Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Iwai Private Detective Agency

That advertisement appeared in The Japan Advertiser of Tokyo, 20 October, 1921. As far as I can tell, the Iwai Agency existed in Tokyo since 1886, and I've found ads for it in various European papers of the 1910s and 1920s.

Which, to me, is extremely interesting. A private detective agency operating in Tokyo beginning in 1886? A number of Japanese mystery writers created historical Japanese private detectives--two of the more notable were Okamoto Kido's Hanshichi and Kodo Nomura's Zenigata Heiji--but an actual, historical private detective agency in Tokyo, during the Meiji period? Private detectives walking the streets next to samurai? Japanese private detectives active into the 1920s, in fascist Japan? Something as inherently individualistic as a private detective, or something only slightly less individualistic as a private detective agency, operating in a communal society like Meiji Japan?

You all see the potential here, don't you?

(Of course, the "business connections in all the principal cities of the world" quite likely means that the Iwai Agency was just another unofficial branch of the Japanese intelligence service, who were, recall, extremely active in the United States, Europe, China and Russia from the turn of the 20th century. But "hardboiled samurai private eye" is a lot cooler than "spy posing as a private detective.")

Monday, August 30, 2010

Armadillocon 32, or, Where did the weekend go?

Now you tell me--is this or is this not a surly, disreputable gaggle of bloggers if ever there was one?

Yes, Armadillocon 32 came and went in the fair city of Austin this past weekend, and the No Fear of the Future bloggers violated several restraining orders and at least one major zoning ordinance by congregating for a rushed meal and business meeting at Elevation Burgers in between panel obligations. Jess Nevins kicked things off with a well-timed coup, evicting Jayme Blaschke from any tenuous pretension of leadership and, declaring himself turtle king, decreed that a throne of nine turtles be erected on the Island of Sala-ma-Sond. Three new contributors were voted in unanimously--Peggy Hailey, Derek Johnson and Matthew Bey. The fact that most weren't in attendance, or even aware of the vote, may well account for the unanimity of the decision.

My second panel of the con, otherwise known as the one that caused me to rush through lunch, "Steampunk: Literary or Social Movement?" It turned out to be one of the highlights of the weekend, because A) several panelists came in costume, and 2) they brought toys. And the audience members were decked out as well, although they didn't engage in any in-character cosplay. For the marveling masses, there was the ubiquitous retrofitted steampunk computer keyboard with plenty of brass and polished wood, and a bulky, boxy steampunk calculator. Quite possibly the coolest gadget was a scratch-built steampunk flashlight/torch with an ivory handle and a wicked deadly spotlight powered by three steroid-infused LEDs. I'm serious, when they explained how they personally used it as a self-defense weapon to blind assailants at night, I was skeptical. But when that freaking blue laser just about blew a hole in the wall, I was convinced. Oh, and we talked about Jeff VanderMeer, Paul diFilippo and Steamboy too, just so you don't get the mistaken idea that the panel was exclusively a mini-Maker Fair.

Armadillocon remains my favorite convention because of this entertaining and eclectic lineup of programming. The new hotel (Arboretum on the north side) gave it a different vibe, and one that's going to take some getting used to, but all in all it was a top-notch weekend. Definitely looking forward to next year.

Anyone interested in perusing a whole heck of a lot more Armadillocon 32 images should mosey on over to Lisa on Location. The Wife was in full-on pro photographer mode Saturday, and got a lot of good ones. Enjoy.

The late and unlamented Karl Peters, African adventurer.

In my last entry I posted an obituary of "George Boynton," a 19th century mercenary. The following isn't, strictly speaking, about a mercenary so much as an adventurer and sometime-Africa hand. But in the 19th and even early 20th century the distance between those professions wasn't as big as you might expect. Too often, the obituaries of these men are mild, if not as laudatory as the encomiums Boynton received. Depending on who is doing the writing, the obituaries might actually touch upon the sordid realities of what these people actually did. Only very occasionally will you find an obituary which is as damning as the subject truly deserves--like the following, which is probably originally from an English paper but which I found in the Singapore Straits Times of 15 November 1918:



Infamous Colonial Policy
A Brunswick telegram recently announced that Dr. Karl Peters, the African explorer, had died at Woltorf (Brunswich).

