Skip to main content

I've always been a collector.

This is entirely my uncle Oscar's fault.  After my father died in 1975, Oscar took it upon himself to be the Man of the Family for his widowed sister and teenage niece, even though he himself was in his early 60's and gearing up for retirement.  This meant he helped Mum with her finances (most notably right after Dad died, when thanks to sexist financial laws she couldn't access the family bank accounts for several weeks, which meant she couldn't pay the bills, buy food, or pay the mortgage), helped her navigate Orphans' Court to settle Dad's estate, paid for my college, and offered himself as my guardian in unlikely but still possible event that something happened to Mum before I turned 18.  He'd done his best to help his family from the day he'd left high school to get his first job during the Depression, when his own father was crippled by arthritis and self-medicating with alcoholic beverages of the malt persuasion, and now that his baby sister and her child needed him, he was right there to do whatever needed to be done.

He even once offered to put up bail for her if she was arrested during a union action against the local school district, but that's a story for another day and another diary.

Oscar also took it upon himself to make sure that Mum and I were entertained on the weekends.  He wasn't much for modern movies - too many swear words, too much sex, too many risque jokes and blood and guts and explosions - but he patiently chaffeured Mum, me, and (of course) Betty to Kaufmann's on Saturday morning, somewhere nice for lunch on Saturday afternoon, and even to the occasional museum or bookstore over in the mysterious Bohemian wilds of Oakland.  

He also took us antiquing at least once or twice a month.  

This is not a case of Mum and Betty deciding to become collectors and talking their brother into it.  Oscar himself really liked antiques, especially art glass lamps (he had several Handels and two Pairpoints), but he branched out into carnival glass, some ceramics, a couple of pieces of furniture,and even a painting from the Scalp Level School.  He knew what he liked, had the money to purchase indulge himself, and developed a good eye for what was real and what wasn't.  Mum was equally interested in old things, particularly dolls, art pottery, and fine ceramics, while Betty was simply there because she liked the pretty.

As for me, well, I was only a teenager, but I decided to start collecting something since I got hauled along regardless, and it was better to find a niche for myself than fall asleep in the car.  This meant that what I didn't spend on Star Trek novelizations and old issues of Starlog and Cinefantastique went toward the purchase of salt cellars, those now-obsolete parts of the table setting that preceded salt shakers on the dinner table.

Fortunately for me, salt cellars came in a bewildering variety of sizes, shapes, and types, from delicate pastel Depression glass to art ceramics to silver-clad Art Nouveau to iridescent Tiffany and Quetzal.  My own collection built rapidly, and when my uncle realized that I was actually enjoying myself, he pitched in with gifts of higher-end examples at Christmas and my birthday (come on, did you really think a teenager could afford a genuine Tiffany salt cellar?).  They were pretty, portable, and some are actually valuable, and I've enjoyed them tremendously over the years.

More important, between the salt cellars, the art glass, the lamps, and the old furniture and vintage clothing and typerwriters and plates and books and board games and all the other memorabilia, ephemera, artifacts, and just plain stuff that crammed Oscar's favorite antique stores, I picked up a love of American popular culture and design for the years running roughly from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War II.

That includes the popular literature of the day, of course.

I'd already read a good deal of this on my own before we really started antiquing - you should see the shredded remains of my Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle - but once I started actually seeing the furniture, china, glassware, and material culture of those bygone days, I only wanted more.  Even as I branched out from simple pressed glass salts to signed cut glass, I went from Arthur Conan Doyle to other Victorian and Edwardian crime writers.  Soon I'd read as much as I could find by Catherine Louise Pirkis, L.T. Meade, Wilkie Collins, Gaston Leroux, Baroness Orczy, Arthur Morrison, and their ilk.

I'd also smuggled as much Victorian true crime literature into the house as I could get past my sharp-eyed, possibly overprotective mother.  This meant I was thoroughly familiar with such figures as Florence Maybrick, Jack the Ripper, and Spring-Heeled Jack well before I was familiar with such trivia as how and when and whether to kiss a boy.

