INTRODUCTION: DOCTOR, DOCTOR, GIVE ME THE NEWS . . .
Novels featuring possession by the spirits of the dead are hardly anything unusual in the history of weird fiction; and novels featuring mad (or at the very least slightly unhinged) scientists are certainly common; as are stories featuring macabre surgeries. But all mixed together—and as a mystery at that? That sort of narrows the field to one: Mad-Doctor Merciful by Collin Brooks.
Brooks is pretty much remembered today for his work outside of fiction, a prolific author of over fifty books and journals that run to millions of words, his subjects as diverse as one could possibly imagine. Some sample titles include: Can Chamberlain Save Britain: The Lesson of Munich, The Economics of Human Happiness, Tavern Talk, The First Hundred Years of the Woolwich Equitable Building Society and scores of other titles.
While all these books may certainly be of interest, for our purposes, it’s Brooks’ mystery and horror that we’re most concerned with. Far from being a mainstream author who went slumming in genre fiction a time or two, Brooks was indeed an intellectual and distinguished man of letters who had a genuine fondness for the thriller or “shockers” as he called them. After an interesting trio of novels featuring Raeburn Steel, Mr. X, The Body-Snatchers, and The Ghost Hunters (all three of which we hope to publish in 2016); Brooks authored what most consider his masterpiece of “shockers”, Mad-Doctor Merciful.
The novel, published in 1932, anticipates the American weird menace pulps with its scenes of torture, mad surgeries and the like. However, unlike the weird menace pulps, the supernatural is heavily involved, making this one of several novels that has a lead character versed in both science and the occult, not unlike Paul St. Arnaud in Mark Hansom’s classic The Wizard of Berner’s Abbey. Brooks portrays the character perfectly. Dr. Paul Merciful is not a cackling fiend drooling over semi-clad young maidens like the villains in many a story in Dime Mystery Magazine and the like. He is (to his own mind) an altruistic visionary who would likely be misunderstood by his peers if he discussed his methods too openly.
Where the experimentation leads is to a very dark result certainly worthy of being called a “shocker”. If Mad-Doctor Merciful had been written by a Russell Gray or R.R. Ryan, we would hardly raise an eyebrow at the grotesqueries within. As it is, written by such a distinguished figure in British letters, it is of singular interest to readers of macabre fiction.
So who was the man that came to write this masterpiece of mad science and the supernatural? Collin Brooks’ first experiences with journalism began with his founding of the Manchester Press Agency in 1913, when he was only twenty. When WWI dawned he became a war hero first as a tank driver and then in the machine gun corps, where he was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty”. It should be no surprise that his military service was chronicled by copious notes in his field book.
After the war Brooks resumed his career as a journalist, in 1921 joining the staff of The Liverpool Courier. Two years later he moved over to The Yorkshire Post, where he spent several years, moving to their London office in 1928, which led to his leaving the Post to take over as the editor of Financial News. During this time he kept two to three books in process at the same time as well as voluminous entries in his journals. By the mid-1930s he had risen to the prestigious post of editor of The Sunday Dispatch. From 1941 until the early 1950s he served as the leading light of Truth, an expose magazine dealing with social and political issues. At the same time he became chairman and editor of The Statist for the Daily Express group.
Midst his journalistic duties, Brooks was also a major figure at the BBC and also a political ghost-writer. The number of speeches and white papers that he authored is unknown, but one must assume that his influence was felt in British politics throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
Readers of his mysteries may note that one authorial “tic” he had is that there’s generally at least a few scenes set in various clubs. This is hardly surprising as the gregarious Brooks belonged to half a score of London’s more exclusive clubs, including the Savage Club, the Carlton, the Royal Thames Yacht Club, and many others. Brooks’ circle of friends ranged from the literary to the political to the leaders of finance. When he passed away at age 66 in 1959, T.S. Eliot was one of many speakers to give an address at his memorial.
During all of this activity, Brooks never lost his love of the “shocker” and his volumes featuring characters such as Oswald Swete McTavish, Raeburn Steel, Lord Tweed, and Inspector “Doleful” Debenham (cut of the same cloth as Edwy Searles Brooks’ “The Grouser”) are all excellent examples of the genre and overdue for rediscovery.
In addition to his literary legacy, Brooks left behind five children, one of whom died in infancy, the other four going on to have interesting careers. They were Rosemary Colin Brooks who served a stint with MI5; Vivian Collin Brooks, (better known to us as Osmington Mills, author of Death Enters the Lists, Stairway to Murder, Dusty Death and many other mystery novels); William Austen Brooks, a journalist; and the actor, Edward Clarke Brooks, who also authored a number of short stories.
While there is no doubt that Collin Brooks’ more serious works, particularly those dealing with law and finance, are important books—if a bit dry. It is our contention that he should be well-remembered as a master of mystery fiction (or “shockers” as he would have it). It’s our hope that the reprinting of Mad-Doctor Merciful after these eighty-two years will be the start of a rediscovery of this fine author.