Captain Dorry – the ex-soldier as crook

After a longish detour among the modernists, I’m back with popular fiction, and I’ve spent most of today reading an engaging series of stories by A.M.Burrage in Lloyd’s Magazine for 1921.

The Strange Career of Captain Dorry is about an ex-officer (with M.C.) who meets the engaging and mysterious Fewgin, receiver of stolen goods and reader of minds. By observing Dorry, Fewgin astutely realises that he is a candidate for recruitment to his select band of ex-army thieves – who steal only from “certain vampires who made money out of the war, and, by keeping up prices, are continuing to make money out of the peace.”

Fewgin justifies what he does:

“I help brave men who cannot help themselves. I give them a chance to get back a little of their own from the men who battened and fattened on them, who helped to starve their dependents while they were fighting, who smoked fat cigars in the haunts of their betters, and hoped the war might never end.”

These are the values of Bulldog Drummond taken one step further. Drummond in The Black Gang sets up a proto-Fascist organisation to punish with the enemies of England in ways that the police can not – often with a rhino-hide whip – but his motives are disinterested. Dorry and Fewgin commit outright crime, and happily profit from it.

In the first of the stories, they are robbing a man who made a fortune manufacturing inferior jam during the War, one Isaac Sheintz (no prizes for guessing his religion – the stories are consistently anti-Semitic). Sheintz has bought a valuable pearl necklace for Muriel Stedwich, the daughter of an impoverished family, who is being forced to marry him (Sapper used a similar situation in Mufti). Dorry and Fewgin steal it, but the morality of the story is maintained because they do not profit – the proceeds go to the impoverished decent chap whom Muriel truly loves, so that she can now marry him.

Other stories deal with a second-hand dealer who cheats old ladies, so is robbed in his turn, a family of nouveaux-riches who have bought up an old family home, and are scared out of it by apparent poltergeists, and a dishonest socialist who is cheating his Russian paymasters. The most interesting of the group is about some treasure buried in wartime, and an officer who has killed the men who share the secret of it.

The stories belong to the genre of “gentleman-crook” stories, of which Hornung’s Raffles is the most famous example, though he had quite a few imitators. Bunny, the narrator of the Raffles stories, is often plagued by conscience, and he and Raffles get their come-uppance finally. First Bunny goes to prison, and then the pair of them get a chance to prove their worth as gentleman-rankers in the Boer War. Dorry and Fewgin suffer few qualms, and in the five stories printed in Lloyds for 1921 get no kind of come-uppance or punishment. They are ex-soldiers dealing with he problem characters of the post-war world, and the stories back them to the hilt.

The writer A.M.Burrage was a prolific magazine writer, and one whose achievement is hard to reckon because it it spread over many magazines and over many years, with only a few hard-cover publications to give him respectability.

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A.M.Burrage

During the War he was a Private (and very scornful of many of his officers). While on active service he wrote regularly for magazines – mostly love stories, and nothing to do with the War or Army life. After 1918 he diversified. He wrote comic stories (like Poor Dear Esme, which I enjoyed a while ago) and ones that in various ways dealt with post-war issues. His The Recurring Tragedy has been posted online; it’s about a fierce General who during the War had been reckless in sacrificing his men – and is a remarkable early example of fiction critical of Great War generals. Then there’s his odd shell-shock story, The Enemy Over Yonder, whose characters share Fewgin and Dorry’s attitude to war profiteers.These days he is remembered, if at all, for his ghost stories, some of which have been reprinted, and for his opinionated war memoirs (under the pseudonym of Ex-Private X). A while ago, I printed the rather astonishing anecdote from this book about the time when he went sleep-walking while on sentry-duty. I’m going to keep on investigating Burrage.

This jacket, like many others, can be found at

http://www.greatwardustjackets.co.uk/ 

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