In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys Guy Boothby’s fiendish fin de siècle creation
What happens if you cross Professor Moriarty with his arch-nemesis Sherlock Holmes, add in a bit of Svengali from George du Maurier’s Trilby, a dash of archetypal James Bond villain, and a smidgen of master-conjuror and illusionist Derren Brown? The answer is Dr Nikola, the creation of the prolific Australian writer Guy Boothby, who was once a hugely popular author and the protégé of Rudyard Kipling.
Dr Nikola arrived on the scene in 1895, just two years after Sherlock Holmes had supposedly gone to his death over the Reichenbach Falls with Professor Moriarty; in many ways, Boothby’s creation represents a reincarnation of both figures, whose characteristics have been merged together to create a super-villain who shows powers of perception (not to mention a flair for the dramatic) which Conan Doyle’s great sleuth would doubtless appreciate. This is how Boothby describes Dr Nikola upon his appearance early on in the 1895 novel A Bid for Fortune:
In stature he was slightly above the ordinary, his shoulders were broad, his limbs perfectly shaped and plainly muscular, but very slim. His head, which was magnificently set upon his shoulders, was adorned with a profusion of glossy black hair; his face was destitute of beard or moustache, and was of oval shape and handsome moulding; while his skin was of a dark olive hue, a colour which harmonised well with his piercing black eyes and pearly teeth.
We also learn that he is of indeterminate age – anything between 28 and 40 (he is 38 in the second adventure, which takes place just weeks after the first novel leaves off) – and he is ‘irreproachably dressed’ with ‘a neatness that bordered on the puritanical’. Some of this recalls the smooth-faced Sherlock Holmes, and like Holmes Dr Nikola is a master of disguise, while the olive skin hints at Dr Nikola’s foreign blood, something his name bears out. It’s worth mentioning that George du Maurier’s novel Trilby had been published just a year earlier, and in 1895, the year that Dr Nikola made his debut in print, Trilby had become a smash hit on the London stage. The great master-villain of du Maurier’s novel, Svengali, is obviously also of foreign ancestry, and shares with Dr Nikola an interest in mesmerism or hypnotism. Both characters cast a pernicious influence over others, using their charisma and their mesmeric powers to get what they want.
Dr Nikola is also accompanied by a trusty black cat which seems to understand every word its owner speaks to it. The good doctor sometimes sits and strokes the cat while conversing with other characters, making him a forerunner to the Bond villain Ernst Blofeld, although the fact that Nikola has a black cat obviously suggests the witch’s familiar (something Dr Nikola alludes to at one point).
In that first novel to feature him, A Bid for Fortune, Dr Nikola is actually absent for considerable chunks of the narrative, which focuses on the narrator’s attempts to wed a beautiful woman he saves from ruffians in Australia and then (what luck) discovers is travelling with her father on the same ship he is taking to England. Dr Nikola is the villain, the antagonist, exercising his influence as much off the page as on it (indeed, more so). But in the next novel (published a year later and simply titled Dr Nikola) he had become, if not the protagonist, then the deuteragonist, enlisting the plucky narrator Wilfred Bruce into his quest for deeper knowledge and magic powers in China. This second novel is far more successful, partly because it’s almost a kind of ‘lost civilisation’ novel in the tradition of H. Rider Haggard’s popular adventures, but partly because there’s simply more Dr Nikola in it. Many readers have found Dr Nikola to be the only good thing about these books, but I disagree: although his narrators are far less interesting than the mesmerising title character, Boothby was a natural storyteller who knows how to pull all the right strings to keep the narrative going, even if his first-person narrators are occasionally a little long-winded.
But there’s no denying that Boothby is at his best when Dr Nikola is entertaining us (just as the longer Sherlock Holmes tales suffer when the sleuth is absent for considerable portions of the story). Whether he’s hypnotising others so they lose the ability to see or move (making him a sort of Derren Brown of Victorian fiction), or performing conjuring tricks which may involve genuine magic, or demonstrating his Sherlockian powers of deduction (when the narrator of A Bid for Fortune first encounters Dr Nikola, the good doctor guesses his movements on the basis of the tickets sticking out of the narrator’s pocket).
Dr Nikola has not been well-served by recent editions of the novels in which he appears. The cover of the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural edition which I own (pictured above right), containing the first two novels in the series, shows us a behatted and bag-holding man of late middle age, portly and grey-haired, bespectacled and checking his pocket-watch in some smoggy back-alley in a big city. As I’ve already established, the Dr Nikola of the books was somewhat different. Still, at least Wordsworth Editions briefly put some of Dr Nikola’s adventures back into print (as Dr. Nikola (Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural) (Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural)). Now, who will get the other three Dr Nikola novels back out there?
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.