Everyone loves a diabolical criminal mastermind. And the first of the great literary examples of this breed may well have been Guy Boothby’s Dr Nikola who made his first appearance in print in 1895 in the novel A Bid for Fortune.
Boothby was an Australian writer whose output of novels and short stories was prodigious considering that his writing career lasted only about a dozen years before his untimely death at the age of 35 in 1905.
Dr Nikola has all the attributes of a diabolical criminal mastermind. His origins are mysterious. His constant companion is an enormous black cat to which he is devoted. He is as charming as he is ruthless. His ambitions know no bounds. His powers are based partly on the arts of mesmerism but there are very strong suggestions that he may also be involved in some kind of eastern black magic.
The hero of the tale is Richard Hatteras, whose origins are also somewhat mysterious, Hatteras has made a fortune as a pearler and trader in the waters around New Guinea. Having made his pile he sets off to the big city to enjoy his wealth. On arrival in Sydney he encounters Dr Nikola quite by accident and find himself drawn into a series of strange events. Hatteras has also made the acquaintance of a charming young lady and has fallen head over heels in love. Phyllis Wetherell is the daughter of the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales. They plan to marry but her father is strongly opposed to any such match. Phyllis will also find herself drawn into Dr Nikola’s machinations.
Dr Nikola’s current plans involve money of course, bur far more important to the sinister doctor is an ancient Chinese talisman possessing almost unimaginable occult powers.
It’s an outrageous and highly entertaining potboiler with no pretensions to any great literary merit. It could be described as a late entry in the cycle of Victorian sensation novels that made writers like Wilkie Collins the literary superstars of their day, but with hints of the gothic thrown in. Boothby was an immensely successful author in his day.
A Bid for Fortune is one of the two Dr Nikola novels included in the Wordsworth paperback edition Dr Nikola Master Criminal. The second novel, Dr Nikola (sometimes called Dr Nikola Returns), is a kind of loose sequel and they need to be read in sequence. It takes an interestingly different perspective on the master criminal.
If you’re a fan of Victorian crime, gothic or adventure novels it’s worth picking up.