Captain Gault

Looking over the descriptions of William Meikle’s Carnacki pastiches, I see he also uses another character from William Hope Hodgson: Captain Gault.

Review: Captain Gault, Being the Exceedingly Private Log of a Sea-Captain, William Hodgson, The Complete Works of William Hope Hodgson, 2015 and The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” and Other Nautical Adventures, ed. Jeremy Lassen, 2003.

There’s not a whiff of the supernatural or weird about the Captain Gault stories.

Hodgson scholar Sam Gafford suggests the arc of Hodgson’s literary career went from highly original works and then to more commercial products that were popular in the magazines of the time. That included the Captain Gault series.

I’m not sure when they were all written but most were published in London Magazine between 1914 to 1916 and collected into the book Captain Gault, Being the Exceedingly Private Log of a Sea-Captain which was published in 1917 and that is included in The Complete Works of William Hodgson from Delphi Classics. Copyright issues, because of their latter publication, meant two tales in the series were omitted. Lassen’s anthology collects them all.

Gault is a smuggler, and these are crime stories.

Jewel smuggling is Gault’s specialty, and the customs officials of American and the United Kingdom are on to him, and many of the stories feature his evasion of them whether it’s undercover agents trying to entrap him or ferret out his hiding places. But Gault always gets his contraband through, and the stories usually end with the Captain telling the officials, either through a note or a conversation about how a hypothetical “friend” of his would have done it, how he accomplished that. Since he never repeats a scheme, he’s putting himself in no danger. Sometimes, he even sues the government for false accusations or destroying his property during searches.

Jewels aren’t the only contraband. There’s gun smuggling and cigar smuggling and saccharine smuggling too. There’s human smuggling too, once to get a man sought by a Chinese secret society in “The Case of the Chinese Curio Dealer” and once picking a German spy up off the coast of France in “The German Spy”.

The two latest tales, “Trading with the Enemy” and “The Plans of the Reefing Bi-Plane”, are set during World War One. The first has Gault blackmailed into providing fuel for German U-boats. The second involves German agents trying to stop the delivery of plans for a revolutionary plane from being sent from America to England. It has the most action with the Captain blasting away with Colts in his pocket (presumably revolvers and not semi-automatics) against a gang of German agents who have booked passage on his ship.

Gault is a man of honor. He always makes sure the owner of whatever ship he’s commanding doesn’t end up suffering for his schemes. He always delivers the goods at the stated price. He’ll provide a cut for trustworthy crewmen who aide him. He’s also frequently disappointed, but never surprised, at human cupidity and treachery. His notes of explanation are often condemnatory towards officials who won’t stayed bribe and, on two occasions, women he encounters. The latter includes a woman who tried to smuggle jewels on her own after deciding not to pay his fee, a percentage of the tax she’s evading. On another occasion, he falls in love, briefly, with a woman who turns out to be an undercover agent for the U.S. Treasury.

Besides supplementing his pay with smuggling, Gault seems a man of many interests. Besides a knowledge of jewels, he’s a member of some unnamed secret society and seems to have some knowledge of the occult and is an amateur painter of some skill. But we only see these things in passing or only their relevance to the caper at hand, capers accomplished through misdirection, sleight of hand, theatrical cons, or clever technical means. His motto is “Never use two heads to keep a secret.”

Gault seems to be British though he says he’s American in one story. Even while smuggling spies and running fuel to German U-boats, he finds a way to fulfill his commission yet not endanger England.

All in all, the Gault stories are entertaining trifles with Hodgson, by this point in his career, very comfortable and accomplished at creating puzzles and solving them more successfully than in his first tale, “The Goddess of Death” or some of his non-supernatural Carnacki tales. (The Carnacki tale “The Find” exhibits the sort of misdirection that shows up in many of these stories.) And, of course, Hodgson’s days at seas help lend an air of easy verisimilitude to the whole thing even when dealing with stereotypes like Scottish ship’s engineers and rowdy Irish sailors.

 

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