Dr. Hermes Reviews Jimgrim, The Nine Unknown, and Tros of Samothrace

The following reviews kindly furnished by the inestimable Dr. Hermes himself.


(Oct 31, 2002)

From 1931, first appearing as a serial in ADVENTURE as "The King of the World", this was one of a series of wild epics by Talbot Mundy, featuring a cast of characters who appeared in various combinations in different books.

Mundy, whose real name was William Lancaster Gribbon (1879-1940) had a career in the British Foreign Service all over India, Australia and Africa before settling in the US and buckling down to write many immensely popular pulp stories. He was a huge influence on Robert E. Howard, and Mundy's life of globe-trotting, womanizing and slightly shady adventures appears to have been in actuality the stuff that Howard only dreamed of in his little bedroom in Texas.

(The irony, of course, is that while Mundy acted out his dreams and was much more successful as a writer during his life, today Robert E. Howard is much better known to the public because of Conan and almost everything he ever wrote has seen print in recent times. It's a whacky world.)

JIMGRIM is, on the most basic level, a typical pulp adventure. We have a mysterious international mastermind, 'Dorje the Daring-- the King of the World', who has come up with a standard Mad Science gadget. In this case, it is the 'thunderbolts', small gizmos which burn out all electric devices when activated and which cause gunpowder and dynamite to explode over a huge area. Dorje has the area around Egypt in an uproar, causing massive destruction and loss of life, forcing cities in blackouts and soldiers to run around without bullets, throwing the authorities into panic and in general making life more complicated than it needs to be. He also arms his agents with 'death's-breath', small glass vials of extremely poisonous white gas which kills without leaving any residue in the area or in the victims.

Dorje is giving instructions to his global network by (wait for it) telepathically sending out groups of numbers that sensitive individuals can pick out of the ether and then look up in code books. This is not something your average conqueror relies upon.

We also find out that Dorje has uncovered a lost city in the Gobi desert filled with the secrets of Atlantean super-science, including antigravity and he has his stronghold in a mountain temple deep in Nepal. This guy is a serious contender for Supervillain of the Year for 1931.

Opposing him is a loose team of secret agents. Instead of Doc Savage or the Avenger with their loyal crews, we have an equally colorful assortment of adventurers. There's the young doctor, Robert Crosby, who narrates the story and who seems the most average of the group. There's Jeff Ramsden, a huge powerful brute who is afraid of nothing in this world...well, except cats and elevators (!?)

Then we have Baltis, an ambiguous femme fatale who apparently is a freelance French spy (or possibly Chinese?) who is excessively wily and attractive. She also is convinced that she has been reincarnated many times through the ages as Baltis, each time dying violently and dramatically, keeping a strong psychic memory of her earlier lives. This may in fact be the case; Mundy's books had a deep mystical undertone of them. (She also thinks Dorje is a new incarnation of King Solomon, come back to finish the world conquest he failed at before.)

The title hero, Jimgrim himself, is somehow not completely successful as a character. James Schuyler Grim is a veteran espionage agent and troubleshooter who has worked for different governments as he sees fit. He's shrewd, resourceful, respected and feared by everyone. But we never really get to know him or understand what's going on in his head. We see him mostly through the narrator's eyes and (since he's remarkably taciturn and seldom explains anything), Grim remains a bit of an enigma.

But the character who steals the book and who hogs the spotlight whenever he appears has to be Chullunder Ghose. A little bit reminiscent of Falstaff, Ghose is an obese con artist who can act as a clown or turn deadly serious as the situation demands it. Described as a babu (I believe this technically means a Hindu clerk who speaks English but also means a gentleman), Ghose speaks in flamboyant, poetic images that are a delight to read and which both enlighten and baffle everyone around him. I don't know another character in fiction quite like Ghose, the heroic coward and henpecked spy, and not many authors other than Mundy could write his dialogue. He's a trip.

Anyway, the basic premise of the book could serve as a plot for any number of pulp heroes. The difference is what Talbot Mundy does with the material. For one thing, he's writing about locations he'd actually visited and the tiny details of life in Egypt of that time have the casual ring of authenticity that Bob Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs never quite got right. Mundy understood human nature and bureaucracy, describing how people in a crisis like this would actually react. His characters are cunning and tricky, and tend to manipulate their way in and out of situations more often than just blazing away or whipping out the swords. (But there is plenty of action, too.)

But it's Mundy's prose that makes the most lasting impression. He obviously loved language, had a gift for vivid images and striking phrases, and was a first class wordsmith. My only misgiving is that sometimes he was a bit too oblique. He would refer to an important event offhandedly without actually describing what had happened, or would have two characters chat without explaining what they were really thinking about. But it just means you have to pay close attention and use your perception a little more than in most stories where you're hit over the head with events.

