I think it serves as an example of a story that caught the imagination of the following century, even though the book itself these days is barely readable: dull plot, plodding prose that is occasionally risible, and an utterly unexamined racist, classist paradigm.
But in others’ hands, the story improved immensely, even leading to inspiration and heroism, as mentioned before, in the case of the diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was inspired by Leslie Howard’s spinoff movie to rescue thousands and thousands of Jews in WW II.
I’d like to look more at how fiction and truth inspire and reflect each other, but today I’m staying with this storyline.
Specifically, a pattern that may only be perceivable in my head. This pattern has to do with ways in which stories (this includes plays, films, and comics) inspire further works by others. Not fan fiction, but taking characters, or elements of characters, perhaps certain tropes, and building a new story around them.
Percy Blakeney has inspired what I think are two distinct lines of descendants, one that seems endemic to female writers, and one to male writers. On to something? Pure hot air? Tell me what you think.
I think Percy’s first distinctive descendant is Lord Peter Wimsey, the erudite aristocratic amateur detective invented by Dorothy Sayers in 1921.
He does not have a named secret identity, but he hides his intelligence and athleticism behind an affable exterior; in a few of his tales, he does assume an identity, such as the mysterious Harlequin in Murder Must Advertise. He works to bring justice to victims of crimes, or those falsely accused.
Many believe that Margery Allingham’s elegant Albert Campion, gentleman detective, is inspired by Sherlock Holmes. I won’t argue against it—it’s obvious they have the detective thing going, and upper class behavior—but I think that Campion also owes a great deal to Percy Blakeney.
He’s an aristocrat who hides a keen mind behind a bland persona, his true identity is kept secret, and he works undercover to bring justice to those who cannot get it for themselves, one step over from rescuing victims from the guillotine.
The next generation after Sayers and Allingham I think is Dorothy Dunnett, whose brilliant but emotionally difficult Francis Crawford of Lymond quotes his way from Ireland to Russia, leaving a trail of bodies and anguished lovers in the magnificent six volume Lymond Chronicles.
Lymond uses disguises when necessary, and appears to be a villain, but it becomes apparent that he is fighting for a higher cause.
There are a great many homages to Sayers in the books, which in their turn spawned an uncountable series of historical romances featuring handsome Scots during the brutal border era (for a readably written but unsentimental view of this period, I recommend George MacDonald Frasier’s The Steel Bonnets), and another strand: a lot of female written hurt/comfort stories featuring very handsome young men who go through unimaginable physical and mental stress, specifically graphically described floggings and male rape, but manage to hang onto their prettiness. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander is the first of these, but as the years go by there have been Lymond descendants in fantasy lands and in space, such as Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow, to mention just one.
So what about the male-author written descendants of Percy Blakeney? The first, I believe, is Zorro. Aristocratic background, affable, silly-ass exterior, fighting for justice when disguised as Zorro. He’s an interesting case, as he could have been written by a female with some of these tropes, except that the female characters are pretty much all trophies or fridge victims.
The generation after that, I believe, goes to comic books: a couple of high school students came up with Superman in 1933. Superman is a special guy born on another planet, who, disguised as mild-mannered Clark Kent, dons his costume and fights for justice. After him came Batman, and a host of other characters who disguise their identities, wear costumes, and work to protect the innocent and helpless.
I think it’s too general to be useful to claim that the female writers emphasize the wit over physical strength, because that’s not quite true. There are plenty of action sequences in them all, during which the Percy descendants demonstrate flair and panache, but I will say that the female-engendered descendants of Percy are first of all witty. Another aspect is their slim, elegant forms. Most are handsome; Lord Peter isn’t handsome, but he is attractive anyway.
The male descendants tend toward more toward brawn, and especially in the comics, there is less emphasis on wit, elegance, and far more on brutal slug-fests between hero and villain. Zorro, the first, is perhaps the closest to Percy, being handsome, silly-ass, upper-crust, witty as well as being a brilliant swordsman and acrobatic in maneuvering.
Anybody else seeing patterns, or am I adding two and two and getting twenty-two?