Review of PRINCE ZALESKI
The Times, 20 April 1895, p. 8
From the criminal detective, so long the darling of a certain school of novelists, there is being evolved an even more gifted personage -- the dilettante dipus. A good example of his type is to be found in PRINCE ZALESKI, by M. P. Shiel (John Lane). The modern decipherer of mysteries is himself wrapped in a robe of mystery. The clairvoyance of the novelist's detective is his least wonderful attribute. He is a scholar, savant, and scientist, armed with the erudition of the past, the piercing logic of the present, and the sybillic vision of the future. He has lived in the East, knows all manner of Oriental cabala, has a gigantic Ethiopian for a body-guard, and surrounds himself with mummies, hieroglyphs, idols and other stage properties; his apartments are dim, the air is faint with incense, while the sage himself sprawls on a divan smoking a gemmed chibouque and conning a rare manuscript. To him enters his friend the author, officiously full of some mysterious affair which, although it is none of his business, you would think him specially charged to unravel. He reels off an abstract of complicated facts. The great man listens, at first with an air of boredom, presently with awakened interest. When the case is complete, dipus delivers a discourse going straight to the solution of the mystery, co-ordinating each minute detail with unerring judgment and illuminating the mass with rays of recondite learning. The upshot of the interview is a telegram to the Home Secretary, directing him to countermand some execution, or the dispatch of the Ethiopian to anticipate, if not too late, an impending tragedy. Such is the New Wizardry; and it must be confessed that the Wizard is a slightly tiresome piece of stage machinery. Let us make haste, however, to acknowledge that in themselves the mysteries which he unravels with such consummate ease are by no means tiresome. They are fascinating in spite of the demands they make upon our credulity. How Lord Pharanx met his death is an enigma solved most ingeniously, even although the solution renders it necessary to believe that a peer who (with the connivance of his son) contemplates suicide which shall have the appearance of accidental death can devise no simpler expedient than having a pistol lowered into his study through the ceiling of two upper storeys, and hoisted up again after the act is accomplished.
There is something, too, that impresses the imagination even in the fantastic absurdities of the "S. S." -- the society which prevents (by killing them) weakly or diseased persons from reproducing their species. Mr. Shiel is evidently widely read (perhaps more widely than exactly) in classical and general literature. On page 52 we might be reading Æschylus in a translation. While he can be direct and lucid enough when he pleases, his tastes incline to a tropical luxuriance difficult of attainment by any but Oriental or Hibernian writers. To Mr. Shiel, indeed, one might apply in part his description of Prince Zaleski:--
He was nothing if not superlative; his diatribes, now culminating in a very extravaganza of hyperbole-now sailing with loose wing through the downy, witched, Dutch cloud-heaps of some quaintest tramontane Nephelococcugia of thought -- now laying down law of the Medes for the actual world of to-day, had oft-times the strange effect of bringing back to my mind the singular old -epic epithet, ήνεμόεν -- airy -- as applied to human thought.
"Old-epic" is a mistake, unless Sophocles was an epic poet. But Mr. Shiel's bow is not always at high tension, and it is difficult, whatever canon we recognize, to admire such a sentence as, "though simple before in his gustatory tastes, he now -- possibly owing to the sedentary life he led -- became fastidious, insisting on recherché bits."
Transcribed by Victor A. Berch, November 18, 2004
Return to M. P. Shiel at Selected Authors of Supernatural Fiction