- - Tuesday, December 2, 2014

I have a guilty secret. Whenever I seek surcease from sorrow, I turn to those quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore known as gentleman crime-fighter fiction — or, as the British call them, ripping yarns.

Not for me the pale and prissy Poirot nor the ditzy Miss Marple. Give me wily Oriental villains like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. Surround me with gentlemen who had been combat-tested in the Empire’s wars abroad like Sapper’s Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond. Threaten me with international plots to steal secrets that could end civilization like John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” Then I can smile again.

I know. I know. Even though the genre led us through a century to that most preposterous avatar, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, I easily forgive the underlying snobbery of a fantasy where Scotland Yard senior officials are stupidly baffled by the threats of an archfiend whose unspeakable plots can be thwarted only by a semi-aristocratic Brit who blunders about until by pluck and luck he defeats the enemy.

And yes, I do wince at the stereotypical Asian villains that Rohmer displays, nor least the taint of bigotry that permeates the tales dating from the 1920s of Buchan and, if you read closely enough, Fleming. And yes, the female characters are disdainfully portrayed as willful debutantes who routinely blunder into peril that forces the hero into needless danger to rescue her before he can bring down the archvillain. Then the hero usually marries said debutante, whereupon she apparently sobers up and becomes a housewife in Sussex.

But if you share with me this addiction for forbidden chocolates of the soul, get a copy of “The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy,” settle in by the fire and prepare for a laugh-out-loud return to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Be prepared to suspend disbelief and soak your tired psyche in a fantasy hero like no other, in a convoluted plot of unspeakable terror, a mysterious villain and his maniac henchman and a storyline that stretches barely plausibly from the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated to the first glimmerings Franklin D. Roosevelt would receive about the development of the atom bomb.

The hero of the story is the 27th president of the United States, William Howard Taft. Not the lethargic glutton, but a Kung-Fu William Howard Taft, whose outer casing of roly-poly flesh layers over a hard core of muscle and fistic skill that can reduce would-be attackers to so much jelly.

What the author, a historian who doubles as a comedy sketch writer for blogs, has produced is generically called “steampunk” fiction. This apparently is a subgenre that harkens to the science fantasies of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, mixed with the deranged conspiracy fabrications of Dan Brown and a dash of Monty Python. Its form remains gentleman crime-fighter stuff, but on steroids in the pace of its action and on some hallucinatory drug in its grip on the historical events it portrays.

The year is 1911 and the story opens with Taft in a secret jaunt to an Edwardian underground bare-knuckle boxing arena in the slums of London where he defeats four dangerous opponents at the same time. Then he hops into his secret presidential dirigible Airship One and returns to the White House unnoticed, all the while consuming huge portions of food and drink. From that point, the story starts to get really crazy, but fun crazy, and it pulls you in.

In all gentleman crime-fighter stories, both the hero and his nemesis adversary have their loyal henchmen, and it is here that Jacopo Della Quercia keeps a toehold on reality because all of the characters in the book did exist and, in Taft’s case, were involved in his presidency.

The chief ally is Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the martyred president, who shows Taft a mysterious, apparently perpetual motion pocket watch that Abraham Lincoln left behind when he set out for Ford’s Theatre. Robert in real life was prominent old-guard Republican, a former secretary of war and ambassador as well as a personal friend of Taft’s and an amateur astronomer. All the other Taft crew were real White House aides. Happily, all the women on the Taft team are forceful characters, most of all his tough-minded, blunt feminist of a wife, Nellie.

The fiendish villain in the piece turns out to be the notorious genocidal exploiter of the Congo, King Leopold II of Belgium, regardless of the reality that he had died two year earlier. For our purposes, his death was a sham, all part of his plot for world domination. Without giving away the plot, his stooge (all villains have a stooge) is no less than the equally real financier and armaments broker Basil Zaharoff, aka “The Merchant of Death.”

And, oh yes, the Titanic did sink the following year but not after colliding with an iceberg; it was scuttled in the final violent showdown between the forces of good and evil. And, fittingly, Arthur Conan Doyle, father of the prototypical “Sherlock Holmes” series, is brought in to solve a key part of the mystery about the watch.

This tale is sheer escapist fun, and considering how depressing reality is these days, it’s a tonic worth savoring.

James Srodes’ latest book is “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World” (Counterpoint).

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