Introduction On Racism Epigraphs A History of the Pulps A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Glossary and Character Taxonomy Breakdown by Country of Origin Bibliography Table of Contents The Best of the Encyclopedia
Lee, Nelson. Nelson Lee was created by “Maxwell Scott,” the pseudonym of Dr. John Staniforth (Martin Dale, Kenyon Ford, Gordon Gray, Vernon Read, Jimmy Readman), and appeared in over 2,500 stories in English story papers, from 1894 to 1933, beginning with “A Dead Man's Secret” (The Halfpenny Marvel #46, Sept. 19, 1894).
Nelson Lee is a Great Detective whose career goes through two distinct phases. During the first he is a consulting detective modeled on Sexton Blake and Sherlock Holmes. Lee is “the hero of Lhasa and Limehouse, confidant of Lloyd George and Kitchener.” Lee’s well-appointed apartment, which doubles as his headquarters, is on Gray's Inn Road. Lee is “aquiline, with sunken yet clear eyes...he could even be called good-looking.” He has a tendency to pace about his room “with the rapid stride and muttered growls of a caged and hungry lion,” wearing his nightgown and solving mysteries without actually going to the scenes of the crimes. (During this time he is often an Armchair Detective). Until 1902 he works intermittently with the French detective Jean Moreau, but Moreau eventually betrays Lee over the French crown jewels and Nelson has him given into custody. Lee’s usual assistant is Richard “Nipper” Hamilton, the counterpart to Blake’s assistant Tinker. Nipper is a street urchin Lee had rescued from a life of crime on the streets of London. For a few years Lee is also assisted by Eileen Dare, a “girl detective” who is useful to Lee in cases where he needs “a woman's intuition” or someone to infiltrate a “house of mystery” in the disguise of a parlor maid. Lee pays more attention to his appearance and slicks back his hair when she is around, and is always courteous to her, calling her “Miss Dare.” Lee also has a bloodhound, Rajah, who is similar to Blake's Pedro and is ferocious, intelligent, and faithful. Rajah is eventually replaced by Wolf, another bloodhound. And Lee sometimes teams up with Sexton Blake, who is Lee’s close friend and fellow club member.
In 1917 the second phase of Lee's career began. In “Nipper at St. Frank's” (Nelson Lee Library (Original Series) #112, 28 July 1917), Lee and Nipper are hunted by agents of a Chinese Triad and hide at St. Frank’s, a “venerable public school” in the Bellton area of Sussex. After the case ends Lee joins the staff and becomes an instructor at St. Frank’s. Nipper enrolls at St. Frank's so that the Lee/Nipper team would not be split up. Lee and Nipper continue to fight crime, much of which finds them at St. Frank’s, but on most cases Lee is accompanied on his cases by members of the St. Frank's faculty as well as some of the students. Nipper remains a constant, but other characters join Lee’s cast of regulars, including Lord Dorrimore and Umlosi. Dorrimore is a happy-go-lucky, adventurous millionaire who accompanies Lee on many of his international adventures, and whose yacht, the S.S. Wanderer, is often the aquatic command base for the trips. Umlosi is the Umslopogaas to Dorrimore’s Allan Quatermain.
While not on the level of Sexton Blake’s, Lee’s Rogues Gallery is still more than respectable, and like Blake’s Rogues Lee’s enemies are often more interesting than Lee himself. There is Doctor Karnak, an Egyptian scientist who came to St. Frank’s as a Science master and lecturer, but who was eventually revealed to be a mesmerist, the former leader of a circle of Baal-worshipers, and the controller of a bloodthirsty mummy. There is Jim the Penman, a solicitor gone to the bad and an expert forger and is so good at disguises that even Nelson Lee himself is often unable to penetrate his disguises. There is Professor Cyrus Zingrave, “the Monster of Moat Hollow,” Lee’s own version of Professor Moriarty. Zingrave runs various criminal organizations, including the League of the Green Triangle and then the Circle of Terror, all of which are global in scope and engaged in wholesale robbery and murder, foiling Scotland Yard and other police agencies. And there is Mademoiselle Miton, the Black Wolf, an adventuress and Lee’s Loving Enemy.
While at St. Frank’s Lee’s enemies are even more colorful. There are cannibals and a “Gorilla-God” in the Congo. There are dinosaurs and the friendly Arzac and the savage Lost Race Ciri-Ok-Bak tribes, the “White Giants of the modern El Dorado,” in the jungles of the Amazon. There is Foo Chow, a Yellow Peril crime lord in London’s Chinatown, who makes the mistake of kidnaping Yung Chin, a Chinese student at St. Frank's. There are Lost Race Romans under the rule of Emperor Titus in the Sahara. There are endless fires, floods, explosions, and other disruptions at St. Frank's itself, whether from natural disasters or evil headmasters or evil students or from Professor Zingrave, who crashed a burning airplane on to the school. There are mutinies and barrings-out, provoked by the evil German-American millionaire William K. Smith. And there is the Petticoat Rule series, in which women took charge of the school. Predictably for the conservative story papers, this leads to disaster.
* I'm including the Nelson Lee stories in the Best of the Encyclopedia category because of their ideasplosions. Sexton Blake was of course the king of story paper detectives. Nelson Lee was the king's younger brother: didn't appear quite as often or for as long as the king, had the same attributes as the king only under more restrictions, and had a Rogues Gallery that was nearly as good as the king's. We might say that Nelson Lee was a .85 on the Sexton Blake scale, which is a lot closer than any other story paper detective came. Lee's defining gimmick, that he was a schoolmaster Great Detective, actually seems more restrictive and limiting to the authors' creativity now than it did then. During Lee's heyday his fanbase was largely juvenile (unlike Sexton Blake's audience) and it was assumed that the school aspect of the Lee stories was as appealing to Lee's readers as the detective or adventuring aspects of the stories. In the 2020s, when the school stories of the story papers stand revealed in all their smug bigotry and anti-intellectualism (see George Orwell's "Boys' Weeklies" essay for the defining condemnation and savaging of the school stories), the school aspect of the Nelson Lee stories seems to merely get in the way of the readers' good time. The Rogues Gallery and Lee's globe-spanning adventures and ideasplosive enemies are what's left of the Lee stories to enjoy, and fortunately they're imaginative, adventurous, and largely quite enjoyable. Nelson Lee never got the sublime nemesis that Sexton Blake got in Monsieur Zenith the Albino, but Professor Zingrave is an adequate substitute, and Mademoiselle Miton, the Black Wolf, is a good Loving Enemy.
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