Book review – The Disintegration Machine by Arthur Conan Doyle (Professor Challenger #5). 1929.
Regular readers of The Long Victorian blog will have observed that I am an enthusiastic reader of thumping good yarns. Not only does this sort of writing bring happiness to many, they are much harder to write than most suppose. Try it yourself. Easy reading, is hard writing. Authors capable in this art form include: Daphne du Maurier, Roald Dahl, Anne Rice, Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse, Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowling, Robert Louis Stevenson – and many others. I’m sure you have your own list. And Arthur Conan Doyle was a master at it. Most people know of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales (56 short stories and 4 novels), but there are also five Professor Challenger stories. This is the third of five Challenger reviews that I’ll be doing.
1912 – The Lost World – adventures in a prehistoric world. REVIEW
1913 – The Poison Belt – facing The End of The World. REVIEW
1926 – The Land of Mist – a tale of the supernatural.
1928 – When the World Screamed – An attempt to drill through the Earth’s crust and into the mantle in an attempt to find a giant creature.
1929 – The Disintegration Machine.
Each of the 3 Professor Challenger stories that I’ve read so far has contained science, humour, good characters and usually a little moral dilemma to chew upon.
Although Conan Doyle only wrote 5 of these stories, that wasn’t enough to satisfy the general public. Over the years many other writers purloined the creator’s Challenger characters and gave them a second life in other stories – with varying success. One of those I’m keen to get hold of is The Footprints on the Ceiling from Jules Caister’s anthology of pastiches, Rather Like (1919). Apparently in this story Edward Malone (reporter) describes how the famous detective Sherlock Holmes is asked to track down a seemingly kidnapped renowned scientist, Professor Challenger.
But that’s for the future, today I’ll jump to the last and briefest in the Challenger series – The Disintegration Machine. First published in The Strand Magazine in January 1929.
The story features just two of the regular characters we’ve met previously: our trusty Tintin-esque reporter, Ed Malone of the Daily Gazette and the sometimes Captain Haddock-like George Edward Challenger. The story begins with Challenger booming away on the telephone to someone who has the wrong number. Reminiscent to me of a similar discussion by Herge’s Captain Haddock in The Calculus Affair, 1956 [“No, Madam, I am not Mr Cutts the butcher…”]
But it is more natural to compare Professor Challenger with Conan Doyle’s other great creation – Sherlock Holmes. Like Sherlock Holmes, Professor Challenger is highly intelligent, logical and a dominant personality, but whereas Holmes is tall and thin, a loner and something of cold fish, Challenger is short and a bull of a man, married, hot blooded, outspoken and quick to anger.
Challenger: ‘Yes, I say it is the second wrong call. The second in one morning. Do you imagine that a man of science is to be distracted from essential work by the constant interference of some idiot at the end of a wire? I will not have it. Send this instant for the manager. Oh! you are the manager. Well, why don’t you manage? Yes, you certainly manage to distract me from work the importance of which your mind is incapable of understanding … I will carry you to the law courts if this occurs again. Crowing cocks have been adjudicated upon. I myself have obtained a judgement. If crowing cocks, why not jangling bells? The case is clear. A written apology. Very good. I will consider it. Good morning.’
At this point friend and reporter, Ed Malone enters the room.
‘Infernal, idle, overpaid rascals!’ he boomed. ‘I could hear them laughing while I was making my just complaint. There is a conspiracy to annoy me. And now, young Malone, you arrive to complete a disastrous morning.’
Malone asks for Challenger’s assistance in a commission that he’s been given by his editor, that of interviewing a Latvian scientist, Theodore Nemor, who claims to have invented a machine capable of disintegrating objects and then ‘reintegrating’ them, so they vanish and then reappear. With clear military possibilities. Challenger is sceptical that such an invention can really exist but agrees to accompany Malone, his companion of previous adventures.
‘Please call upon our esteemed friend, Professor Challenger, and ask for his co-operation in the following circumstances. There is a Latvian gentleman named Theodore Nemor living at White Friars Mansions, Hampstead, who claims to have invented a machine of a most extraordinary character which is capable of disintegrating any object placed within its sphere of influence. Matter dissolves and returns to its molecular or atomic condition. By reversing the process it can be reassembled.’
When our two heroes arrive at the Latvian’s house they are asked to wait whilst the dastardly Nemor entertains a group of wealthy looking Russian communists.