It is not too much to say that the German African colonies owed their existence to the work of Karl Peters. In East Africa he was the pioneer, the inventor of the scheme, the force which inspired its realisation. No man did so much as he to stimulate German greed for other districts of the continent, for, eminent as a filibuster, he had even greater talents for advertisement and propaganda adapted to the German temperament. It happens by an odd chance that the man's career is as it were a distillation of the qualities which have made Germany's colonial policy infamous. Be avowed, he boasted, that in dealing with African territory and its inhabitants he had no other motive than to extract the utmost possible profit. Take his own words as evidence: "The English Government," he said, "pampers the blacks to such an extent as to make the country impossible for the whites...To me the most advantageous system seems to be the one in which the negro is forced, following the example laid down by Prussian military law, to devote some twelve years of his life to working for the Government. During this time he should receive food and shelter and a wage, say, about 2s. a month, like the Prussian soldier." To obtain opportunities for this policy he employed in dealing with Europeans every artifice of treachery, and exhausted upon the native population the resources of a mind morbidly fertile in cruelty. With the evidence which later years have brought to light before us it cannot fairly be said that Peters was a more infamous scoundrel than some other German administrators in Africa, but his crimes were too disgusting for the saner section of German opinion, and following the majority of the Reichstag we may allow him a certain eminence in villainy. His character is not difficult to understand. What led him to his dubious fame was a ferocious pugnacity and driving power. He had the nature of one of the old buccaneers, complicated, so much the worse for him, by Prussian militarism, by sham philosophy, and, worst of all, by the economics of the alliance of Junker and industrial magnate which dominates modern Germany. He was a brave man and of tireless energy. He had a large endowment of cunning. But of power, of thought, foresight, or sure insight, in spite of some pretentious books and much posing, he showed no trace.

The Colonial Movement

Karl Peters was born at Nauhaus, in Hanover, in 1856, the son of a Lutheran pastor. "Clever, but headstrong and unruly," was the verdict of his schoolmaster. He studied at Götingen, Tübingen, and Berlin, with some distinction, and a reputation for impetuosity. A visit to England, according to his own story, set him thinking of colonial expansion. He came back to Germany in 1884, when Kolonialsch wärmerei was the fashion. He founded the Gesellschaft fur Deutsche Kolonisation, with himself as the manager, and soon after set out for East Africa. He spent six weeks on the mainland, rushing from chieftain to chieftain, making treaties with them, and taking them under the protection of Germany. Germany, then guided by the sane statecraft of Bismarck, was not excessively grateful, but the treaties were at length ratified, and a protectorate proclaimed. Peters proceeded to organise and finance the German East Africa Company.

His next exploit was to lead an expedition for the relief of Emin Pasha, from which he promised his country, not only glory, but hard cash, in the shape of new colonies to exploit. When he arrived off the coast of East Africa Admiral Fremantle confiscated his firearms as contraband. Berlin, still Bismarckian, "refused all mediation and support." Peters got together a force of Somalis, and plunged into the interior. What he understood by exploration is explained by a statement made by Scavenius, the Danish traveler:

In the year 1894 I undertook an expedition with three boats and eighteen blacks up the River Tana. A few years before, Dr. Peters had made practically the same journey, on the occasion of his well-known expedition in search of Emin Pasha. No Europeans had in the meantime been through this desolate region. When I had rowed some 200 kilometres up-stream the population began to retire. On every side I came across traces of war. In the neighborhood of Obangi I found eleven villages that had been destroyed by fire, and everywhere skeletons of men, women, and children, those of the women and children being especially numerous. It was almost impossible for me to procure the necessary rice for my people, for as soon as we approached the whole populace fled panic-stricken. The natives were terrified at my white face, for the last white man they had seen was Dr. Peters.

By the time the expedition approached the Equatorial Province, Stanley had already relieved Emin, and therefore was subsequently vilified by Peters with every charge that a fertile invention could suggest. Peters turned off to Uganda, and tried to win it away from England, but on the news of an English expedition to arrest him he fled back to the coast. Bismarck's attitude to these adventures was never in doubt. The English, he said, might hang Peters for all he cared. But by the time Peters reached Berlin Bismarck was in retirement, and the Kaiser had taken control. Peters became his hero, to be received in special audience and imperially thanked, honoured, and entertained. In 1891 he went back to Africa as Imperial High Commissioner of the Kilimanjaro district. Soon the whole region was in revolt, some of the German garrison were killed, and a compulsory evacuation of the whole area followed. An inquiry into Peters' conduct by the Governor of the Province pronounced him "censurable but not criminal."

