by Dr Hermes

March 11, 2003

from DrHermesReviews Website


From 1923, where it appeared in the March and April issues of ADVENTURE, this is a wonderful book featuring a large assembly of Talbot Mundyís cast of adventurers on a search for the greatest treasure imaginable. Itís 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 donít know your way.

Mundyís 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, itís too dense to carry the reader quickly along with the storyline. Robert E. Howard or Sax Rohmer did not have Mundyís 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 Mundyís 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. Thereís 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 Grimís society and he is roughly Kingís equal in cunning and resourcefulness (heís 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). Thereís Jeremy Ross, an impudent 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 heís 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 century 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, stratagems 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, theyíre so spooky; and it turns out that theyíre only a shallow bunch imitating the Nine Unknown, not even a shadow of the real thing!

If you love high adventure, or if youíre 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 thereís 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 Nineís 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).