As sad as this sounds (especially the last sentence), it was actually rather pleasant; a lot of Victorian crime fiction is still more than readable, and analyzing the various loony conspiracies surrounding Jack the Ripper and his buddies for their multitudinous flaws equipped me well when it came time to spot the similar insanities that cropped up after the death of Princess Diana (and 9/11, and the Newtown Massacre, and the election of Barack Obama, and the AIDS crisis, and...and...and....).  One conspiracy is much like another when you get right down to it, and no matter how charming and plausible a particular one might be, it's wise to keep this in mind.

Even better, my love of the less savory aspects of Victorian life has provided me with not one, but two - yes, count 'em, two! - diaries for this series.  

The first, Old Boss, You Was Wrong, touched on my love of true crime books, and did unto two rotten books on Jack the Ripper as Saucy Jackie himself did to his victims.  

The second...well, you'll just have to look beneath the Daily Kos Level 0.1 Kaiju to find out, won't you?

first encountered tonight's Author So Bad He's Good during the first days of my obsession with Victorian crime.  One of the most interesting sections in Donald Rumbelow's book on Jack the Ripper first names the chief suspects, then goes through the evidence both for and against each one.  Many of these possible Rippers have figured in subsequent works (particularly the Duke of Clarence, the indolent, quite possible gay heir to the British throne who makes a wonderful heir on paper until one realizes that he inconsiderate enough to be in Scotland hunting grouse during at least one of the murders), or at least have become associated in the public mind with the Ripper killings (the mysterious boarder with an unhealthy interest in anatomy and a habit of going out late and coming back covered in blood).

And then there was the foreign suspect, the least plausible of all, who had the most intriguing backstory, the oddest reason for massacring innocent streetwalkers, and the least likely origin:  a lost manuscript authored (in French, no less!) by Grigori Efimovich Rasputin, the disreputable, unhygienic, and surprisingly influential holy man who was instrumental in bringing down the Romanov Dynasty.

According to this theory of the crime, one Doctor Alexander Pedachenko, a less than stable medical man from Odessa, was deliberately sent by the Tsarist police to London and unleashed upon its working girls in hopes of giving Scotland Yard a big, fat black eye.  This would in turn embarrass the English government, especially the Home Office, and show the world the inferiority of a police force that was not primarily engaged in tracking down anarchists and sending them off to Siberia.  

That there was no evidence of any rivalry between the Russian and English police (let alone one bitter enough that the Russians would deliberately dump a serial killer in Whitechapel), or that anyone named "Doctor Pedachenko" ever existed, either in Odessa or London, was explained away by the turmoil of the Russian Revolution.  Records had been lost, or so the theory went, and only a handful of White Russians knew the truth behind the murders that had shocked the world.  These figures, mindful of possible reprisals at the hands of the Reds, had in turn entrusted this dangerous, fascinating utterly ludicrous knowledge to the one man they knew could be trusted to reveal it at the appropriate time.

The year was 1923.  The book that unleashed the saga of Doctor Pedachenko on an enraptured world was Things I Know about Kings, Celebrities and Crooks.  Its author was William Tufnell Le Queux, a journalist, crime novelist, and gossip columnist who was the Edwardian equivalent of the bastard love child of Robin Leach and Brad Thor.  Le Queux, yet another of the incredibly popular, incredibly prolific, incredibly bad figures who seem to crop up with surprising regularity in these diaries, churned out approximately 150 novels, most of them potboilers about crooks, damsels in distress, spies, murderers, yet more damsels in distress, aristocrats, and celebrities of all sorts.

If that weren't enough for one man, Le Queux was also a patriotic Briton who supported a strong national defense and wrote several ridiculous novels about what would happen if the evil Germans ever managed to set foot upon England's green and pleasant land.  These books are the subject of tonight's diary, and if they aren't enough to send you straight off to write an indignant letter to the Home Secretary or the First Sea Lord about the desperate need for better immigration control and more money to build dreadnoughts, nothing will.

Whether he ever actually met Rasputin (or whether Rasputin himself knew enough French to do more than swear, let alone write down a detailed account of twenty year old events) is not known.

