Saturday, May 18, 2019

Dr. Mabuse, by Norbert Jacques -- pure, unadulterated pulpy goodness.

9780988306271
Bruin Books, 2015
originally published 1921 as Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
translated by Lillian A. Clare (1923)


On the deck of a ship traveling between his home and Lake Constance in Switzerland, the author, Norbert Jacques,  happened to sit across from a man who, as David Kalat notes in his The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse (2005), "never moved, never spoke," and caused Jacques to feel "anxious, afraid." There was just something about the man which "cut to the core of Jacques' being,"  that made him not only want to flee, but to also wonder "What was it about this man that exuded some power?"   The journalist in Jacques made him scrutinize this man carefully, studying "his eyes, his forehead, his stature."  It came down to one question for Jacques:
"Was he a hero, or a villain?" 
According to Kalat,
"In this mystery man, who sat motionless and silent all the while, Norbert Jacques read all that was wrong with modern-day Germany"
and on his return home he sat down to "hammer out" Dr. Mabuse der Spieler in a mere fourteen days. It would sell 100,000 copies in its first year, and would go on to sell over a half million copies, making it  one of the bestsellers of its day.  (16)  Kalat says about this book that it depicts
"a criminal F├╝hrer who exploits social decay to his private advantage. Under a variety of disguises and assumed names, he has broken free of the traditional class divisions and invaded the previously insulated enclaves of the decadent upper class." (14)
Despite the title, however, the central focus is on the character of the public prosecutor Wenk.  Just as an FYI, Lillian Clare wrote in 1923 that Wenk's actual position was that of Staatsanwalt  word  for which it "is almost impossible to find an English rendering that conveys its full meaning," but for our purposes here we'll continue on with public prosecutor, or as he's also known, the state attorney.   Jacques sets his story in his present-day Weimar Germany, a time during which Wenk believes the nation is "diseased and rotten." It is a time during which money
"was a key that opened all doors, the wearing of a fur coat could conceal any calling, and a diamond scarf-pin shed luster on any character. A man could go into whatsoever company he desired." 
In fact, it is in a gambling club that the novel opens, with a game of vingt-et-un with unlimited stakes.  It is also here that we meet Dr. Mabuse, who is a man of many disguises with seemingly unlimited powers of suggestion that can make his victims do pretty much anything he wishes.  We first see him in action during this game, as one of the players, who is "not really a reckless player" begins to play badly and takes "unreasonable risks" that cause him to lose.  Afterwards, he remembers very little of what had happened during the game, and can't even remember that he was the one who brought the man to whom he had lost to the club.    Some two weeks later, "the circles to whom the life of the day is only a wearisome burden till the hour of play arrives" share stories about the stranger who "simply loaded himself with money wherever he chanced to play," drawing the attention of the public prosecutor, who believes that these are not isolated events, but part of a much a bigger pattern, even though people in the clubs could swear that no wrongdoing had taken place.  He gets his own chance to play against "The Professor," aka Mabuse in yet another disguise, at which point Wenk gets his own taste of Mabuse's immense powers and a sense of just how dangerous this man is.   However, when the public prosecutor is knocked out and his belongings are stolen, including his notebook with all of the information he's gathered about the case, the real game of cat-and-mouse between the two begins.

While the pursuit is on, we learn much about Mabuse, including the fact that he plans to use his monetary gains from gambling, drug smuggling, human trafficking and other crimes to realize his dream of establishing an empire in "the primeval forests of Brazil," where he plans to be the absolute ruler of the Empire of Citopomar.   He is
"self-sufficing. What were men to him? He scattered them at will. Yonder, however, in the future, in Citopomar, there would be none who could oppose him."
Wenk's efforts in trying to catch Mabuse take on a greater sense of urgency as people around him are  murdered, but when Mabuse falls for and puts in his power a woman who happens to be the object of Wenk's own affection, the Countess Told, Wenk pulls out all the stops to find and stop him.  As I've said to a few people, Mabuse's powers out-Svengali Svengali, but on some level he is quite aware of his true inner self. He tells the Countess at one point that he is a "werewolf," that he "sucks man's blood."  As he says,
"Every day my hatred burns up all the blood in my veins, and every night I fill them again by sucking the blood of some human being. If men caught me, they would tear me into little bits." 
  Mabuse, however, has no intention of being caught.



from the film by Fritz Lang, at Fandor
 While I wouldn't call Dr. Mabuse great literature, it is great fun, and it also gives a glimpse into the decadence the Weimar era is known for.  The cat-and-mouse game isn't a simple one; Wenk will find himself beyond frustrated as he gets close but realizes that Mabuse seems to have all the luck.  Then there are a couple of scenes that employ some crazy inventions that Ian Fleming would have been proud of.  But it is best as a look at the "diseased and rotten" society Wenk speaks of.  The gambling clubs are here the very seat of decadence -- in chapter seven, for example,  Wenk and his companions find themselves at a gambling establishment known as the "Go-ahead Institute," where in case of a police raid, a black knob can be pushed that does away with gambling apparatus, turning instead into a decadent club complete with a
"quartette of nude twelve-year-old children were to be seen dancing, upon a new stage, to the strains of fiddles and harps"
 with a "change of programme every week..."  Yikes!

Read at a time when I desperately needed fluff, the book kept me entertained for hours (I read it straight through, actually without putting it down), of course rooting for Wenk the entire time to take down Dr. Mabuse and save the Countess.  This is the stuff of pure unadulterated pulp, but here with purpose.  Even if you don't care about the Weimar era, it's still a good, fast-paced read that will keep you turning pages.

I'd recommend it to serious pulp readers who aren't looking for fine literature but rather a good time.  I can only imagine reading this book in its original serialized form -- my sweet pulpy goodness-loving  self would  have had a field day as each episode came to some sort of cliffhanger and I eagerly awaited the next installment.


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