There died recently a gentleman named Nat Gould, twenty million copies of whose books had been sold. They were hardly ever reviewed in the literary papers; advertisements of them rarely appeared; no puffs nor photographs of the author were thrust upon one, Unostentatiously he wrote them–five in a year–and his million public was assured to him. It is perhaps too late now to begin to read them, but we cannot help wondering whence came his enormous popularity.
Mr. Gould, as all the world knows, wrote racing novels. They were called, Won by a Neck, or Lost by a Head, or Odds On, or The Stable-lad’s Dilemma. Every third man in the Army carried one about with him. I was unlucky in this matter, for all my men belonged to the other two-thirds; they read detective stories about a certain Sexton Blake, who kept bursting into rooms and finding finger-marks. In your innocence you may think that Sherlock Holmes is the supreme British detective, but he is a child to Blake. If I learnt nothing else in the Army, I learnt that. Possibly these detective stories were a side-line of Mr. Gould’s, or possibly my regiment was the one anti-Gould regiment in the Army. At any rate, I was demobilized without any acquaintance with the Won by a Neck stories.
There must be something about the followers of racing which makes them different from the followers of any other sport. I suppose that I am at least as keen on the Lunch Scores as any other man can be on the Two-thirty Winner; yet I have no desire whatever to read a succession of stories entitled How’s That, Umpire? or Run Out, or Lost by a Wicket. I can waste my time and money with as much pleasure on the golf-course as Mr. Gould’s readers can on the race-course, but those great works, Stymied and The Foozle on the Fifth Tee, leave me cold. My lack of interest in racing explains my lack of interest in racing novels, but why is there no twenty million public for Off-side and Fouled on the Touchline? It is a mystery.
Though I have never read a racing novel, I can imagine it quite easily. Lord Newmarket’s old home is mortgaged, mortgaged everywhere. His house is mortgaged, his park is mortgaged, his stud is mortgaged, his tie-pin is mortgaged; yet he wants to marry Lady Angela. How can he restore his old home to its earlier glories? There is only one chance. He must put his shirt (the only thing that isn’t mortgaged) on Fido for the Portland Vase. Fido is a rank outsider–most of the bookmakers thought that he was a fox-terrier, not a horse–and he is starting at a thousand to one. When the starting-gate goes up, Fido will carry not only Lord Newmarket’s shirt, but Lady Angela’s happiness. Was there ever such a race before in the history of racing? Only in the five thousand other racing novels. But Lord Newmarket is reckoning without Rupert Blacknose. Blacknose has not only sworn to wed Lady Angela, but it is he who holds the mortgages on Lord Newmarket’s old home. It is at Newmarket Villa that he means to settle down when he is married. If Fido wins, his dreams are shattered. At dead of night he climbs into Fido’s stable, and paints him white with a few black splotches. Surely now he will be disqualified as a fox-terrier! He climbs out again, laughing sardonically to himself…. The day of the great race dawns. The Portland Vasel Who has not heard of it? In the far-away Malay Archipelago… in the remotest parts of the Australian bush… in West Kensington… etc., etc. Anyway, the downs were black with people, and the stands were black with more people, and the paddock was packed with black people. But of all these people none concealed beneath a mask of impassivity a heart more anxious than Lord Newmarket’s. He wandered restlessly into the weighing-room. He weighed himself. He had gone down a pound. He wandered out again. The downs were still black with humanity. Then came a hoarse cry from twenty thousand throats. “They’re off!”
Yes, well, Mr. Gould’s novels are probably better than that. But it is a terrifying thought that he wrote a hundred and thirty of them. A hundred and thirty times he described that hoarse cry from twenty thousand throats, “They’re off!” A hundred and thirty times he described the downs black with humanity, and the grandstand, and the race itself, and what the bookmakers were saying, and the scene in the paddock. How did he do it? Had he a special rubber stamp for all these usual features, which saved him the trouble of writing them every time? Or did he come quite fresh to it with each book? He wrote five of them every year; did he forget in March what he said in January, only to forget in June and visualize the scene afresh? To describe a race-course a hundred thirty times–what a man!
Yet perhaps, after all, it is not difficult to understand why he was so popular, why he had a following even greater than Mr. Garvice. Mr. Garvice wrote love-stories, stories of that sweet and fair young English girl and that charming, handsome, athletic young Englishman. Every one who is not yet in love, or who is unhappily married, dreams of meeting one or the other, and to read such stories transports the loveless for a moment into the land where they would be. But then there are many more moneyless people in the world than loveless; many more people who want money than who want love. It is these people who are transported by Mr. Nat Gould. He does not (I imagine) write of the stern-chinned, silent millionaire who has forced his way to the top by solid grit; we have no hopes of getting rich that way. But he does (I imagine) write of the lucky fellow who puts his shirt both ways on an outsider and pulls off a cool thousand. Well, that might happen to any of us. It never has yet… but five times a year Mr. Gould carried us away from the world where it never has into that beautiful dream-world where it happens quite naturally. No wonder that he was popular.