Condemned and Acquitted

He came back to Germany in 1893, and posed as a martyr to political rancour. The hero of German colonisation, the champion of Pan-Germanism in action must be defended against the adherents of Bismarck, the anti-Colonial party, and the Social-Democrats. It is plain that a fight between the Pan Germans and the saner men in high places raged over the corpse of his reputation. He was given a good pension, he was offered an important post in East Africa. The wind changed and the Colonial Office held a new inquiry into his actions. But no report was published, and he saw himself again safe on the road to the highest place. Then the Centre party and the Socialists were mobilised against him, and Bebel delivered a smashing indictment before the Reichstag. The worst charges were briefly that Peters kept a harem of black women, that he hanged without trail a native boy whom he accused of intimacy with them, that he pursued women who had fled from him to their own tribes, and that one of them at least on recapture was flogged daily, put in chains, and on a second escape and recapture hanged. It is fair to say that the Reichstag was roused to clamorous indignation, but as the substance of the charges had long been known to everybody we may wonder why they were suddenly found so exciting. The result was that Peters was deprived of his commission for "misuse of official power." As it was restored to him in 1906 there is no escape from the conclusion that whatever Socialists or Catholics may think the Government of Germany regarded Karl Peters as a fit and proper person to represent its colonial policy. As usual, no one can state the case against Germany with more force than her own rulers.

Of late years Peters sought fresh fame as an exponent of the wildest dreams of Pan-Germanism, crying aloud for the defeat of England "at the Suez Canal and in Egypt, and if possible in India." To the last he was treated by all parties as a man whose opinions must be treated as significant and important, a curious commentary on the German capacity for political thought.


I had a few reactions to reading the preceding. (BTW, for a more objective treatment of Peters' life, there's a somewhat lengthy Wikipedia article). Setting aside the inevitable smugness at being Our Enlightened Selves, we can still feel loathing for Peters. Clearly, not a good person.

On the other hand...Peters died in September, 1918, and the obituary probably originally appeared in October, while World War One was still going on. In all likelihood a significant amount of the venom directed towards Peters comes from British jingoism rather than from a genuine loathing for what white colonialists did to Africans. That British colonial officers were only little better than the Germans is, we know now, a fact, but something the British of 1918 would not have believed and would not have been able to admit to themselves. Even in the 1930s British writers like Edgar Wallace could pen colonialist fantasies about moral British Africa Hands who would never dream of engaging in the sort of behavior Peters did. (I love Wallace's Sanders stories. I think they are exceptionally good for pulp adventure. But I have to hold my nose while reading them).

I'm sure someone will enlighten me as to why Germany under Bismarck would have been seen as so superior to Germany under the Kaiser. Yes, sure, he was seen as a moderate and as someone interested in a peaceful balance of power, but there was plenty of anti-German rhetoric from the Brits during Bismarck's lifetime. Perhaps it's as simple as the British of 1918 realizing how good they had it, relatively speaking, under Bismarck and knowing that they didn't know it during Bismarck's life.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The life and death of a 19th century mercenary.

At long last, being a mercenary is not seen as a romantic, manly thing. It didn't always use to be be that way. The condottiere were hardly valued except for their temporary usefulness, and after the Revolutionary War being called a "Hessian" was an insult worthy of throwing down over. But at some point during the 19th century, likely in the 1840s with the development of the novelette (the predecessor to the dime novel), the American reading public decided that the mercenary was a suitably heroic figure, and that attitude toward the mercenary held true for 150 years.

Heck, look at the words used in popular fiction for the role of the mercenary: "freelance," "soldier of fortune," "filibuster." (Yes, filibuster). No hint of killing for pay (which is what a mercenary does, after all), not a breath of massacring civilians (which is historically what mercenaries all too often have done), not a tinge of looting and raping (which is what mercenaries tend to do under any circumstances).

Now, of course, we know better. Blackwater's seen to that. But even now a properly-told mercenary's obituary is capable of bypassing our moral centers and rousing the blood. To wit, this article from the 29 July 1911 issue of the New York Weekly Sun:


