Friday, July 1, 2011

FFB: The Sorceress of the Strand

Dixon Druce faces off with the villainous Madame Sara
The female master criminal is an under used stock character in crime and adventure fiction. Ask any crime fiction aficionado for master criminals and the list will be almost exclusively made up of male characters.  Whether they be from the the Victorian and Edwardian eras (Prof. Moriarty, Dr. Nikola, Fu Manchu, Fantomas) or the pulp period (Wu Fang, the Octopus, Dr. Death, Dr. Satan) or the heyday of the super spy (Goldfinger, Blofeld, and all the Bond villains) the female of the species is sadly lacking or completely absent or -- worst of all -- relegated to the master criminal's sidekick. Yet as early as 1902 L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace were daring and original enough to create what is certainly one of the earliest woman criminal masterminds in the genre.  Her exploits are related in the six stories compiled under the title The Sorceress of the Strand.  She is the stunningly beautiful and thoroughly treacherous Madame Sara.

Earlier the same writing duo attempted to create a female Napoleon of Crime in Madame Kalouchy.  She appears in the stories that are collected as The Brotherhood of  the Seven Kings (1895).  Although Madame K. acts as the head of this secret society of criminals and guides their nefarious acts she is not operating alone.  She pales in comparison to Madame Sara who is described repeatedly by our hero Dixon Druce as a genius of evil and unscrupulous on all counts.  When he hears her name he all but gasps and warns everyone to stay away.  But her gullible prey find it impossible to believe that Madame Sara is anything but charming, kind and extremely helpful. Oh, the folly of seeing only the surface character!

When we first meet this most fatal of femme fatales she is the proprietor of a perfume business.  Here she also has a laboratory purportedly set up for researching and manufacturing all sorts of beauty aids.  What she's really up to is anyone's guess.  Usually it involves some fiendish deathtrap that will ensure she gets her hands on someone's fortune. In addition to chemical laboratory skills Madame Sara is adept at concocting poisons, constructing wigs, applying ghostly make-up, supplying custom dentures and tooth stops with extra surprise ingredients. She is a Renaissance woman by way of the gates of Hell.  You most assuredly don't want her as your cosmetician or your dentist.

Madame Sara's primary adversary, Dixon Druce, is the manager of the Solvency Inquiry Agency,  a government watchdog and protector against fraud.  He spends much of his time overseeing the practices of wholesale and retail businesses and confesses to being witness to some of the best in financial chicanery.  He is assisted in his battle against the scheming villainess by Dr. Eric Vandeleur, a police surgeon.  Vandeleur is the de facto detective in the stories.  He steps in at the final moment and reveals all by lecturing and pontificating and unveiling all sorts of devilry like the booby-trapped artificial palm tree that disperses carbon monoxide gas.  That's only one of the bizarre murder methods employed by Madame Sara who seems to have one of the most outrageous imaginations in Edwardian fiction.
Dixon Druce (left) and Dr. Eric Vandeleur (right)
The stories of Meade and Eustace are not really detective stories. There is no investigation at all.  There is merely the presentation of a dilemma, the intervention of Druce and Vandeleur as soon as they hear the mention of Madame Sara's name and the rush to discover what she has planned before anyone suffers injury or dies at her hands.  Or at the hands of one of her confederates employing one of the many baroque deathtraps like the one mentioned previously.  The fun is in trying to figure out what wicked thing she has whipped up. You may just be astonished at a few of them.

Reading this from a modern perspective and therefore being familiar with so many later works that have most assuredly been influenced by Meade and Eustace (even if unknowingly) may lessen the power that these stories first had more a century ago. But I still find in them an inventiveness and an energy that makes them enlivening. Of the six stories I was surprised that more than half of them had true early 20th century ingenuity invested in the plot.  The impassioned dialog is priceless. At one point Vandeleur says of Madame Sara, "Hunting her as recreation is as good as hunting a man-eating tiger."  And watching the hunt take place is just as good.

