In the Rare Book Room in NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand there has resided, for quite some time now, a volume that I have greatly wanted to acquire. The book in question is Scottish author John Taine’s very first novel, The Purple Sapphire, which was first released by E. P. Dutton & Co. as a hardcover in 1924 … the same year that Dutton released Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s now-classic dystopian book We. The Strand edition is this very Dutton original, made even more collectible due to its nicely preserved dust jacket, and the fact that it was signed by Taine himself, when he dedicated the book to no less a figure than Forrest J. Ackerman! Unfortunately, the price tag on this volume is a whopping $1,100, which perhaps explains why it has sat on a shelf in that Rare Book Room for so long. Please don’t misunderstand me, though: I’m not saying that the book isn’t worth $1,100, just that it is waaaay out of my price range … and the price range of a good many others, I have a feeling.
Fortunately, The Purple Sapphire can now be had for a very economical price, thanks to Armchair Fiction’s recent 24-volume Lost World/Lost Race series. I had previously read John Taine’s fifth novel, 1929’s The Greatest Adventure, had enjoyed it considerably and was more than game to give the author another look. Taine’s first novel (he had previously written nothing but books pertaining to mathematics) out of an eventual 15, that 15th being 1954’s marvelously titled G.O.G. 666, The Purple Sapphire was released when Taine was already 41 years old. It reappeared 24 years after that Dutton printing in the pages of the August 1948 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, which, despite its name, reprinted reams of sci-fi and fantasy works. Since 1948, the novel has appeared twice more, both times as just one selection in anthology collections. This Armchair release, thus, represents the first time that the novel has been published in a stand-alone book form since its initial appearance 95 years ago. And further good news: This new edition also features the beautiful cover artwork (by Lawrence Stevens) that graced the 1948 FFM cover, as well as half a dozen drawings from famed illustrator Virgil Finlay. So for those wishing to save $1,087 yet still partake in a wonderful and at-times thrilling adventure novel, here is your chance.
As for the story itself, it introduces us to two Americans, John Ford (presumably, not the director) and his niece, Rosita Rowe, both of whom are gem traders, explorers and adventurers, operating primarily in central Asia. When we first encounter the pair, they are sojourning in Darjeeling, in North India, and being asked by the British general Wedderburn to engage in a most unusual quest. The general’s 8-year-old daughter, Evelyn, had been kidnapped 12 years before by a mysterious man who called himself Singh. The girl had never been seen again, and now, the British Secret Service has finally given up the search. Wedderburn shows the Americans a priceless artifact that Singh had dropped during the kidnapping: a beautifully cut purple sapphire that shines with an almost unnatural brilliance, especially after being exposed to sunlight. But what has just made the case even more interesting is the fact that a former British soldier, one Captain Joicey, presumed dead after falling into a crevasse eight years earlier, had recently resurfaced. The man’s hands were horribly burnt and withered, and he was resting in hospital in a babbling delirium … but he also possessed, secreted on his person, an identical purple sapphire, only much larger and more brilliant than Singh’s. Reasoning that the sapphires must have originated in the same locale, Wedderburn infers that Joicey might thus be able to lead them to the kidnapper’s vicinity.
Fortunately for one and all, Joicey does indeed make a recovery, and agrees to lead Ford and Rosita on a quest for both Evelyn and yet more priceless sapphires … a quest that will involve months of trekking through the wilds of northern Tibet; the crossing of a blue-flaming desert whose emanations poison the mind and cause hallucinations and blindness; and an attempt to pass themselves off as priests and wise woman, when they ultimately encounter the degraded remnants of a people known only as The Great Race, whose implements of superscience were mostly destroyed in some ancient cataclysm, but whose “perpetual flame” still burns in a sealed-off cavern, awaiting the return of those who know how to wield it…
Into The Purple Sapphire, his very first novel, Taine adds verisimilitude to his conceit by incorporating prodigious detail and actual place names. The Indian towns of Pedong, Simla, Jelep La and Kalimpong, as well as the Teesta River Valley … they’re all there, as any good atlas will reveal. The author’s descriptions of the terrain that our band of adventurers traverses en route to Tibet, covered with maidenhair, robinias, bauhinias … and thousands of leeches, are economically yet vividly sketched in. And Taine cleverly keeps his story interesting and suspenseful, even while nothing much is transpiring other than a forced march, by having Joicey tell us and his companions of his previous experiences while journeying to, and living amongst, the remnants of that Great Race. And what fascinating stories they are!
