Wednesday, May 30, 2018

'Jiminy Krishna! Now we get the hell from here!'

Chullunder Ghose is one of Talbot Mundy's series characters, a babu (i.e. an English-speaking Indian bureaucrat or professional) who worked for the Crime Investigation Department. The babu is often a figure of contemptuous fun in pulp fiction (see L. G. Blochman's Guru Dutt) but Mundy's is a more sophisticated figure, capable of real wit and possessed of a degree of worldly-wise cynicism missing in similar characters who exist only so authors can write funny sounding sentences. As Ghose says to his sometime colleague Larry O'Hara, "Philosophy and logic absolutely prove to me that governments are aggregations of amazing liars bent on graft and nothing else whatever. Nevertheless, I am rising with you on a silly-damn-dangerous expedition, drawing small pay and smaller expenses from the secret service of a government in whose stability I disbelieve, whose methods seem to me ridiculous, whose spirit is one of ingratitude, and for whose future I care nothing." Such eloquence is juxtaposed with presumably put-on pidgin talk and a veritable word jazz of multicultural references. Here's how he answers the simple question, "What's your plan?"

"Non est. Haven't one. Do you mistake me for a fathead general in Flanders studying a map to find out what the enemy is thinking? No, O'Hara sahib. This babu is opportunist ad lib. Am exponent of the theory that cats jump otherwise than expected, Am ju-jitsuist of circumstance. If circumstances pull, I push them. If they push, I pull them. We are being sent to do a cheap job that the politzei have failed at. Let us not act like policemen."

He's half Charlie Chan, half Groucho Marx, and that's not the half of it. For the purposes of the story quoted above, Ghose is also a superstitious fraidy-cat. I don't know if "Case 13" (Adventure, January 1, 1932) is numerically accurate as far as Ghose's publication history is concerned, but it suffices that the hunt for bandit chieftain Lalla Lingo is Ghose's thirteenth and theoretically unlucky investigation for the C.I.D., and he can't let the frightful idea of it drop. He and O'Hara must track down the bandit, who has kidnapped a moneylender at the instigation of three prominent debtors. Ghose worms his way into Lalla Lingo's camp by stripping his clothes and going naked as a holy man, while O'Hara gets to wear a dhoti "as a tribute to your inhibitions." It's really an amusing enough story without the whole superstition angle, which seems shoehorned in as if Mundy felt a need to undermine his character's intellectual effectiveness, the better for O'Hara to play the action hero. Or he may have felt that it made Ghose a more complexly comical figure. It may be that Mundy didn't fully have a grip on his creation yet. If I get a chance to read Ghose's later appearances I should be able to say whether the babu of "Case 13" is the finished product or only a work in progress.

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