Classic Review: Wheels of Anarchy by Max Pemberton
Classic Review: Wheels of Anarchy: The Story of An Assassin: As Recited from the Papers and the Personal Narrative of His Secretary, Mr. Bruce Ingersoll (1908/2010) by Max Pemberton; edited by Hugh Cooke & Paul R. Spiring [MX Publishing].
For a multitude of reasons, Wheels of Anarchy is a volume that should reside in every Sherlockian’s library. Previous to MX Publishing’s re-release of Max Pemberton’s Victorian-era thriller (for lack of a better genre term), copies went for upwards of $200 to $350 on Abe Books. Historically Wheels is extremely important because it represents a loose collaboration/communication between three notable Victorian authors/personalities: Bertram Fletcher Robinson, Arthur Conan Doyle and Max Pemberton. The story itself is a classic page turner where the action takes place all throughout Europe and feels as fresh/contemporary today as it must have to readers in the early 1900s.
According to legend Bertram Fletcher Robinson, Arthur Conan Doyle and Max Pemberton were invited to join a London-based criminological (literary) society in 1904 referred to by its members as Our Society or Crimes Club. The ACD/Robinson relationship and it’s connection to The Hound of the Baskervilles is well known and has been told before, but a similar, equally fruitful relationship developed between Bertram Fletcher Robinson and Max Pemberton which led to the creation of Wheels of Anarchy.
[Anarchy in the Victorian UK!]
In 1907 Bertram Fletcher Robinson was diagnosed with typhoid and became terminally ill. During his final days Robinson made notes pertaining to a narrative that he and Max Pemberton had discussed during the course of their friendship. Shortly before Robinson’s death, Robinson asked Pemberton to compose a novel based on previous discussions (some of which ACD purportedly took part) and said notes. The result was Wheels of Anarchy, a testament to both the friendship between Robinson and Pemberton as well as the creative climate that must have existed in the Crimes Club. From the Author’s Note:
“This story was suggested to me [i.e. Pemberton] by the late B. Fletcher Robinson, a dear friend, deeply mourned. The subject was one in which he had interested himself for some years; and almost the last message I had from him expressed the desire that I would keep my promise and treat of the idea in a book. This I have now done, adding something of my own to the brief notes he left me, but chiefly bringing to the task an enduring gratitude for a friendship which nothing can replace.”
Along with it’s historical importance, Wheels of Anarchy is a rip-roaring thriller that feels like a cross between a contemporary Jason Bourne movie (in scope) and a Sherlock Holmes adventure (in pacing and aesthetics). If you enjoy turn-of-the-(19th)-century political intrigue mixed with the occasional damsel (or femme fatale!?) in distress interweaved with international skullduggery and the occasional philosophical dialogue aside, then picking this book up should be priority number one.
The novel begins with Bruce Ingersoll, a newly minted Cambridge graduate whose only two prospects seem to be some outstanding debts and a job interview in London. Ingersoll’s life is quickly turned upside down as he begins working for an extremely rich Canadian industrialist Mr. Jehan Cavanagh whose sole purpose seems to be (privately) fighting international terrorism in the guise of (violent) Anarchism. Within 48 hours of taking the ‘secretarial’ job Ingersoll is initiated into a secret war being waged by Cavanagh and his tight knit group of ‘helpers’ against various anarchist organizations throughout Europe. Descending into a murky world painted shades of gray, Ingersoll soon learns that Cavanagh has a personal score to settle in the midst of the “absolute justice” being dispensed to various ‘bombing groups’. Though Ingersoll intervenes occasionally in the great events surrounding him, his primary role is one of ‘Watsonian scribe’ (ACD’s influence?).
Running parallel to the main action is a subtler tale that charts the moral development of both Cavanagh and Ingersoll as they wrestle (both figuratively and literally) with the decisions and implications swirling around them. Cavanagh must come to terms with the more animalistic/amoral tendencies of a man who chooses to act above and beyond the law, while Ingersoll must grapple not only with the implications of his role in Cavanagh’s fight, but with a more personal entanglement whose outcome depends on faith, morality and loyalty. On the one hand the resolution of these events can be seen as purely ‘literary’ and satisfying, but when viewed as precursors to World War I (the Great War was less than a decade away) the tone quickly becomes eerily prophetic and, with 20/20 hindsight, dramatically revealing.
Though it is a shame that Max Pemberton was taken so early, his legacy will live on thanks to the hard work of Victorian Literature revivalists like Paul R. Spiring. I can only hope that Spiring and Cooke, and others, with the help of dedicated publishers like MX Publishing have plans to release further Victorian era literature in their original facsimile format and/or scholarly, annotated editions. Personally, it’s always been a goal (fantasy) of mine to discover a forgotten Victorian story or novel and work toward it’s re-publication, supplying a fresh and definitive biographical statement along with a rich and detailed set of annotations.
Wheels of Anarchy at MX Publishing.
Max Pemberton books at Project Guttenberg.
Paul Spiring’s Wikipedia page.
** Dearest Reader: I’m not sure if you noticed but the title of this post is “Classic Review” opposed to just “Review”. Along with my attempt to review as many new Sherlockian books (scholarly and pastiche) as possible, I find myself wanting to review various Sherlockian ‘classics’ that I’m often reading simultaneously with contemporary titles. For example, I’ve been working on a monster review of D. Martin Dakin’s A Sherlock Holmes Commentary, a Sherlockian classic if there ever was one.
[The original cover, published by Cassell and Company, London, 1908.]
Furthermore if a ‘classic review’ title also happens to number among The Shaw 100, I’ll make a note of it at the start of the review and then comment on it’s Shaw 100 status towards the end of the review. Depending on how rigorous of a job I perform reviewing classic titles, my hope is to have a majority of The Shaw 100 books reviewed on Always1895.net. Though I’ve personally touched on acquired titles from The Shaw 100 in past posts, there’s no question that each one of those books deserves a lengthy review. To borrow a classic quote: “Never has so much been written by so many for so few” (Christopher Morley).