Preying on Chinese Pirates

That there is plenty of romance left in the world for those fitted to find it is shown by the career of George B. Boynton, who died recently in New York City. Boynton was not his real name, we are told, but he rather favoured that name among all the many he used in the various revolutions, rebellions, and ructions that made up his life. Born on Fifth-ave, of wealthy parents, 69 years ago, he found life on that aristocratic thoroughfare too humdrum for him. "The New York Sun" thus details Boynton's remarkable career. Almost the time he could talk and walk Boynton was at war with his parents because of his adventurous disposition. he was about to enter the Naval academy when the Civil War broke out. He enlisted, and his father bought his discharge. He was sent to an uncle in Illinois, but enlisted in cavalry regiment out there. At the battle of Pittsburg Landing he led a charge against the Confederate Black Horse Cavalry. A Confederate cavalry man aimed a blow at him with a sabre, but he ducked beside his horse's neck. The blow kill the horse and tore a great gash in Boynton's cheek, the scar of which he bore to his death. He shot the Confederate between the eyes, killing him instantly. He left the army and was nearly lynched as a copperhead. He was later sent to capture contraband goods sent South from Cincinnati and captured Belle Boyd, the Confederate female spy. In the latter days of the war Boynton brought the Letter B, a vessel which was successfully running the blockade from Bermuda to the Southern ports. He made several successful runs, although the Letter B was shelled more than once by the U.S.S. Powhatan.
A Filibuster in Cuba

On his return to New York he bought the Frankling Avenue Distillery, with Jim Fiske as partner. This was a profitable affair, but Boynton yielded to his love of adventure and became a filibuster in the ten years' war in Cuba. At one time his vessel, the Edgar Stuart, was seized at Baltimore. He put to sea with three Deputy United States marshals as prisoners, landing them further down the coast. He had to go to Halifax until Fiske squared things for him after this adventure. Later he met Andrew Johnson, afterwards President, and was sent West by him to inquire into political conditions. He reported back that "Johnson didn't have a chance and that he had decided that filibustering was more honourable than politics." In 1868 he began to supply the Spanish pretender Don Carlo with arms from England. The latter paid him £28,000, then plotted to have him killed and robbed. He was warned by a gipsy girl and escaped. After this venture Boynton met in 1870 Guzman Blanco, President of Venezuela, and supplied him with arms from New York. For many years he was chief of Blanco's secret service. He secured leave of absence and reorganised the Army of Santo Domingo. While there he was captured by insurrectionists and sentenced to be shot at daybreak. The sign of a secret order to which he belonged saved his life. While in Venezuela he led an expedition which established the connection of the Rio Nigro and Orinoco rivers through the Casiquaire River. Things became too quite [sic] in Venezuela and with Francis Lay Norton, another adventurer, Boynton fitted out a vessel and went to Chinese waters to prey on pirates. It was while cruising there that he met a beautiful white female pirate. He met Richard Harding Davis and Guy Boothby then and they wrote The Real Soldier of Fortune and Beautiful White Devil soon after. While in the waters about Borneo and Malaya he protected vessels against the pirates and preyed on pirates. In 1879 he ran a blockade and delivered a cargo of munitions of war to Lima, Peru, in the boundary war of Chile against Peru and Bolivia. He aided Gen. Legitime against Florizel Hippolyte in Haiti in 1884 and was forced to flee when the former was defeated.

(Bonus points for the use of the word "ructions").

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

One man's life, a.k.a. Doc Savage, Nudist.

I'm sure we could find stories like this in newspapers today, but I'm equally sure the reporters would make it sound much tawdrier:

From a British paper, reprinted in the Straits Times of Singapore, 21 September 1932:

Remarkable Career
Pushed Policewoman Into Water

Described by the defence as a "sunbathing enthusiast," and known to his followers as the "Sun God," a man who pushed a policewoman into the Serpentine was sent to gaol by Mr. Mead, the Marlborough Street magistrate.

Incidents that occurred on the bank of the famous stretch of water in Hyde Park were referred to in court, it being revealed that accused, prior to the offence with which he was charged, had threatened the officer with a ducking if children were not allowed to bathe in a prohibited area.

In the course of a remarkable career the man, who looked like a bronzed giant in the dock, has held scholastic positions in South Africa and England, and rose to the rank of captain in the War.

He has often been in connict [sic] with the authorities in the course of campaigns advocating sun-bathing, and was once evicted from a piece of land where he built a hut to practise the cult.

Over six feet in height with his skin bronzed to a deep copper hue through continual exposure to the sun, Harold Hubert Vincent, 51, described as an engineer, of Edgware Road, W., who was accused of obstructing Policewoman Annie Matthews, assaulting her, and damaging her uniform, presented a striking appearance in the dock at Marlborough Street. He wore a tennis shirt open at the neck, grey flannel trousers, and canvas shoes with no socks.

Vincent, who was educated in South Africa, has had a remarkable career. After taking a degree in science and arts, he became a teacher at a native school, but soon resigned this position. In his early teens he enlisted in the South African Constabulary, as a trooper, and when the Boer War broke out volunteered for active service, taking part in the relief of Ladysmith.