I also thought the book took a long stretch getting underway and seemed to stall for the first half, but then again it was a serial and was written to build up suspense (not to mention getting payment by the word). Mundy seems as much concerned with what his characters are thinking as what they are doing, which is something of a luxury for pulp adventure.

Now to see if I can find a copy of THE NINE UNKNOWN anywhere......


(March 11, 2003)
From 1923, where it appeared in the March and April issues of ADVENTURE, this is a wonderful book featuring a large assembly of Talbot Mundy's cast of adventurers on a search for the greatest treasure imaginable. It's not really a light thriller that you can breeze through from one narrow escape to the next; instead, the dense prose and detail mean that THE NINE UNKNOWN is best enjoyed by making your way through it as if you are exploring a foreign city where you don't know your way.

Mundy's writing is highly polished and clever. I hate to say it, but sometime it is just too rich and subtle to give the story any momentum. Nearly every paragraph has a wonderful phrase or insight that makes you pause to savor it. (A good example is the throwaway line where a witness is told to "lie like history". I love that phrase and the book is packed with hundreds like it.) As good as the prose is, though, it's too dense to carry the reader quickly along with the storyline. Robert E. Howard or Sax Rohmer did not have Mundy's jewel-like polish, but on the other hand, they knew how to keep each page leading into the next so that you plowed through their stories in a breathless rush.

First, we have to mention the cast. Many of Mundy's adventure stories had a loose assortment of heroes who appeared by themselves or in various combinations. THE NINE UNKNOWN has (by my count) seven protagonists, most of whom could easily carry a book alone. There's the acknowledged captain of the group, James Schuyler Grim, Jimgrim, an enigmatic soldier of fortune dedicated to forestalling wars and bringing bits of peace to the East as far as possible. Athelstan King was a colonel in the British army before joining Grim's society and he is roughly King's equal in cunning and resourcefulness (he's the most well-known of these guys because of a 1953 movie made of his book KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES... not that it was much like the book). There's Jeremy Ross, an inpudent con artist and magician, and Jeff Ramsden, a beefy giant who is thoughtful, if not clever. Then we have two murderous warriors who can be relied on when blood has to be spilled: the Sikh Naryan Singh and the mercenary Afghan Ali ben Ali (who travels around with seven "sons" he adopted after killing their various fathers.)

And there is also the indescribable Chullunder Ghose, Falstaff incarnated as a fat Hindu babu. Ghose is so complicated and contradictory that anything I say about him would have to be negated by another of his aspects. (When he's first mentioned, Ghose has asked the narrator for a character reference, offering to spy on his new employer in return. Tells you something about him.)

This sort of pulp Justice Society is after the immeasurable amount of gold that has been reported throughout history of which only a tiny fraction is accounted for today. To find this boodle, they need the help of 80 year old Father Cyprian. The good reverend has spent his life in India collecting every book of heathen lore he can find, with the goal of burning them all in one big bonfire; paradoxically, in doing so he has become an expert on the occult and owner of a vast library of forbidden knowledge. And he has learned of the existence of the Nine Unknown.

Yep, this is where Philip Jose Farmer derived his secret conspiracy the Nine in his Doc Caliban books, but it actually is a belief that goes way back in history. (Some sources trace the origin of the Nine Unknown back to the Indian emperor Asoka of the third cenury B.C. who basically turned Buddhism into a world religion; Mundy hints this cabal goes back way further than that, predating Atlantis.) The Nine Unknown may be degraded evil masterminds or they may be the most enlightened living beings on this planet, but in any case the ancient knowledge in their nine books is incredibly advanced and potent. They make the Illuminati look like a bowling team.

And this is what Jimgrim and his crew are tackling. There are so many stealthy encounters, violent attacks and reprisals, strategems and schemes, that this book has enough material packed into it to make an entire series. At one point, our heroes encounter a cult of sinister assassins who make the pages creep in your hand, they're so spooky; and it turns out that they're only a shallow bunch imitating the Nine Unknown, not even a shadow of the real thing!

If you love high adventure, or if you're interested in spiritual mysticism (like Theosophy), or if you just enjoy a writer who has real mastery of language, and you see a copy of THE NINE UNKNOWN on eBay or on the shelves of a used book store, by all means pounce on that puppy and take it home. The explanation of how people can safely drink the water of the Ganges (with all its filth, sewage, discarded corpses and diseased pilgrims wading in its water) is in itself worth reading this book to find out. Then there's also the useful hint that the way to resist an evil hypnotist is to do difficult math in your head... or that a single page of one of the Nine's books has enough secrets of propaganda that a thief can promptly begin his own religion.... or that Sinanuju was founded by a disciple of the Nine (okay, that part I just made up to see if you were paying attention).


