Ernest BramahA Delicate Bouquet of Crime;

The Plausibility of Max Carrados, Blind Detective

by Jessica Amanda Salmonson



Ernest Bramah has come to be regarded as having been a reclusive author because he left behind such a limited record of his life. In reality he was greatly involved in authorly & artistic circles in London but he did avoid interviews or self-promotion of even the most rudimentary sort, evading the slightest Who's Who Of Literature & ducking biographers. His early life as a farmer can be deduced from his first book English Farming & Why I Turned It Up (1894) but the only chance of piecing together his London life died with his contemporaries, who each might have provided a tale of the amusing Ernest Bramah Smith as a high-colored dandy delightful among peers.

Since his death in 1942, Ernest Bramah's surviving reputation has hinged on the Kai Lung orientalist fantasy stories. Kai Lung was part ne'er do well, part philosopher, & all storyteller. He wandered about a completely unhistorical China getting himself into trouble by existing & out of trouble by telling elaborate whoppers. These timeless stories will always appeal to lovers of strangeness & fantasy, & the praises of Ernest Bramah will be sung until the day has arrived that humanity even at the fringes ceases to care one whit about books.

But in his lifetime he was equally well known for his tales of the blind detective, Max Carrados; & among connoiseurs of vintage detective fiction, Max remains a cornerstone. The "Ellery Queen" list of the top ten mystery collections of all time includes the first volume of Max Carrodos adventures. Max solves all types of crime, though only occasionally murder per se. The polished style of the writing, the varied & intriguing situations, & especially the character of Max all require no forgiveness for their age -- if these were written today, they would seem intentionally old-fashioned but no less modernly appealing.

If we may detect a man of humor behind the composition of the Kai Lung tales, we may detect a man of errudition underlying the character of Max Carrados. And I think it reasonable to imagine the author from his creations. The premiere Carrados story, "The Coin of Dionysius" in the 1914 collection so praised by Queen, & "The Vanished Petition Crown" in the 1927 collection, reveal Max's knowledge of rare coins, identical to Bramah's interest proven in a numismatic volume he published in 1929, A Guide to the Varieties & Rarity of English Regal Copper Coings.

To a degree these are cross-genre stories, incorporating aspects of the supernatural or weird tale, although, as Bramah himself outlines in his introduction to the second Carrados collection, most of the near-impossible "powers" of our blind detective's super-sensitivity have been exhibited by actual, if exceptional blind individuals of history. Apart from Max's only semi-likely personal powers, the cases he is thrown into occasionally overlap themes of science fiction, as in "The Ingenious Mr. Spinola" in the second collection of Max tales; or the supernatural, as with the rationally resolved weird story of "The Ghost at Massingham Mansions" in the third & last collection of Max's adventures. Even if these resolve rationally, Ernest Bramah Smith must nevertheless be placed in the "fantastic detective" category.

There have been several blind detectives since Max, but Bramah's stories began the form. His detective was considered credible even when innovated, because the blind have been curiously romanticicized for centuries. In over forty Japanese films (more than half theatrical releases, the rest made-for-television) featuring the blind swordsman Zatoichi, his capacity to out-duel the sighted is made credible. And though his powers are not at all likely, they are based in reality: Historical samurai were known to train while blindfolded, so that they would be able to fight in the abject darkness of a castle halls with all lanterns extinguished. In European history we find a conquering warlord John Ziska, who was blind. Chang Kane's blind instructor in the television series Kung Fu extended the romance of the blind warrior, while in one episode of Have Gun, Will Travel, Palladin's most deadly oponent in the course of the series was a blind gunfighter Palladin himself had trained. James Franciscus played the blind detective Longstreet in a 'sixties television series of that name. Folklore even assumes the blind make exceptional lovers, for their remaining senses, & skill in the dark, are assumed to be greatly enhanced.

Whether or not there is much of reality in all this, the public is always willing to "believe" in the exceptional powers of the blind, & it does happen, as with Helen Keller, that a folk hero nearly lives up to romantic legend.

What such characters have in common is the manner by which they overcome their initial handicap. They don't merely get by, but their other senses compensate to such an extent that they are more rather than less perceptive as they pass amidst the sighted. Whether or not this is plausible, it rings with a romantic credibility, & makes grand fiction. Folks who are actually blind might find it just a little odd that their condition is so romanticized, idealized, & all but envied by the sighted. We fancy there may even be a sixth sense forever denied the sighted. For those of us who are merely nearsighted, or who can see perfectly well, it becomes easy to imagine the world of the blind is larger than a world where sound, taste, touch, & smell are forever held thrall to vision. For the sighted, something might smell like a skunk, but if we can't see where it's at, for all we can judge it might be rotten eggs or expensive cheese. If given a meal of pan-fried rattlesnake, but told it's chicken, then it tastes like chicken, no question about it; indeed everything tastes like chicken if the cook says so. If we can't spot the owl that's screeching from the barn, we may be sufficiently befuddled as to imagine it's a squawling child, or a cat with its tail stepped on by a donkey, or god knows what -- perhaps it becomes our experience with a banshee or alien spacecraft perpetuating superstition. And if in a dark room on Halloween we put our hand in a pile of soup bones & cold speghetti, while being informed we've thrust our bare mits into a the torn-open stomach of a corpse, we are momentarily convinced & withdraw our hand in disgust. Presumedly an individual to whom sight is not the ruling factor would know at once that spaghetti feels nothing at all like intestines; that owls & cats make thoroughly distinct noises; that a rattlesnake or even a duck has its own flavor in no way resembling chicken; & a skunk is a skunk, period, without any visual evidence required to be convincing. And so a blind detective is more rational than any other kind, & it's no wonder that Justice herself stands blindfolded to best achieve her aim.

An occasional critic has complained that Max is indistinguishable from a sighted person, failing as he does to exhibit even slight handicap, nor does he induce solicitous assistance from characters who meet him. Such critics refuse to suspend disbelief & won't accept that such a fellow wouldn't stumble over chairs or walk into walls without guide-dog or cane. But I am willing to believe Zatoichi can carve the wings off fruitflies with two invisibly-quick swipes of steel, & Max Carrados can get about in the world sensing the movement of every speck of dust.

See also the
Alphabetical Bibliography of
Max Carrados & Kai Lung First Editions.

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