After that war he returned to police duty, and it was he who arrested Gandhi and sent him to gaol at Durban. He next worked as an engineer in connection with gold mines in Rhodesia, and subsequently came to England.

Served As Transport Officer
During the Great War he served as a transport officer, holding the rank of captain, in France. After Vincent had been found guilty of the offence with which he was now charged and senteneced to three months in the second division, several convictions were proved against him, a police officer stating that none of them was for a similar offence. Some of the offences were for "indecency" connected with sun-bathing.

Vincent has been an advocate of sun-bathing for many years, and has founded a number of organisations. He is known to his followers as the "Sun God." His activities in Hyde Park brought him into conflict with the police, and, indignant at what he deemed to be injustice, he once visited the House of Commons, and from the Strangers' Gallery threw a bundle of documents to the floor of a startled House.

Abandoning Hyde Park, Vincent next moved to Hendon, where he built a hut on a piece of derelict land. This he considered as "No Man's Land," but the authorities had him removed and the hut demolished.

[the rest of the article is just testimony from the trial].

[Roz Kaveney notes that Vincent served in the tanks in WW1]

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Why don't people listen?

I've been saying for years that robots are evil, and nobody listens. Just you wait, feckless meatbags. The robots are coming for you. Just you wait.

Full article here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The mean streets of pulp Reykjavik

One of the enjoyable aspects of the pulp era is how global many of its basic elements and tropes were. We tend to think of the worldwide penetration of our culture as being a modern phenomenon, but it was a feature of the pulp era. (You can blame colonialization for that). Zeppelins were a common sight in Indonesia during the pulp era. Hardbitten ship radio operators were as common in Chile and Peru as in the Yellow Sea. England had its mad scientists; so, too, did French West Africa, though that's a post for another day. The craze for celebrities and especially movie stars was as heated in Rumania and Poland and Brazil as it was in the U.S.

And, of course, there were private detectives. The larger agencies, especially the Pinkertons, dominated the field, but there were always independent operators, and they could be found everywhere: Iceland, as you can see; Dakar; even (as I'll post here some time soon) in Tokyo in the 1920s.

Presumably their jobs were much the same as American detectives'--the same tawdry divorce cases enlightened by more unusual situations. But there's something much more interesting about a p.i. in 1919 Reykjavik than 1919 New York, don't you think?

Monday, August 9, 2010

From the pulp era of flying.

Now, admittedly, the following wouldn't make the average contemporary flight any more soothing, and the last thing you want while crammed into your seat is to see this happen, but it certainly would make flying more exciting.

From the Straits Times of Singapore, 21 April 1932. The headline and subhed got cut off, so--


Subhed: Woman Pilot's Story of a Fierce Attack

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dime novel spreadsheets.

What I'd thought would be a relatively quick diversion--putting together spreadsheets of pulp magazine data as an analytical tool--has turned into something of a prolonged ordeal, since simply inputting the data took a while, and I had to ask others to put the data together in table form. And, even worse, after completing the pulps, I decided I had to do the dime novels--'cause, well, if I left it at the pulps the data would be incomplete, right?

So I finished up the dime novels. The data isn't complete, because I'm not sure a complete list of dime novels is possible any more, but this is the best that can be put together at this remove.
Initial observations:
  • Interesting, how long the dime novels lasted. I had the vague sense that the dime novels survived a lot longer than the popular image of them has it, but as late as 1932, well into the pulp era, there were still 11 dime novels. I think we can say with some confidence that, as with the pulps, the "death" of the dime novel was a prolonged thing with significant overlap into the pulp era.
  • Even more interesting to me is a comparison of number of magazines versus duration between the pulps and the dime novels. Many more pulps lasting a much shorter period of time, while the dime novels tended to be fewer in number but have a lot more endurance. 14 dime novels had over 1,000 issues, and look at New York Weekly: almost 3,000 issues, 1858-1915. A smaller market with fewer publishers leads to less overall competition and more monopolization, I guess. Certainly fewer dime novel subgenres than with the pulps.
  • I imagine that the feelings of the dime novel publishers in the 1920s and 1930s was something like the feelings of the Neanderthals when they watched Cro Magnons running around.
  • I thought romance dime novels would be stronger. Conversely, I'm surprised (though I shouldn't be) at the strength of frontier/Western dime novels.
  • My surprise is not that there are relatively few sports dime novels, but that there are as many as there are. The British influence is particularly noticeable here.
  • I suspect an analysis of the war dime novels published around the time of the Spanish-American War would make for interesting reading.
Now that I'm finished with these, I'm starting on European pulps, which may take me a few days to complete.