Tim Prasil recently started a series on his blog called “In the Shadow of Rathbone” about the actors who have played Sherlock Holmes (and secondarily the actors who have played Watson) since the landmark portrayal of the great detective by Basil Rathbone (Introduction post here, Part 1 here). Reading his posts reminded me that I’ve never posted about this “Holmes vs. Dracula” story:
Miloska, white as a sheet, pressed herself against the portrait of the saint as if she was begging for her protection. From out of the brush, a man slowly approached her.
A man! No, it was a wraith! It had a dark, hate-filled face in which burned two hideous eyes!
“The man from the portrait,” muttered Tom anxiously. “It’s him…”
Count Ion Nedelcu Dragomin, the heir of Dracula, the Red-Eyed Vampire!” said Dickson…
Okay, it’s not really Holmes versus Dracula. It’s Harry Dickson (the great London-based American detective, residing at 221B Baker Street) fighting against Count Ion Nedelcu Dragomin, the Bohemian descendant of Vlad the Impaler. Close enough, right?
Harry Dickson (“the American Sherlock Holmes”) is probably as popular in France as Sherlock Holmes himself. What became the Harry Dickson series started out in 1907 as an unauthorized German series of Sherlock Holmes adventures called Detectiv Sherlock Holmes und seine weltberühmten abenteuer [Sherlock Holmes and his World-Famous Adventures], with a most awesome set of covers by Alfred Roloff. After ten issues, the publishers changed the name (on the cover) to Aus dem geheimakten des welt-detektivs [From the Secret Files of the World-Detective] — though “Sherlock Holmes” still solved the cases inside. 230 issues of the series were published, with Roloff painting covers for the first 125.
In 1927 a Dutch/Flemish publisher released a Dutch translation of the original German series, under the name Harry Dickson de Amerikaansche Sherlock Holmes [Harry Dickson, the American Sherlock Holmes] — “Holmes” was now Harry Dickson, and the Watson role went to Dickson’s young assistant, Tom Wills. Even though Dickson was now American, he still lived in London (with Wills, at 221B Baker Street), and his cases were based in Europe. From clues in the various stories, Dickson was likely born in New York, but was sent to England for his education, where he stayed. The Dutch series ran until 1935, and also used Roloff’s covers.
In 1929, the Belgian publisher Hippolyte Janssens decided to translate the Dutch series to French, for distribution in Belgium and France. That series was also called Harry Dickson, le Sherlock Holmes Americain. After the first 19 issues, Hip Janssens hired a new translator, a writer named Jean Raymond Marie De Kremer — better known today as the master of fantastic fiction Jean Ray (he also published under the name John Flanders). And that’s where things get interesting.
At first, Ray did straight translations of the original stories. But eventually, he got bored — the stories were evidently run-of-the-mill, mediocre pulp. So he started adapting them more loosely…. By 1932, Ray was writing the stories entirely from scratch, using only the title and the appropriate Roloff cover as guides.
Yes, they were still using the Roloff covers. Of course, the covers depicted people in the fashions of a couple decades before, so Ray had to place the action in out-of-the way small villages where time stood still, or otherwise come up with situations that explained the appearance of the people on the covers.
Very carefully, the detective laid the unconscious woman on the innkeeper’s bed and got his first look at her. Although she was still young, she was thin and drawn, giving her the appearance of being much older than she was. She was dressed in a style that was old fashioned and her entire being spoke of endless misery.
The French series folded right after they ran out of Roloff’s covers, by the way, so it was worth it to make sure the stories matched them. Today, Alfred Roloff (who studied at the Berlin Academy of Art) is known primarily for his paintings of horses.
Given Ray’s tastes, it’s not surprising that his Dickson stories dabbled in the fantastic, both supernatural and science-fictionish. The volume from Black Coat Press that I have has translations of three of Ray’s Dickson stories. “The Heir of Dracula” (French: “Le Vampire aux Yeux Rouges”, or “The Red-Eyed Vampire”) features our vampire Count Dragomin. “The Iron Temple” has monstrous aliens with advanced artifacts, mysterious Aztecs (from Brazil?), tigers, damsels in distress, and a ridiculous amount of action (also a bit of racial stereotyping, unfortunately). “The Return of the Gorgon” has Greek mythology, ocean-based creatures (many of Ray’s short stories were sea stories, like Hodgson’s) and some delicious pseudo-science. Oh, and there’s one very short tale about the Dickson universe’s equivalent of Mycroft, a brilliant bookseller who figures out cases from only the newspaper stories. More pseudo-science. The stories are nothing at all like Conan Doyle’s Holmes.
Ray’s reputation notwithstanding, the Dickson stories aren’t masterpieces of the weird. They’re pure pulp fiction, with all of pulp’s flaws and much of its delights. I liked “The Heir of Dracula” the best, I think; “The Return of the Gorgon” was fun, too. “The Iron Temple” was a bit too incoherent for me, and the racial stereotyping made me cringe a bit.
If you have an urge for more Sherlock Holmes, you’re better off rereading Conan Doyle (or perhaps tracking down August Derleth’s Solar Pons); but if you’re in the mood for some light and silly pulp fun, Harry Dickson is a good choice. Check it out.
- Black Coat Press has some volumes of translated Harry Dickson stories (mostly Jean Ray’s). The one I have is here, and there are more titles listed on the sidebar of that page.
- There’s a complete list of the French Harry Dickson stories, including which were written by Ray and which were only translated or adapted from the originals (or the Dutch translation of the originals…) at coolfrenchcomics.com. The page also mentions some comic book adaptations of the Dickson stories, in French. I hope the Dargaud ones get translated; I love that clear-line style.
- You can read a couple of Ray’s own short stories at Weird Fiction Review, here, and here. I especially like “The Horrifying Presence”: short and mean, rather like an Ambrose Bierce piece.
- The images of the German covers are from Book Collector: Story of Sherlock Holmes Dime Novels. The page includes an especially lurid Roloff cover (women hanging from meathooks) that — understandably — was toned down when the covers were reused in subsequent series. There are also covers from subsequent Holmesian series, and a Raffles rip-off, too.
- The Dutch cover is from rwssterk’s flickr site. He’s got a nice collection of pulp covers; I spotted a Roloff cover from a Polish translation of “Sherlock Holmes and his World-Famous Adventures” in there.
- The French cover is from this post on the Deadlicious blog, along with several others. I’m irrationally fond of the one that looks like Holmes and a lederhosened Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls (“Le Roi des Contrebandiers d’Andorre” [The King of Andorran Smugglers]).