The Madame Sara stories are:

"Madame Sara"
"The Blood Red Cross"
"The Face of the Abbott" (a haunted castle and a ghost - the only attempt at supernatural in this series)
"The Talk of the Town"
"The Bloodstone"
"The Teeth of the Wolf" (which includes Mrs. Bensasan, a wild animal trainer who is trying to tame a Siberian wolf, and a horrid hunchbacked dwarf betrothed to her beautiful young daughter. It's the most Gothic and nasty of all the tales.)


  1. Madame Sara sounds like a hoot, John. An evil hoot. :) Needless to say, I've never heard of these books. There's just SO MUCH I'm finding out that I don't know.

    But I've never gone in for the female arch criminal because mostly I find it too hard to believe. My willing suspension of disbelief just won't accommodate it. I don't know why. Maybe because I'm a woman myself and I find the whole idea of an evil woman on the scale of Moriarity, too peculiar? unacceptable? unpleasant? ludicrous? or bizarro? I've rarely seen it done well.

    But of course there's always THE exception to the rule:

    Speaking of Moriarity.
    The evil genius behind the near demise of Holmes and Mary Russell in THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE works quite well for me. But she's the very rare exception.

    I haven't read many others that work as well as Laurie R. King's creation.

    Didn't Myrna Loy once play Fu Manchu's evil daughter in a film of her own or series? Vague memory alert.

  2. There is only one book with Madame Sara. Just the six stories. You may be right about the unbelievable aspects of a woman mastermind, but then there was Margaret Thatcher. She probably deserves evil genius status in the real world. At least one website thinks she does.

    Yes, Myrna Loy was Fu Manchu's daughter. Gorgeous and evil as only the best of villainesses can be. (Making Thatcher only 50% of the best of villainesses.)

  3. Of course we mustn't forget Arnold Zeck, who I think deserves to be on the male master criminal list.As for women, I'm having a hard time coming up with even one.

    Though this does sound good, I admit (I can imagine you cringing) that I'm not much for Victorian novels or stories, though I do enjoy and occasional one.

    Oh, one other thing. Reading your review it occurred to me that YOU are charming, kind and extremely helpful, so perhaps we should all beware!

  4. One of these days I will have to read And Be a Villain and the other Wolfe novels with Zeck. Forgive my exclusion, but I'm not well read in the Wolfe canon. Plus I was trying to do a wide overview so I picked three categories where evil masteminds were in abundance. When I make those lists I do the ones that first come to mind. I admit, however, to some digging via a few websites for the pulp magazine villains. I've never read or heard of Dr. Satan or The Octopus until I went trolling through the internet. The Octopus was reprinted in a high-end Girasol paperback. One of the weirdest of the pulp villains. Probably a big influence on comic book writers.

    Here's another woman criminal mastermind for you - Sumuru created by Sax Rohmer. I'll have to do a post about her in the future.

  5. That's a post I look forward to reading!

  6. These stories sound really good--of course, unlike Richard, I do go in for the Victorian era.... And I can picture a female evil mastermind. I could even paste a face or two on her. I best say no more lest I get myself in trouble in the real world. :-) More to hunt up!

    I've heard of Dr. Satan. I just can't remember why or how.

  7. Even in the comics, the most famous of female villains is the most ambiguously evil or insane of Batman's foes (and even from her introduction, a potential or actual bedmate), the Cat/Catwoman.

    Of course, the creation of Pure Evil is difficult to accept perhaps outside of a religious context, but certainly operational versions in not just the political world come to mind (such as the mother in Patricia Highsmith's "The Terrapin" and several bad substitutes for mothers in Saki and much of the rest of literature; certainly "Sredni Vashtar").

  8. I specifically avoided comic books in my examples above, Todd. They are rife with female villains. The idea of the "evil mother" in crime fiction and literature is one worthy of an article for a real journal. I'm sure it's a topic that's been covered numerous times. And that of course brings to mind the next step in the chain -- that of inherited evil and the idea of the "bad seed" or "demon child" which is yet another idea for a future post.

  9. Zeck is the reason Wolfe once had to abandon the brownstone, go on a diet and temporarily move across the country. I kid you not.

    The Zeck books are not my favorites. But in truth, I think Rex Stout was having a joke on us.