Taine, I should add, besides being a mathematician, was also something of a poet, and his knowledge of poetry is quite evident when he quotes such famous purveyors as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Keats and Sir Walter Scott (whose “Lay of the Last Minstrel” figures prominently in the novel). And Taine here demonstrates that he was quite capable himself of turning a poetic phrase, such as when he writes of Rosita “…her baffling smile masked her, as moonlight in seeming to make clearer the mystery of the sea but draws over it an intangible veil…” So yes, the author’s first novel is an intelligent and literate affair, and one containing any number of finely done sequences … especially the ones detailing the crossing of that borderline-radioactive desert, the exploration of the sealed cavern of the perpetual flame, and that mind-bogglingly cataclysmic finale.
The book’s three lead characters are quite likeable overall, even shown at one point putting themselves at great personal risk to save the life of a Tibetan youth who had inadvertently betrayed them. So at bottom, Taine’s first novel turns out to be a not inconsiderable addition to the Lost World/Lost Race genre; the genre that was so effectively kick-started by the great English author H. Rider Haggard in the mid-1880s. Taine is surely no Haggard — no great surprise there — but The Purple Sapphire clearly shows that the man had done his background reading and was confident in his knowledge of the conventions of the genre. Coming as it does from a first-time novelist, the book will surely manage to impress the reader of today.
Still, of course, like most efforts from tyro writers, there are several problems. Taine’s dialogue is often forced, awkward and decidedly unnatural, and his characters have a tendency to rattle off expository detail as opposed to conversing like genuine people. Thus, Rosita’s comment when asked if she’d ever seen anything more beautiful than a nearby patch of rhododendrons: “No … unless it is those higher slopes with their great fields of white and purple splashed here and there against the background of crimson and bright gold…” Does that sound like natural speech to you? Taine’s book can also be justly accused of casual racism, a charge of which The Greatest Adventure was also guilty. But here, the racism is directed against the Tibetan people, who are described as both filthy and stupid (Singh is said to be “really intelligent, and therefore a rare exception to his race as I know it…”). I personally have several Tibetan friends and coworkers, and would be embarrassed to ever tell them of this book, while yet acknowledging that this casual racism was often par for the course in these lost-world affairs (although, I should say, hardly ever with Haggard himself). And despite being familiar with the famous quote from Scottish philosopher/historian Thomas Carlyle regarding England’s population — “Thirty million, mostly fools” — Taine here muffs things a bit by giving that figure as “fifty million.” Even the great Virgil Finlay — surely one of the greatest artists of the Pulp Era — gets things wrong in one of his illustrations, adding both a beard and mustache to the figure of a subterranean Great Race statue, although Ford clearly states “It’s a blessing, too, that he didn’t wear a beard or mustache.” But that is really nitpicking.
Oh … one final word on this Armchair Fiction edition itself. It is a very pleasing volume, especially inasmuch as it includes the cover and interior artwork of over 70 years ago, but unfortunately does contain more in the way of typos than I would deem acceptable. The previous volume that I had read in their Lost World/Lost Race series, David Douglas’ The Silver God of the Orang Hutan (1922), had admittedly been worse in this regard, but the book in question is quite typo riddled enough … especially when it comes to punctuation. I have already purchased a bunch of other titles in this series — someone with my taste in reading material would indeed find them very hard to resist — and only hope that they have been published with more care and attention than has John Taine’s The Purple Sapphire…