SOLAR PONS VS. THE SUPER VILLAINS

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Introduction

While Sir Arthur may not have invented the concept, he did foster the literary notion with the publication of "The Final Problem," and I think it's fair to say that Conan Doyle made forever popular this idea of "super villains" with his seemingly fleeting creation of Professor Moriarty. Shortsightedly desiring to rid himself of Sherlock Holmes, the great author felt it necessary to conceive of a monumental foe, a "Napoleon of crime," who could take down the great detective to mutual destruction. It worked for a few years, but public clamor and the lure of easy profit led to the return of Holmes, and Conan Doyle, in his wisdom, also saw fit to resurrect Moriarty, after a fashion, to a small degree.

In retrospect, what impresses me is how little he made of Holmes' arch enemy, even in the original appearance, nevertheless devising a character pattern that swarms of other writers would choose to follow and build upon. In "The Final Problem" Moriarty, cold and drab, granted little dialogue, isn't the presence he might have been--one can imagine him bold and colorful, certainly larger than life like Holmes; like Napoleon for that matter--while in The Valley of Fear he hardly rates mention. There's something to be said for keeping a Moriarty in the shadows, a dark, sinister spider in the midst of his invisible web, but I speculate that Conan Doyle simply thought better of the idea, decided not to fool much with it. Those who came after, concocting fresh Sherlockian adventures, have often viewed the matter otherwise. On the printed page, in television and movies, Moriarty keeps coming back, either in his creator's laconic form or as a more concrete, personified threat.

The super villain as concept exploded in popularity in subsequent years, with mighty criminals such as Fantomas, world shakers of the Fu Manchu type, and assorted master spies teeming within the various kinds of genre thrillers, right up to James Bond. They became an accepted sub-set of such tales, which in turn surely influenced later presentations within the lore of Sherlock Holmes.

August Derleth, in developing Solar Pons as a near clone of the ultimate detective, inherited from Conan Doyle all the literary trappings associated with that man from Baker Street including, apparently, this business of the super villain. Therefore, Derleth composed stories containing these splendidly unethical scoundrels. When Basil Copper took up the Pons mantle after Derleth's untimely demise, he too offered stories incorporating immensely superior knaves. In this essay I wish to discuss what the two Pons authors did with the idea, also comparing and contrasting them on their merits.

Derleth and His Super Villains

August Derleth offers the readers of his Pons stories two major heavies with multiple appearances, the Doctor and the Baron Kroll, characters whom he employs in wildly different fashion. The former constitutes a borrowing by Derleth, that lover of pastiche, while the latter, so far as I can tell, is entirely his own creation. In addition, the Black Cardinal, a grand conspirator, must be noted.

The Doctor, appearing in "The Adventure of the Seven Sisters" and "The Adventure of the Camberwell Beauty," (also referenced in "The Adventure of the Praed Street Irregulars") is of course Derleth's thinly disguised version of Sax Roemer's copyrighted baddie Fu Manchu. The leader of the Si-Fan--"That amazing web-work of mysterious forces which, legend has it, is represented in every corner of the earth!"--this evil genius, "an ageless Chinese doctor," apparently seeks power through his nefarious activities, aiming vaguely at world domination, the standard menace of the Yellow Peril tale. He does seem, at first blush, to reject anything of goodness in the world: "I am too old--far older than you can believe--to subscribe to the quaint idealism of the Caucasians, and I am imbued with the philosophy of the East, which does not hold to the same veneration for life that saturates your effete civilization." Despite describing him as mysteriously old, infinitely wise, and utterly dangerous, Derleth curiously eschews portrayals of ostentatious scheming, choosing instead with this trio of adventures to direct Solar Pons into cases hinging on the Doctor's sense of rough justice, even into matters of his personal interest.

The Baron Ennesfred Kroll (or von Kroll) is a despicable secret agent operating on behalf of an inter-war Germany that would be militarily resurgent. We learn of him from four adventures: "the Seven Passengers," "the Lost Holiday," "the Praed Street Irregulars," and "the Trained Cormorant," especially the former two. We know nothing pleasant about Baron Kroll. "The Baron has been engaged in several rather dubious matters on the Continent" Pons informs us, but he spends his nefarious time within the Derleth tales spying on England under the cover of his embassy and voluminous social contacts. Even by the standards of his trade, the Baron's methods are questionable, operating as "an extraordinary espionage agent and blackmailer, who is not above stooping to any indecency to gain his ends;" in case there be any doubt in the matter, "'Baron Kroll does not uphold the same standards as English gentlemen do,' said Pons. 'He carries on a secondary existence as a particularly obnoxious kind of leech who preys upon human failings by blackmailing his poor victims--not for money, for he has no need of that; I fancy Berlin makes him a generous allowance--but for anything in the way of state secrets which may be of value to his superiors.'"