William Le Queux was a true international man of exaggeration and silliness mystery.  Born in London to an Anglo-French couple in 1864, he was educated in Europe, studied art in Paris, and embarked upon a foot tour of Europe.  He then spent several years writing for French newspapers before heading back to London to edit such worthy bastions of serious journalism as Piccadilly just Piccadilly, no circuses were involved or harmed and Gossip (no, I did NOT make up this name, even I have my limits).  Soon he tired of the editor's life and switched to political reporting for The Globe, wrote his first two books, then gave upon the newspapers entirely to become a full time writer and traveler.

These travels took him to many, many places:  the familiar and glittering cities of Europe, the exotic and anarchist-packed Balkans, the exotic and windswept sands of North Africa.  Along the way he picked up an interest in new technology like airplanes and wireless, dabbled in diplomacy as an honorary consul for San Marino (don't you dare laugh, at least it's bigger than Monaco or Grand Fenwick!), became a minor but definite fixture in the drawing rooms of aristocratic and literary London, and rubbed shoulders with the rich, famous, and notorious on several continents.  

Along the way, Le Queux, who must have had the Mother of All Repetitive Stress Injuries in those pre-typewriter days, managed to write an astonishing forty-six novels, or an average of three and a half full length books every year between 1893 and 1906.  Among these were thrillers (The Great White Queen. A Tale Of Treasure And Treason), potboilers (A Secret Sin , or, A Madonna of the Music Halls), romance (Whoso Findeth a Wife), tales ripped from the headlines (Scribes and Pharisees; A Story of Literary London), romantic spy thrillers (The Czar's Spy: The Mystery of a Silent Love), and less comprehensible tales such as The Hunchback of Westminster and The Man from Downing Street.  

These books, almost all of them available at fine tag sales and junk shops across our great land, sold well enough to support Le Queux in a style to which he quickly became accustomed.  At the same time, he took nothing for granted; not only did Le Queux continue to churn out wholesome, exciting fiction for the adoring masses, he used the networking skills he'd honed in his career as diplomat, gossip columnist, and all around adventurer to keep himself connected to the leading lights of British publishing.

He also dabbled in politics, which lead to Le Queux's greatest literary achievement, at least until he claimed to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper.

Few today realize that Victorian Britain, rich and powerful and secure in its status as the Greatest of the Great Powers, boasted a paranoid streak that made Joseph McCarthy look like the most trusting of innocents.  The average Briton was well aware that Europe, beautiful, intriguing, tumultuous Europe, home to treacherous Frenchmen, murderous Germans, devious Italians, anarchist Serbs, etc., was separated from England by only that thin strip of water called the English Channel.  Worse, London, seat of Her Majesty's Government, not only was the largest city in the world, but one of the most diverse, with a polyglot population that made New York look like an inbred town in Thomas Hardy's Wessex.  All too many residents of this teeming metropolis were foreigners who didn't speak English, didn't look English, and weren't even Anglican (or even, horror of horrors, Christian).  Surely it was only a matter of time before foreign powers took advantage of British freedoms and toleration to send over trained spies and agents to infiltrate and undermine Britannia in the guise of tourists and immigrants!

Most of the time this paranoia was confined to mere snobbery; Victoria's subjects were nothing if not confident of the Empire's place in the world, and the presence of the Home Fleet ready to pounce on any invading force quieted many fears. At the same time, conservatives both in and out of Parliament were convinced that somehow, some way, the Evil Foreigners would manage to smuggle an invasion force into London that would overthrow the government before Westminster was even aware of the danger.  

The result was a minor but real craze for novels detailing not only how the Evil Foreigners would overrun Britain, but how the British, doughty, plucky, and lucky, would rise up and drive the Evil Foreigners back to the Continent with their tails between their legs. These books, which usually decried Britain's allegedly poorly funded and equipped military, at first centered on the Evil French (cleverly disguised as waiters, milliners, and chefs), then came to settle on the Evil Germans (cleverly disguised as waiters, fencing masters, and chefs).  There was even a parody/commentary on the whole genre, HG Wells' The War of the Worlds, where the Evil Foreigners are actually Evil Martians who are defeated not by pluck, luck, or English grit, but by microbes that might actually have originated in Europe or some other less savory part of the world.

