A short biography of writer Ernest Bramah
1. Ernest Bramah created a detective whose popularity rivalled that of Sherlock Holmes. Bramah (1868-1942) created Max Carrados, a popular sleuth whose adventures appeared in The Strand magazine, which also published Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The complete adventures of Max Carrados, a blind detective who can nevertheless solve crimes thanks to his extraordinary skills at reading things with his fingers and paying attention to the sounds that other people overlook, have recently been reprinted as The Eyes of Max Carrados (Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural). Carrados first appeared in 1914 and over the next decade his short stories had many readers in Britain gripped. They still stand up well now. George Orwell was also a fan, claiming that, along with R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke stories and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, the Max Carrados stories are the only detective stories since Edgar Allan Poe that are worth rereading.
2. Ernest Bramah also wrote a prescient science-fiction dystopian novel in 1907. George Orwell even credited Bramah’s book with helping to inspire his own Nineteen Eighty-Four. In What Might Have Been – later retitled The Secret of the League – Bramah predicted a world in which express trains flew across the sky (this was at a time before planes had really, as it were, taken off), as well as anticipating nationwide wireless telegraphy, and even the idea of the fax machine. The Secret of the League also foresaw the rise of European Fascism. The book is sadly out of print, although cheap copies of its 1909 reprint can be found online.
3. Bramah first came to the attention of the world as the author of the Kai Lung adventure tales set in China. These were hugely popular and were among the first books to be printed in the Penguin paperbacks series, in 1936. (The stories often contain a dash of the fantastical, such as dragons.) Bramah has even been credited – though without concrete evidence – with coining the faux-Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times’, though this phrase doesn’t appear in the Kai Lung stories.
4. As a writer of comic fiction, Bramah was considered the equal of Jerome K. Jerome. His Kai Lung stories – which take the figure of the storyteller as their anchor or focus – saw Bramah inventing a form of Mandarin English which he uses in the stories. Jorge Luis Borges even praised Bramah’s Kai Lung stories.
5. Bramah took up farming at 17 but gave it up three years later; his first book would be titled English Farming and Why I Turned It Up, in 1894. His big break in writing came when he became Jerome K. Jerome’s secretary and worked for several magazines, and, a few years later, a full-time writer. He was an avid numismatist or coin collector, and coins turn up in a number of the Max Carrados stories. Indeed, one of the Max Carrados mysteries, ‘The Mystery of the Vanished Petition Crown’, may even have served as the inspiration for a 1970s coin-theft from Glendinning’s in London! According to Peter Gaspar, facts about the fiercely private Bramah were so scarce during his lifetime that some people even suspected that no such person as ‘Ernest Bramah’ existed. More biographical information can be found here.
Image: Title-page of the 1909 reprint of Ernest Bramah’s The Secret of the League.