01 August 2014

Victorian Psycho

The Devil's Die
Grant Allen
New York: F.M. Lupton, [1893]

Mohammad Ali is the hero of this story; its greatest villain – there are several – is friend Harry Chichele. Men of medicine, both were trained at London's Middlesex Hospital, at which the latter cultivated a keen interest in bacteriology.

Entrance to the Harbor of Polperro
Henry Bayley Snell, c.1905
As luck would have it, the pair find themselves in the Cornish town of Polperran (read: Polperro) at the very moment a yacht carrying two cholera victims comes into view. Ali and Chichele set out to rescue and minister, but it becomes quickly apparent that the latter is not so much interested in saving lives as study:
"Now, you couldn't possibly have two nicer or more typical cases than these; because the boy'll die and the man, I expect, will pull through somehow. So, if nothing untoward intervenes to prevent it, I shall have a splendid chance of seeing the course of the disease in both directions – death and recovery." 
The fortunate survivor turns to out to be celebrated painter Ivan Royle. The two doctors care for their patient at the local manse, each – and here I include Royle – falling in love with Olwen Tregallis, the clergyman's pretty daughter.

Mohammad Ali considers himself out of the running. Though strikingly handsome, highly educated and wealthy, he sees his skin is not of the right hue. And what would the townsfolk think of the reverend's daughter marrying a "Mussulman"? Such is Ali's devotion to Olwen that he encourages Royle to propose. His greatest fear is that the English rose will marry Chichele, whom he has begun to believe is a bad seed.

Middlesex Hospital, London, c.1861
But Chichele proposes first, and Olwen accepts. The clergyman's daughter looks forward to wedded bliss as her betrothed returns to his collection bottled of germs at Middlesex Hospital. He's hardly had a chance to sit down when a violent drunk of a woman is admitted with "lodging-house fever". Chichele leaps from his seat, aware that her post-mortem will provide the final piece of evidence required to complete his revolutionary theory on the advancement of the disease.

Oh, happy day!

However, Chichele's visions of wealth and glory – a knighthood for himself, a ladyship for his future wife – are quickly dashed as the wretched woman begins to rally.

"Confound her", Harry murmurs to himself. Better that she die, he tells Ali, consider:
"The valuable lives that would be saved for humanity! The wrenches that would be spared to parents and children? The hold we should gain over epidemic diseases! Why, our entire principles and practice of hygiene would be revolutionized offhand. Fever would be banished, cholera dispelled, diphtheria and scarlatina held at arm's length! Earth would become a really habitable planet, and the triumphant germ who now walks up and down this oblate spheroid of ours like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, would have his fangs drawn and his claws pared by the calm, cool, dispassionate prevision of prophylactic science I All these good things would come to mankind – and I should be able to marry Olwen Tregellas! But no! That bloated, pasty-faced drunken old reprobate, lying in bed in her sins upstairs there, stops the way for all future progress!
So, Chichele kills her.

The doctor commits this ignoble act in an ingenious way, so is never under suspicion by anyone save his Mussulman colleague. Chichele will move to murder again; he is, as I've said, the greatest villain. He joins the others as the most interesting characters in the novel. My favourite is the child Lizbeth Wilcox, the waifish daughter of the "drunken old reprobate". Rescued from a life of poverty and misery, Lizbeth defies Dickens in proving herself truly evil. Her actions bring death, though the victim is not the one intended.

George Bernard Shaw thought The Devil's Die shocking. The impact was such that he drew upon Chichele in the creation of Dr Paramore in The Philanderer, his 1893 comedy. Shaw wrote of Allen's novel as flawed, all the while acknowledging the strength of its story.

Who am I to disagree with Shaw?

The plot is indeed riveting, though I will say that I found the last third a bit of a mixed bag. For reasons I won't describe – that would be spoiling things – Ali travels to the United States in search of Ivan Royle. There he encounters prejudice unlike anything he has experienced in England. In New York, Ali endures the ignominy of segregated hotels and segregated dining rooms: "If this was the treatment he received in New York itself, the enlightened and civilized metropolis of the Atlantic seaboard, what sort of reception might he expect to obtain from the wild westerners among whom Ivan Royle had pitched his tent on the rough and rugged slopes of the Rocky Mountains?"