(Dec 28, 2004)

This is astonishingly good, and not at all what I had expected. The story of a adventurous sailor from a Greek island who challenges Caesar's first attempt at invading the British Isles, TROS does have a couple of vividly described battle scenes and some climactic action at sea, but that's not what the story is mostly about. It's essentially a political thriller. Nearly all the book is concerned with forming alliances, telling trustworthy friends from treacherous rogues, making deals and manipulating people without their quite catching on. (If the book were written today, it would probably be about a diplomat trying to navigate the snakefights in the Middle East just before another war erupts.) Mundy is absolutely wonderful at this sort of narrative, something I first experienced with a pair of the Jimgrim novels. His heroes are perfectly capable of cutting your head off but they would rather talk you into doing what they want instead. (If that fails, THEN they can always cut off your head.)

It's 55 B.C., and Julius Caesar has subjugated Gaul to his satisfaction and is turning predatory eyes toward Britain. (In addition to the usual source of slaves and goods to be taken, the Isles have tin, needed for making bronze.) The Britons are ferocious but unorganized warriors, who scorn armor as unmanly and who tend to fight as the mood strikes them. Against the highly disciplined, Storm Trooper-like Romans, they don't really seem to have a good chance of resisting successfully.

Then Tros of Samothrace appears as an unwilling emissary of Rome. Tros' father, Prince Perseus (not THE Perseus of course, perhaps a descendant) is a prisoner of Caesar, held hostage to make Tros follow orders. Even as he meets with the British king Caswallon (another real historical figure) and Queen Fflur, though, Tros is feverishly scheming how to arrange the defense of Britain, the rescue of his father and the defeat of Caesar. Quite a lot to accomplish, but Tros is not your ordinary sailor.

There are some interesting aspects of these stories that pleasantly startled me. Talbot Mundy was a writer with a deep and sincere interest in the occult and mysticism. He comes down squarely on the side of the Druids, shows them as wise and holy men with great Knowledge, and dismisses the tales of their burning sacrifices in wicker men as mere Roman propaganda. (I don't know the historic truth of the matter, and I'm not sure anyone really does; you can find sources claiming either side is true, and the whole subject is mired in a huge swamp of New Age revisionism.)

Tros himself is complex and a bit ambiguous. Of course, to command an unruly and untrustworthy crew into sailing the ocean, much less taking on Roman forces, he has to be absolutely hard and imposing. ("Thereafter, disdaining to draw his sword on fishermen, he seized a wooden bench and cracked a skull or two with that, until the bench broke and the Britons began to admire him.")

At the same time, though, he is a novice in the Mystery religions of that time, and has some aversion to taking human life. At one point, he boards another ship and throws its crew overboard in the sea but insists he has done nothing wrong and certainly has not placed any murders on his soul. ("I gave them leave to swim... That is their affair. I never forbade them to learn to swim.") It sure sounds like he's rationalizing like crazy, here.

Tros is not a full initiate into the Mysteries like his father, which would mean taking vows of non-violence and shunning revenge. So he's kind of straddling the reality of wars and invasions with the spiritual duties of peaceful resistance. It makes him a lot more appealing than most of Robert E Howard's heroes, who could murder a dozen men over a purse of gold and sleep soundly that night. (Howard was deeply influenced by Talbot Mundy, but although he excelled on his own turf of all-out kinetic action, he never came close to making his battle scenes as convincing or well thought out as Mundy did.)

Another thing that struck me was how demonic and despicable Mundy's depiction of Julius Caesar is. Now, intellectually of course, I realized that the man was a conqueror and that means he committed untold atrocities, tortures and betrayals to achieve his ends. (There are no honorable conquests, although maybe it may seem so if you're on the side that benefits.) Still, it never sank in before what an absolute monster he must have been until I read this book. Mundy's version of Caesar is the most cunning and clever military leader alive at that time but also one with no honor or decency at all. I had vaguely idealized and cleaned-up images of a dignified Caesar from schoolbook texts, but I think it's time to read a bit more about him in depth.

