The Prisoner Of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Yesterday I spent two long bus journeys reading this classic of Victorian adventure fiction. My rip was definitely roared but the novel seems to me an excellent example of the perils of an author letting a beloved character run away with him. The book is proceeding at a cracking pace right up until the middle, with the dashing hero playing deadly political games with grim-hearted Black Michael, an evil Duke. All well and good, but Black Michael has six henchmen, one of whom is introduced midway through and steals the book. Or at least he does in the author’s mind.

Avoiding spoilers as much as possible*, this new character starts cropping up in every chapter and eventually forces Hope to fluff up the climax of the book, avoiding any kind of climactic confrontation. The narrator and hero hammers home quite how much the author is in love with his new villain, by himself going woefully cock-eyed over his foe’s combination of evil, dash and gall. The sequel (not read yet) is named after him. Oh, he’s a nasty piece of work alright, but having spent half a book building up the depravity of Duke Michael it’s frustrating to see that tension slowly dissipate.

Adventure fiction is full of larger than life types so this beloved-character syndrome is a recurring one, especially prominent in serials. You used to see it a lot in Marvel Comics, particularly series with a long-running regular writer. The readers may have had their favourite characters, but if Chris Claremont suddenly fell for a new X-Man (generally a sassy young teenage girl with a wisdom belying her tender years) then woe betide you if you didn’t agree.

*If you want to get this book then PLEASE AVOID the Penguin Classics edition, or at least don’t read the back, which gives away the entire story of Zenda and its sequel in two paragraphs. But of course no discerning reader would be reading a designated Classic for something as vulgar as the story!