In a single tale, "The Adventure of the Black Cardinal," Derleth devises another character who briefly flirts with super villain status. The titular Black Cardinal, "an individual obsessed with hatred for the Roman Church," embarks upon a one-man campaign to destroy Catholicism in Europe. Usually invisible, acting behind the scenes, he is here, there, everywhere, fomenting unrest and discord, eventually arriving incognito in London, where solar Pons takes him on.

Copper and His Super Villains

Basil Copper, in his continuation of the Pons adventures, resurrects the Doctor and Baron Kroll, then adds two characters of his own who strive for super villain status. His new master criminals are Charles Brinsley LaFontaine and Colonel Alistair McDonald.

Copper does little with Derleth's two characters, merely referencing them in a trio of tales. Oriental nastiness underlies "The Adventure of the Defeated Doctor," but despite the resounding title Pons just confronts lowly minions of evil as he busts a flourishing drug-smuggling racket. In the Doctor, "the most dangerous man in Europe," Copper sees only the dark side: "No crime is too despicable for that scoundrel. And he would need such enormous profits as that generated by the drugs trade to fuel his infamous criminal empire." The Doctor does make an epistolary appearance at the end, writing "MR PONS--YOUR ROUND, I THINK. WE SHALL MEET AGAIN." Baron Kroll is removed still more from center stage. In "The Adventure of the Cursed Curator" Pons simply asserts the Baron's involvement, and then there is "The Adventure of the Baffled Baron," a puzzlingly slight rewrite of "the Defeated Doctor" which adds nothing to Pons lore. There must be a tale behind that tale, but I have no idea what it is.

LaFontaine, the clever scamp in "The Adventure of the Ignored Idols," makes his single appearance as a master of disguise and gentleman burglar. With even his real name unknown, this mysterious criminal--who has once bested Pons in the past--makes his living by raiding the lucrative wares of the largest and choicest victims, such as great museums. Pons admits to a sneaking admiration for him, but we learn little about the character himself, nor is he brought to heel in this story, although his daring scheme is foiled.

Copper creates a more impressive super villain in the person of Colonel Alistair McDonald, Pons' nemesis in "The Adventure of the Callous Colonel." A grand figure indeed: "Explorer, big game hunter, stalker, collector of esoteric objects, he has also regrettable criminal tendencies which have made him a good deal of money." A scholar of note, McDonald's publications include "'The Sphere and the Triangle' (1914) and 'The Dimensions of Ecstasy' (1923)." This man of "ingenious mind" "has twice tried to kill me," Pons declares, yet the awesome fellow devotes most of his skullduggery to high-level financial fraud. Despite the upper crust elements of his character, McDonald is presented as a criminal monster, one who employs the creepiest tactics to achieve his evil ends.

Putting the Super Villains to Work

Now I want to consider what is made of these characters, and what they contribute to the stories in which they appear.

August Derleth

Derleth, that literary Jack of all trades, easily works his mighty evil-doers into his tales, makes them seem like they ought to belong, endows them with some personality. In general, the relevant stories would not be the same without their super villains.

For the Doctor, Derleth provides an artful personal description: "the tallest Chinese I had ever seen. He was thin and very old, and his tallness was such that his shoulders were slightly hunched, as if he were conscious of his height, so unusual among his countrymen. Even more remarkable was the inquiring face turned upon us. It was yellow in colour, and the lustrous, hypnotic eyes which looked in our direction were green, a kind of smoky green. The head was domed, with but a few wisps of hair in an uncut tonsure, and his body was cloaked in Mandarin robes of singular richness." What is so interesting is how, despite indications "of sinister menace and malefic power," Derleth on every occasion chooses to display the Doctor at his human best. In "the Praed Street Irregulars" the Doctor aids Pons; in "the Seven Sisters" he serves justice while, to be sure, benefiting himself; in "the Camberwell Beauty" he allows himself to be swayed by sentiment. It's as if Derleth, in appropriating Fu Manchu, felt it necessary to reveal another facet of such an enormous character, to invent fresh complexity. He succeeds, if that be the goal.

Baron Kroll, suave enemy spy extraordinaire, is a more conventional bad guy. While he does not loom large the way the doctor does, the Baron as literary factor lends a delightful air of conspiratorial mystery to his stories. The heroic detective work of Solar Pons of course solves the current crime, but thanks to the Baron there is always more going on behind the scenes, ever the fear of fresh irruptions of evil concocted out of increasingly dangerous Berlin. In hindsight he stands for all those ugly forces in Germany plotting a new war for world domination, one they intend to win this time.

