“SAPPER” The Best Short Stories. Edited and selected by Jack Adrian. J. M. Dent & Sons, hardcover, 1984. ‎ Orion Publishing Co. paperback, 1986.

   Herman Cyril McNeile, best known by his pseudonym Sapper (chosen because soldiers in uniform at the front weren’t supposed to write fiction during WW I when he started writing) is best known, or perhaps in some circles most infamous for the novel Bulldog Drummond (1919) and its sequels and the plays, movies, and radio series they spawned. In his lifetime though he was equally well known for his short fiction which rivaled Somerset Maugham, P. G. Wodehouse, and Conan Doyle in magazine sales.

   In some cases Sapper’s name on the cover actually outsold those notable names in the same way Carroll John Daly once boosted Black Mask sales over Hammett and Chandler. Literary merit doesn’t change all that much, but popularity does.

   This 1984 anthology contains ten of his best short tales chosen by Sapper historian Jack Adrian, and the five Bulldog Drummond short stories that appeared in The Strand before his fairly young death in 1937.

   Sapper, as mentioned, began writing from the trenches in the First World War, and his stories rapidly gained popularity being quickly reprinted in volumes like Sgt. Michael Cassidy, John Walters, and others. They are perhaps too trite, too simple today, but in their time they were a sensation at home, abroad, and in the trenches themselves.

   Adrian, in his introduction, addresses the elephant in the room, McNeile was a man of his time, a middle class Englishman of limited experience outside his social class prone to the prejudices of this time, and far from a subtle writer at his best. He was also, despite his simple class assumptions, comfortable Edwardian views, and simplistic world of clubbable men, simply topping women, absolute cads, and slinky femme fatales, a born storyteller with a gift rivaling O Henry for a twist in the tale.

   These stories are among his best. Personally I would have included the very dated but entertaining “Man in the Ratcatcher,” “Fer de lance,” “When Carruthers Laughed,” the Jim Maitland story “Temple of the Crocodiles,” and the Ronald Standish mystery “The Horror of Stavely Manor,” but it is a solid collection with “The Hidden Witness” notable for a fine double twist in the last line, “Out of the Blue” with its black humor, and the ghostly “House by the Headland.”

   Sapper’s gift as a storyteller was simple, introduce a drama or problem, a mystery if that is the form, involve your characters, cast as much doubt as to the outcome as possible, and then turn the whole business over with as sharp a twist as possible in the last lines of the story, all the better if that twist turns everything on its head that came before including where needed unreliable narrators worthy of Agatha Christie.

   Subtlety is not Sapper’s style, but as involving short stories go despite their class conscious smug assumptions they are often strong entertaining stories,

   The five Drummond short stories were written late in Sapper’s career at the suggestion of his friend writer and fellow writer Gerard Fairlie and intended for a collection of Drummond shorts tentatively titled The Exploits of Bulldog Drummond. It was a natural for the acknowledged master of the short story to finally deal with his most famous creation in that form, and it mostly works with Drummond much easier to take minus some of the blathering of the early works from the Twenties.

   The best and most often reprinted of the Drummond shorts is “Thirteen Lead Soldiers” (also the title of a Drummond film with Tom Conway) in which Drummond attends a peace conference at a manor house and cleverly uncovers an assassin whose plot he upends based on a child’s toy soldiers and a clever code involving them. It is a solid performance and worthy of its inclusion in many anthologies.

   Of the others I recommend “The Lonely Inn” and “The Mystery Tour” which both feature Drummond and crew at their best. “The Oriental Mind” has an unfortunate Asian character who speaks pidgin English, but who at least proves heroic if one of those loyal ‘pukka sahib’ type servants so common in the stories of the time. “Wheels Within Wheels” features an almost Queensian (Ellery that is) play on words.

   Depending on your tolerance for the popular fiction of this era, and I fully understand anyone who cannot get past the problems rife in much of it, I would also suggest the anthology of Jim Maitland stories in the book of that title which are excellent adventure tales despite their flaws and the two books of stories about amateur golf enthusiast, government agent, and amateur sleuth Ronald Standish (who also appears in two Drummond novels and in Tiny Carteret).

    For all his flaws Sapper was a master of the short form and one of the most popular short story writers of his age.


· The Hidden Witness · nv The Strand Dec ’28
· A Hopeless Case · ss The Strand Mar ’27
· The House by the Headland · ss The Sovereign Magazine Mar ’20
· Lonely Inn [Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond] · ss The Strand Aug ’37
· The Man with His Hand in His Pocket · ss The Strand Dec ’20
· Mark Danver’s Sin · ss The Strand Feb ’23
· Mrs. Peter Skeffington’s Revenge · ss Hutchinson’s Magazine Sep ’25
· The Mystery Tour [Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond] · ss The Strand Feb ’37
· The Old Dining-Room · ss Hutchinson’s Magazine Dec ’20
· The Oriental Mind [Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond] · ss
· The Other Side of the Wall · ss Hutchinson’s Magazine Mar ’25
· Out of the Blue · ss McClure’s Jul ’24
· Thirteen Lead Soldiers [Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond] · nv The Strand Dec ’37
· Wheels Within Wheels [Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond] · ss The Strand Nov ’37