“So, where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?”
Biggles was mentioned, last Saturday, on a discussion group devoted to pulp adventure, among other things.
While American classic pulp heroes are getting some attention right now, there’s this feeling their British counterparts are somewhat neglected.
Sure, there are fine reprints (and new stories) about Sexton Blake, but what of Biggles and Bulldog Drummond?
As luck would have it, I’ve a Biggles novel right here on my desk – a twenty-odd years old paperback edition of The Camels are Coming I bought second-hand for 1 eurocent.
So, why not write a small post about Biggles*?
Written by a veteran of the First World War, W.E. Johns, the Biggles novels follow the adventures of James “Biggles” Bigglesworth – an ace pilot that, starting as a fighter pilot in WWI, basically goes through most of the conflicts of the first half of the 20th century… flying most of the available planes in the catalog.
Biggles and his friends – like most pulp heroes, he can count on a varied list of companions, first and foremost his young cousin Algernon, aka Algy – routinely defeat the Hun, chase spies (first German, later Russian), face air pirates, go treasure-hunting and in general lead a globetrotting, adventurous life.
96 Biggles volumes – both novels and short stories collections – were published between 1932 and 1970; two more volumes of previously uncollected material were released in the late ’90s.
In general the earlier capers – the ones set during the Great War – are considered the best, chiefly thanks to the author’s first hand experience of the war in the air.
Also, the target audience was probably more mature, the historical details are correct and vivid, the action can be over-the-top but is still well in the field of what we might dub “pulp realism”.
Indeed, The Camels are Coming is a good, entertaining yarn, with an ample cast, a clear set-up, and a straightforward development.
Adventurous stuff narrated in purple prose, sure, but quite solid.
Later entries in the series, set between the wars or later during WW2 and after, become more clichéd, more repetitive and, admittedly, more childish.
Death scenes lose their pathos, our heroes imbibe lemonade instead of champagne.
Judging from this first book, the writing of Captain Johns is serviceable, his knowledge of the Great War in the skies and of flying machines in general good, his characters maybe a little on the cardboard side, but quite acceptable.
Granted, his political correctedness is somewhat lacking – but we do not read this stuff for its political contents.
Right now, a good selection of the novels is easily found in paperback or in ebook.
And investing a fiver in the double-feature ebook of Biggle Learns to Fly and The Camels ar Coming might be interesting.
Curiously enough, Biggles was never made into a movie character – but once, in a misguided movie which involved time travel and other spurious elements. And, alas, the great, late Peter Cushing.
Addendum: it has been pointed out that I did not give any reference for those interested in finding the above-mentioned movie.
The film is called Biggles: Adventures in Time, and the two different versions of it (!!!) can be found easily and for free on YouTube.
My only caveat: please do not judge the novels from the movie.
It would be like judging Lewis Carrol’s work from the Tim Burton adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
If you are interested in Biggles, track down the earlier entries in the series. You will not be disappointed.
* I might try and do something for Blake and Drummond, too.
- Biggles and the Classics (adrianmurdoch.typepad.com)
- Book doctor: What first world war books might 10-year-olds like? (theguardian.com)