Similarly the Black Cardinal, in his lone outing, embodies the worst kind of social chaos and breakdown, with his embittered deviltry intended to spark "religious war" in Europe. It is too bad that, despite considerable background material on the man, Derleth refrains from giving us much in the way of on-stage development. We see him, and we know how he operates, but he is gone too fast to observe much of his dire personality in action. This is a rare case in which I might have preferred another story, to make more of the villain.

Basil Copper

While Copper proves himself quite accomplished at the art of Ponsifying, I get the feeling that super villains aren't his forte. When he does invoke them Copper, in general, doesn't do much with them, with one attempt falling completely flat. On the other hand, in a single instance he fashions a marvelous master criminal worthy of Pons' professional esteem, in some respects the best presentation of such in the entire Pons corpus.

Copper reuses Derleth's characters of the Doctor and Baron Kroll, although in the latter case to an entirely trivial degree. Kroll receives slight mention in "the Cursed Curator," while the peculiar references in that oddity, "the Baffled Baron," baffle this fan too. Both stories seem to misread the fellow, as all association with German espionage has vanished; Copper treats him merely as a big-time gangster. In "the Defeated Doctor" that villain fares somewhat better as the dimly perceived mastermind behind a major drug smuggling ring. It makes sense, perhaps, that we get one adventure in which the Doctor is portrayed as an evil force.

LaFontaine, unfortunately, just doesn't rate. He appears, barely, in the least of Copper's Pons tales, doesn't accomplish much, mercifully disappears at the conclusion, never to annoy again, although in super villain fashion he sends, "in copper-plate handwriting," this supposedly terrifying message: "YOU HAVE CROSSED MY PATH TWICE, MR PONS. POINTS EVEN, I THINK. WE SHALL MEET AGAIN, I WARN YOU. L." Thank goodness it didn't come to pass!

Ah, but Copper goes a long way towards balancing the scales by devising the entertainingly horrid character of Colonel Alistair McDonald. This guy is a fancy operator, devoted to fomenting gigantic schemes, keen on any kind of abhorrent criminality that will achieve his greedy goals. As a top notch super villain, the Colonel appropriately employs a most loathsome henchman, and engages in sterling quality acts of evil, including the classic tarantula gambit: "McDonald is a specialist in such things." As did Derleth with the Doctor, Copper wisely affords his readers a delicious word picture of the man: "A smartly-dressed but almost emaciated old man with a gaunt face, hook-nose and iron-grey moustache. The only things alive in the dead white face were the burning yellow eyes which were fixed unwinkingly upon Pons." He coolly threatens as a character of his stamp ought: "You have been interfering with my operations, Mr Pons. And when you come upon my own home ground I find it intolerable." A message passes between them in this one too, although here it leads to the climax, and the words are the hero's: " THIS MATTER MUST BE SETTLED BETWEEN US. YOUR TERMS OR MINE. PONS." Colonel McDonald is the sort who justifies a challenge of this kind.

Final Thoughts

By way of confession, if I must so term it, let me frankly state that I have never been fond of the employment of the super villain within the Holmes franchise, not from its very inception, which affects my analysis of the relevant Pons oeuvre as well. I deem "The Final Problem" lesser Holmes, with Moriarty's portrayal striking me as oddly lackluster, deficient in excitement and, yes, believability. I'm glad he seldom intrudes into Watson's accounts thereafter. My concerns on this point extend to the use of similar characters by Derleth and Copper.

The combined presentations of the Doctor generate a fascinating image of charisma, power, and menace, even if he isn't at all villainous in Derleth's tales. I wish our authors had composed at least one personal appearance with more evil intent. Derleth's employment of the Baron provides the best sustained picture of a mighty foe at work; unfortunately the man himself is seriously underplayed. I would like to have seen him in action more.

Except for LaFontaine, the major one-off villains of the Pons adventures suit me pretty well, proving capable of charming for a single story. Perhaps that is the best solution: make a big splash with a super villain, then move on. That works perfectly with Colonel McDonald, as devised by Copper. I can't help but note that "the Callous Colonel" is something of a rewrite of "The Final Problem," but it's actually a superior story. Instead of being a hastily conceived gimmick to eradicate the hero, Copper's version offers not only a great villain, but also a thrilling mystery, something sorely lacking in the case of the original Moriarty saga.

So, super villains can get the job done, but surely I may also safely conclude that their few stories within the vast assortment of Pons adventures aren't really what it's all about. The best tales of both authors don't use them. Who needs a super villain in "The Adventure of the Benin Bronzes" or "Death at the Metropole"? These characters may even distract the reader from the true point: Pons and his investigative brilliance, the genuine and enduring "supers" of August Derleth and Basil Copper.


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