Mundy likes the ancient Britons well enough, but he has no illusions about them and shows them with their flaws as well as their heroism. The minute details showing how people lived and acted in those times don't seem forced here. Some adventure writers all too obviously read a few encyclopedia entries or NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC articles, made a few notes and then clumsily inserted foreign words and phrases here and there into the narrative (I'm not mentioning Edgar Rice Burroughs specifically, you understand). Talbot Mundy on the other hand writes with a confidence and a surety that convinces me he really knew his subject in depth. His descriptions of the difficulties and hardships of sailing have the ring of authenticity, the same as his relating how chariots were managed on headlong gallops through deep woods.

Most of the time, all the intricate scheming and plotting between the characters was more than enough to keep the pages turning smoothly, but I have to admit that once or twice, I did find myself wishing that something physical would happen. Maybe a lifetime of reading the violent and lightning-quick tempo of most pulp series has ruined me for finer literature, just as my teachers warned me it would. Mundy does work at a more deliberate and natural pacing, much like a mainstream historical novel. You just have to settle down, relax and enjoy the story on its own terms. It's denser and more thorough than a typical pulp you can breeze through at top speed.

I do love the sly bits of humour Mundy always inserts into his narratives. It's seldom broad slapstick, more like Tros' reflections on the use of torture ("Tortures such as Caesar had inflicted flay away personal values and leave nothing in the thought but sheer fact, which was why courts applied torture to witnesses. If they had tortured the judges, too, there might have been some sense in it.") There is a scene where Tros has to question an old old toothless man about navigating the coasts of Britain, and because he can't make any sense of the elder's mumbling, the man's blind assistant has to interpret. ("They vied in their enthusiasm to explain to him, clutching him, striking each other's wrists, interrupting each other, croaking and squeaking like a pair of rusty-throated parrots, answering his questions both at once and abusing each other when he failed to understand exactly..." The book is filled with amusing little moments like that.)

TROS has a large cast, and none of them are simple black & white heroes or villains (except maybe Caesar, of course). They each have their own agendas, which sometimes agree with Tros' plans and sometimes don't. Even when you as a reader don't like what a character is up to, you can understand his point of view. Fflur, the queen who is equally at home commanding a warship or supervising the washing of the dishes after a feast, is especially impressive when 'the sight" comes upon and she prophesies in an eerie distant voice. Of course, now I have to read the rest of the stories to see how her foretellings come out. (Not exactly a chore.)

Talbot Mundy had nine Tros stories published in ADVENTURE, all revised into one whopper of a book, TROS OF SAMOTHRACE in 1934. The first two stories, "Tros of Samothrace" (February 1925) and "The Enemy of Rome" (April 1925) were reprinted by Avon Books in 1967 as simply TROS. The remaining stories were collected in later Avon paperbacks titled HELMA, LIAFAIL and HELENE (I'll be reviewing them in due time) and Tros also appeared in the 1929 book QUEEN CLEOPATRA. (One of Mundy's most appealing traits is that his characters popped up in each others' stories exactly as if they were real people bumping into one another. The Jimgrim stories feature maybe a dozen protagonists who show up in different combinations, something irresistable to a crossover enthusiast like myself).

TalbotMundy.com is a website devoted to Talbot Mundy, mystical adventure, epics, books, essays, Theosophy, British Foreign Service, India, Australia, Africa, Robert E. Howard, Dorje the Daring, thunderbolts, Gobi desert, Atlantis, Nepal, Jimgrim, King of the Khyber Rifles, Gray Mahatma, Om the Secret of Ahbor Valley, Queen Cleopatra, Lud of Lunden, Helma, Praetor's Dungeon, Tros of Samothrace, Full Moon, Purple Pirate, Caves of Terror, Rung Ho!, Black Light, Bubble Reputation, Caesar Dies, Caves of Terror, C.I.D., Cock of the North, Devil's Guard, Diamonds See in the Dark, East and West, Eye of Zeitoon, Full Moon, Gunga Sahib, Guns of the Gods, Gup-bahadur, Her Reputation, Hira Singh's Tale, Hundred Days, Woman Ayisha, I Say Sunrise, Ivory Trail, Allah's Peace, Jungle Jest, King in Check, Lion of Petra, Lost Trooper, Marriage of Meldrum Strange, Mystery of Khufu's Tomb, Nine Unknown, Old Ugly Face, Purple Pirate, Ramsden, Red Flame of Erinpura, Romances of India, Rung Ho, Seventeen Thieves of El Kalil, Soul of a Regiment, There Was a Door, Thunder Dragon Gate, Told East, Valient View, When Trails Were New, Winds of the World, Pigsticking in India, Single-handed Yachting, Phantom Battery, Blooding of the Ninth Queen's Own, For Valour, Chaplain of the Mullingars, and many other things related.