The Big Heart

An intriguing item in the Monash University online exhibit of detective fiction is number 63: The Big Heart, by John G. Brandon, described as the story of ‘a soldier, demobilized after the First World War, who finds work as a detective unravelling a blackmail plot.’
The book turns out to be one of the early-twenties thrillers that responded to the immense success of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond by imitating it (Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary is another example.)
The similarities to Sapper’s bookare many: the plot is kicked off by a newspaper advertisement; the heroes are a group of ex-officers with a mighty appetite for beer; their womenfolk’s main function in the plot is to get kidnapped; the ex-soldiers apply skills learned in wartime to solve a peacetime problem; much play is made with the fact that one of them is excessively ugly (which doesn’t stop him from getting the girl); outrageous coincidences abound; and there is enough racial stereotyping to fill several earnest theses deploring imperial attitudes.
There are some differences, though: These ex-officers get involved not because they are bored with civilian life, but because they are unemployed. Whereas in Sapper’s book, Drummond is the leader and the rest follow orders as they had done in wartime, in The Big Heart the collection of righteous men is much more of a democratic collective, and decisions are mostly made in committee. The villains here are mostly Italian-American gangsters (plus a huge ‘half-breed’ with lustful designs on the ladies). Apart from a rather token mention of a sinister Russian, who plays no part in the story, there is no political dimension to the criminal conspiracy. The book includes the scene (obligatory in this genre of thriller) where one of the good guys eavesdrops on the bad men plotting, and discovers the scope of their operations, but he does not find the statutory mixture of evil geniuses, Socialists and thugs scheming to destroy the nation (as one of Agatha Christie’s characters puts it in The Secret Adversary: ‘The Bolshevists are behind the labour unrest – but this man is behind the Bolshevists.’
In fact, this novel is light on politics in general. Paddy, the carefree Irishman at the centre of the story, never shows any sign of being concerned about the Civil War currently raging in his own country at this period.
John G. Brandon was an Australian. This was his first book, but he went on to write over 120 more thrillers, including many featuring Sexton Blake. I’ve a feeling that he gained inclusion into the Monash display more for his nationality than for the merits of his writing (he has an awful tendency to use words like ‘betook’ and ‘epistle’, and describes a fisherman as an ‘earnest and devoted disciple of the worthy Isaak); but on the other hand, it’s a lively book with never a dull moment, and passed away a couple of long bus journeys quite satisfactorily.
The title comes from a little mantra spoken by one of the good guys:
‘’Tis the clever ones – the Big Brains – that rule the world, but it’s the damned fools – the Big Hearts – that make it fit to live in.’
This fits a pattern in books of this type; both Bulldog Drummond and Agatha Christie’s Tommy are frequently referred to as ‘stupid’, in contrast to the evil geniuses they are up against. I’d relate it to a myth of the War prevalent in the twenties – that the Germans may have been tactically clever, but the British (and Dominion) soldiers won out through sheer guts, team spirit and staying-power.


  1. Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    I’d read this!

  2. Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on ww1ha and commented:
    Post-war, ex-soldiers become detectives — except for the racial stereotypes, which unfortunately were common in that era — this sounds like a fun (though rather silly) read.

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