If there were any invasion thrillers where the Evil Foreigners were Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, Russians, or Wends, I've yet to see them, but one never knows.

William Le Queux first dipped into this fascinating literature of the paranoid in the 1890's, when he produced The Great War in England in 1897 (in 1894) and England's Peril (in 1899, or only two years after his prediction of Evil French and Evil Russians ).  These books sold decently, but no more than the likes of The Eye of Istar; a Romance of the Land of No Return, Zoraida, or any of Le Queux's other productions.  No, it wasn't until 1906 that he finally wrote the book that is his chief claim to fame, fortune, and a place in English letters.

This book, The Invasion of 1910, was inspired by a series of increasingly intemperate, increasingly paranoid lectures by Field Marshal Earl Roberts.  This worthy military professional, who had the soldier's scorn for civilians and sailors, specialized in appearances at British educational institutions.  He would spend these railing at the enraptured schoolboys about the glories of the British Army, the perfidy of the Continentals, and the criminal lack of preparation by those blind, gutless politicians who had no idea of the danger lurking behind every German sausage-seller's smiling countenance.

That Britain was in the middle of a naval arms race with Germany, spurred on by military veteran Winston Churchill and visionary admiral Jackie Fisher, didn't seem to register with the old soldier. Besides, the Navy didn't count; all the dreadnoughts in the world wouldn't help if the Boche actually managed to smuggle over hundreds (or thousands, or tens of thousands) of trained soldiers cleverly disguised as butchers, brewers, etc. before they rose up and attacked the unsuspecting housewives, businessmen, newsboys, and meat lovers of London.

No, ships would not do.  The old Field Marshal was convinced of it.  So was William Le Queux's old buddy Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail.  And so, of course, was William Le Queux.

The Invasion of 1910, at least part of which was written by one H.W. Wilson, began appearing in the Daily Mail in March 1906.  Full of color, incident, and a surprising number of characters wishing "we had listened to Lord Roberts" when it came to arming, equipping, and training the indolent youth of Britain, it purports to be a record of the invasion of Britain (you don't say!) by a German land army.  This force, which lands on the east coast instead of near Dover or another Channel port, rapes and kills and cuts telegraph lines as it heads toward London.  Soon most of the capital itself is in enemy hands, but before the Kaiser's man can consolidate their power, a popular uprising erupts, a new British army is formed, and the Boche are sent scuttling back to the Continent.

The public, primed by decades of paranoid thrillers about the dangers inherent in pastry shop owners, hairdressers, etc., with funny accents and dapper waxed facial hair, took to The Invasion of 1910 like ducks to a quiet millpond.  Soon copies of the Daily Mail were flying off the stands at breakneck speed, and if some of those copies were sold thanks to Lord Northcliffe hiring actors to parade up and down Regent Street dressed in full German infantry uniforms and Pickelhauber helmets, the book itself scarcely needed the extra publicity boost.  

If that weren't enough, the editors at the Daily Mail, no fools they, quickly asked Le Queux to expand the book's focus to include as much of the paper's sales territory as possible.  This is why later installments include lavish accounts of German incursions into every town and village with a few Daily Mail readers, ensuring that the average farmer or small businessman could enjoy seeing his hometown destroyed by Evil Foreigners even as he sipped his tea and muttered angrily about Lord Roberts being right.

Before The Invasion of 1910 finally dropped off the best seller lists, it had been translated into twenty-seven languages (including German, where a pirated edition changed the ending so that the invading Germans won, much to Le Queux's disgust) and had sold a stunning one million copies worldwide. Le Queux was delighted, not only because this master screed had made a tremendous amount of money, but because, loyal patriot that he was, he'd hoped to "bring home to the British public vividly and forcibly what really would occur were an enemy suddenly to appear in our midst," and a bestseller about the Germans rampaging through the Daily Mail's circulation base more than fit the bill.

There was even a movie of The Invasion of 1910, filmed by the Gaumont Cinematograph Company.  Unfortunately, production didn't start until 1912, forcing a title change to The Raid of 1915.  Worse, the production company filmed two endings, one with Britain triumphing over the Boche, the other with Germany imposing its iron rule on its rival.  Production delays ensued, humor magazine Punch mocked the two endings, and by the time the film finally released, not only was it October of 1914, the Great War had been underway for close to three months and was well on its way to settling into the appalling mess called trench warfare rather than an invasion of the home islands.  