What sort of reception? The sort offered by lawless men who believe in "Caucasian supremacy" and "Aryan culture". These men of the American west "don't mean to allow no more niggers, nor Chinamen or any sort." They'll kill both with keen enthusiasm.

I'm wrong. Harry Chichele isn't the novel's greatest villain.

Plus ça change:

The critics rave:

One of the most gruesome books which it has ever been our misfortune to read.
The Spectator, 26 May 1888

Sensationalism in fiction threatens to overeach [sic] itself and "fall on t'other side." Mr. Grant Allen who began life as a doctor, then turned to journalism, and finally "took up" with fiction is utilizing some of his medical knowledge in a new novel which he is writing for the people; but according to the announcement of the story ("The Devil's Die") in the advertisements of the same the author is bent on out-haggarding Haggard.*
The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1887

Object: The Devil's Die was serialized in the English magazine People (31 July 1887 - 22 January 1888), and in Australia's Leader (17 September 1887 - 16 June 1888). It was first published in book form in 1888 by Chatto & Windus. My copy – the seventh American edition! – is a typical example of stuff produced by the horrible publish and crumble house of Lupton.

Access: Last published in 1900, the year after the author's untimely death. Kingston-Frontenac Public Library, the Toronto Public Library and the University of Toronto have copies, but they're non-circulating. Fortunately, the novel can be read online through the Internet Archive here.

Because it is on the Internet Archive all sorts of crap is being excreted by print on demand vultures. Nobel Press' The devil's die microform: a novel is pretty silly, but my favourite is Nabu's, which features one of England's many grain elevators.

Nobel and Nabu are selling their dreck for forty or so American dollars. The price conscious are directed to Lupton's 1900 edition, which can be had through online booksellers for US$19.00. The one to buy, of course, is the three-volume Chatto & Windus first, but it's nowhere in sight.
* In fact, Allen was not a medical doctor and never studied medicine.


  1. Harry Chichele is only one of many fictional egocentric scientists obsessed with bacteria and viruses who conduct murderous experiments on humans. Grant Allen's fellow Strand magazine writers L.T. Meade & Robert Eustace wrote several stories about criminal masterminds who resort to germs as a murder means. The title character in Dr. Krasinski's Secret by M. P. Shiel could be Harry's evil twin so alike are they in warped intellect and conceit. And there is the villain in A Master of the Microbe by Robert W. Service. Say, shouldn't you be writing about Service's thrillers one of these days? Didn't someone once call him the "Canadian Kipling"?

    1. You've got me wanting to read everything you've mentioned, John. And you are right that it is about time I read Service's fiction. Long overdue.

      Spoiler: In all fairness to Doctor Chichele, he resorts to germs as a murderous means only once. That his intended victim, Olwen, survives is due his own efforts. You see, he has a change of heart.

      As a result - BIG spoiler - Chichele himself dies after contracting the disease from his wife. Now, I would've seen this coming except that the doctor's death occurs roughly two-thirds of the way through the novel. It's a bit like Janet Leigh dying in the first reel of Psycho.

      Oh. So, um, Marion Crane/Harry Chichele isn't the main character?

  2. White supremacy is a common theme in the early frontier fiction I've read, though occasionally challenged there, as well.

    Anti-Chinese sentiment on the West Coast was rampant. Efforts were made to thwart and discourage immigration. Harte notes in his novella "The Blue-Grass Penelope" that they were not allowed to testify in court, so a white man could "trust" them with incriminating evidence of wrong-doing.

    1. Interesting, Ron. In The Devil's Die a "Chinaman" is accused of cheating at cards and hanged without trial. Englishman Ivan Royle - whom the townsfolk invariably refer to as a "tenderfoot" - very nearly meets the same fate for questioning the execution.

  3. Is The Devil's Die actually a misreading of Grant Allen's own title? The Devil's Due- as in "Give the Devil his due"- is a much more common phrase and fits in with your comment on the plot.

    1. I was wondering about the title myself, then encountered this passage: "Kismet, kismet; it was all fated. Always fate; that dreaded destiny. The devil's die had been cast long sinoe."

      Then we get this: "The devil's die had been cast to no purpose…"

      Finally, we have doomed Harry Chichele crying out in despair: "The devil has held the dice all through."

      Curiously, all these passages come from the second half of the novel.