Exactly as I read about these devious Soviets negotiating the purchase of a modern atom-based device that might threaten the world, I could hear the BBC news in the background telling me about modern devious Russians threatening the world with their latest inventions. It seems little changes, always a “them” and “us”.
Nemor finally greets them. In appearance he seems to resemble something between Dracula and Richard III. He is described as a ‘hunchback without a hunch’ – and:
His eyes were those of a cat, and catlike was the thin, long, bristling moustache above his loose, wet, slobbering mouth. It was all low and repulsive until one came to the sandy eyebrows … His yellow fangs gleamed in obsequious amiability.
He explains to Challenger and Malone that the services of his miraculous machine have already been offered to a European government (Russia?) for an enormous sum. Nevertheless, the arrogant Latvian hunchback is keen to demonstrate the power of his new invention.
Inside was a large whitewashed room with innumerable copper wires hanging in festoons from the ceiling, and a huge magnet balanced upon a pedestal. In front of this was what looked like a prism of glass, three feet in length and about a foot in diameter. To the right of it was a chair which rested upon a platform of zinc, and which had a burnished copper cap suspended above it. Both the cap and the chair had heavy wires attached to them, and at the side was a sort of ratchet with numbered slots and a handle covered with India rubber which lay at present in the slot marked zero.
Soon Ed Malone is strapped to the laboratory chair, vaporised, and two minutes later reappears. Challenger is astonished. The demonstration continues and this time it is Challenger that is ensconced in the chair. The good Professor briefly disappears and then reappears entirely without his body hair – before going through the process once more, this time with his vigorous mane and thick beard intact.
Nemor explains his belief that his invention will alter the balance of power among the nations. “Who holds this, rules the world” .. “Conceive a quarter of London in which such machines have been erected. Imagine the effect of such a current upon the scale which could easily be adopted. Why,” he burst into laughter, “I could imagine the whole Thames valley being swept clean, and not one man, woman, or child left of all these teeming millions!”.
At this point we should remember that Challenger and Malone had already seen something like the horrible possibility described in their previous adventure – The Poison Belt – and were presumably not keen to see it again.
I have already given much away, I don’t want to spoil it completely. Sufficient to say that the Latvian’s plans are foiled and the Professor explains ‘The first duty of the law-abiding citizen is to prevent murder… I have done so. Enough, Malone, enough!’.
How much Challenger’s actions were motivated by his good feelings for humankind and how much by a desire to see his own scientific work completed is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. But Conan Doyle is no stranger to preferring his hero’s sense of justice, over the letter of the law. It is worth remembering that Sherlock Holmes, on numerous occasions, takes the law into his own hands – for example in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange and The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.
The Disintegration Machine is a brief and simple story, enjoyable but poorly developed and lazy in several elements. It could have been so much more, I suspect it was dashed off quickly to satisfy popular demand. I recommend it, but try to read the more satisfying The Lost World and The Poison Belt first, they are more completely thought through and executed.
It might be an indication of how Conan Doyle felt about this slight story that it ends, as follows.
“Enough, Malone, enough! The theme will not bear discussion. It has already disengaged my thoughts too long from matters of more importance.”
Nevertheless, in this story you will find  humour,  two of your favourite Conan Doyle characters,  a mad scientist and his devilish invention,  a reference to spiritualism – a fascination of Conan Doyle in his later life, but rejected in this story by the logic-loving Challenger,  some 1920s Russophobia and mention of wealthy and decadent elite communists,  the emergence of fears about the atomic age, subsequently explored in science fiction over the next 40 years, and finally,  a moral dilemma – is it ever right to take a life, to save others? That’s enough in a short story for most people. And that’s enough from me now, folks. Time for a brew.
P.S. Whilst writing this review I noticed that there is an attempt to raise funding for a film version of the The Disintegration Machine (see Youtube trailer below). Note: I am not involved with this project and know little about it.
Blog book reviews of Professor Challenger stories (Conan Doyle):
The Lost World – adventures in a prehistoric world.
The Poison Belt – the Earth passes through a cloud of poisonous gas and the Professor and his colleagues face The End of the World.
The Disintegration Machine – a story about the invention of a machine that can disintegrate objects and put them back together, with a surprising ending.
BELOW: Arthur Conan Doyle on Pinterest (via The Long Victorian)