Although Le Queux continued to write, producing another thirty-three masterpieces between 1906 and the outbreak of the real, genuine, not-a-novel war with Germany in 1914, most of these were yet more mysteries, non-invasion thrillers, and romantic tales.  It wasn't until the actual war (which did not involve an invasion, alas alack and well-a-day) that he fully returned to the subgenre that had made him rich, with the all too topical The German Spy, a Present-day story and The War of the Nations (co-authored with Edgar Wallace and other thriller specialists).  

These sold briskly enough, but by then Le Queux was convinced that the All-Highest's government somehow blamed him for "rumbling their schemes" by exposing their war plans; seemingly he had forgotten that he was neither the first nor the last British author to write about Evil Germans invading or attacking Britain, which meant that either he was being paranoid (you don't say?) or the Germans had a hit list of authors and playwrights longer than the Kaiser's right arm.  

Undaunted by such practical, non-paranoid considerations, Le Queux demanded police protection from the hordes of German agents cleverly disguised as bootblacks, barbers, booksellers, and of course waiters he was convinced were lurking about his home, waiting for just the right moment to spirit him away to parts unknown. The local forced ignored him, ditto the Metropolitan Police when he visited London, and the professionals, who had more than enough to deal with now that war had finally come, dismissed Le Queux as a "not a person to be taken seriously" and refused to indulge his paranoia.

This did not prevent Le Queux from continuing to write;  most of his wartime books dealt with invasion fears (most notably 1915's The Mystery of the Green Ray, which involves not only Evil Germans but Mad Scientists, Death Rays, and a dog whose Death-Ray induced blindness is cured by the use of colored goggles), but he did manage to non-military books like The Place of Dragons:  A Mystery and Cinders of Harley Street.  By the time he wrote Things I Know About Kings, Celebrities, and Crooks in 1923, his shelves groaned beneath the weight of another fifty-plus novels, with at least thirty more to come before his death in 1927.

And if that weren't enough for one man, even a journalist/diplomat/traveler/political junkie like William Le Queux, his oeuvre also boasted twenty-two collections of short stories and twenty non-fictional works about royalty, spies, current affairs, politics, celebrities, and murderers.  That all too many of these allegedly true stories were riddled with errors large and small, misinterpreted what verifiable facts he saw fit to include, or were based on outright hoaxes, did not seem to bother Le Queux a whit.  He was an entertainer first and foremost, even when he was the voice crying in the wilderness against British complacency and softness, and if his critics found him less than worthy of praise, his sales figures argued otherwise.

That he set the pattern for other alleged entertainers in times to come, some of them far less entertaining and more insidious in their effect on the body politic, probably never crossed his mind; for all his prescience in predicting a war with Germany, William Le Queux never could have foreseen that a century later, concerns about border security, war with menacing Continental Powers, and celebrity gossip tinged with a healthy dose of speculation and paranoia would not only still fly off the bookshelves at the Heck Piazza Book-o-rama, but that there would be this new and terrifying medium dominated by men whose paranoia, jingoistic patriotism, and lack of journalistic ethics would make Le Queux look quaint and harmless…..

%%%%%

So, my friends - have you ever heard of William Le Queux?  British invasions that did not involve the Fab Four?  Do you own a Victorian mystery?  Have you seen one?  Do you know the lyrics to "We Don't Want the Bacon"?  Victorian glassware?  It's Saturday night and you know that that means….

%%%%%

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:






DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
alternate
Sundays
2:00 PM What's on Your E-Reader? Caedy
alternate
Sundays
2:00 PM Bibliophile's Wish List Caedy
alternate
Sundays
4:00 PM Political Books Susan from 29
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery michelewln, Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
alternate Thursdays (on hiatus) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
alternate Fridays 8:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht
Fri 10:00 PM Slightly Foxed -- But Still Desirable shortfinals
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 12:00 PM You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews pwoodford
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 06:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site