikola, and befriends a young nobleman whom he agrees to guide to Australia. The plot becomes steadily more complicated, as Nikola’s minions kidnap Hatteras and the young Lord in Cairo. Eventually, they return to Australia, and rescue all in distress, but Dr. Nikola obtains what he has sought from Wetherell. Nevertheless, the veil of mystery remains even in the final paragraph: “What gigantic coup [Nikola] intends to accomplish … is beyond my power to tell.”

   Boothby, an Australian, had not only a sense of mystery but also a talent for description of 19th century England, Australia and Egypt. A Bid for Fortune is an excellent example of leisurely but engrossing fin de siecle storytelling.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 4, Number 2 (April, 1981). Permission granted by Doug Greene.

      The Dr. Nikola series

A Bid for Fortune; or, Dr. Nikola’s Vendetta. Ward 1895.
Doctor Nikola. Ward 1896.
The Lust of Hate. Ward 1898.
Dr. Nikola’s Experiment. Hodder 1899.
Farewell Nikola. Ward 1901.