Hercules, Esq. (1930) by Gwyn Evans

Gwyn Evans (1898-1938), who is perhaps better known for his contributions to the Sexton Blake canon, was someone who knew how to party hard and work hard, with a strong preference for the former. Employment was only something Evans turned to when his money ran out, and his creditors were demanding payment, which was fairly often. Yet when he did write, his work, at the time, was highly popular with readers, even if he was the bane of every editor’s life he happened to enter into. Francis Addington Symonds once said of him that:

‘He turned out stuff like a factory, nearly all of it superlatively clever, but he let the editors down so badly that only his immense popularity with the readers enabled him to carry on and (literally) laugh at all editorial warnings.’

That said he did get fired from quite a few jobs… Today’s read was his first story to feature Bill Kellaway, and according to Steve Holland, ‘even as a sequel appeared, the film rights to the debut novel sold for a then-staggering £3000 – the equivalent of over £130,000 today.’ However, it is rumoured that Evans ‘spent his share within a fortnight, hosting’ extravagant parties. Yet his lifestyle came at a price and he died aged only 39, his heavy smoking and drinking factoring in this considerably.

Earlier this year Hercules, Esq. was reprinted by Bear Alley Books, along with the other titles featuring Kellaway: The Homicide Club, Satan Ltd and The Return of “Hercules, Esq.” In addition to this Steve Holland has also produced a revised edition of his 2012 monograph: Gwyn Evans: The Lunatic, The Lover and the Poet, which explores further Evans’ colourful and eventful life. To find out more you can check out his website here: www.bearalleybooks.blogspot.co.uk .

Like Tommy and Tuppence in The Secret Adversary, Bill Kellaway finds himself on his uppers, (due to his newspaper in Egypt dwindling after the country became an independent state) and is quite partial to a spot of adventure. Incidentally, Evans himself was a reporter in Egypt for a spell. Just when Bill has spent his final few pence, on Victoria Embankment, he is stopped by a stranger who asks: ‘Would you like a million pounds, my friend?’ Holland summarises in his introduction that:

‘A born adventurer, Kellaway follows the stranger and finds himself at the whim of a group of millionaires who challenge him to complete six tasks that will acquaint him well with the underworld. On condition that his agreement remains a secret and that he makes no attempt to identify his employers, or seek their help if arrested, Kellaway receives the first of his six “labours” in a note attached to a dead body.’

From there he must go to Liverpool and evade police capture for 7 days without using a fake name or any kind of disguise. If he manages this task, what other challenges will he become embroiled in?

Overall Thoughts

Although published in 1930 in book format, it was originally published in the Union Jack in 1928 and therefore comes between the publication of Christie’s The Big Four (1927) and her later book The Seven Dials Mystery (1929). They all share the theme of a secret society, the members of whom are often referred to by numbers. In tone Evans’ book is closer to The Seven Dials Mystery, as whilst the millionaires’ challenge is initially set up in a sinister manner, by the midway point of the book, the affair has become a more light-hearted battle of wits.

This does not deprive the narrative of its Buchanesque feel though and Bill Kellaway is admirably resourceful in a number of criminally compromising situations. The challenges or labours, (a device Evans anticipates ahead of Christie’s own short story collection), build up in complexity, until the final one, (which somewhat crystallises the comedic quality of the book). Thrillers are not my go-to-choice of mystery novels, but I have to admit to being entertained by this story and I am intrigued to find out what happens to him next. Plenty of obstacles are put in Bill’s path, some of which are quite unexpected, and conversely he also manages to find several agreeable allies. In particular he gains a valet, (from the hotel staff), and Henry Henry contributes to the humour of the piece. He is fairly verbose addict of Draxton Dread detective stories, and there is a hint of Jeeves about him.

The narrative is packed with action and I think readers will have a lot of fun with this piece and there are some genuine moments of laugh out loud humour. I can understand why the film rights for this book were snapped up and even today I could envisage it being a very enjoyable one-off TV series.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (Bear Alley Books)

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