Ben Baltic & Mr Cargrim

(creator: Fergus Hume)


Fergus Hume
Ben Baltic is an elderly weather-beaten man who "looked like a sailor ... but he called himself a missionary, saying that he had laboured these many years in the Lord's vineyard of the South Seas." Originally a beachcomber in Samoa, he had "wrestled with my sinful self, and after a long fight I was made strong. My doubts were set at rest, my sins were washed in the Blood of the Lamb, and since He took me into His holy keeping, I have striven to be worthy of His great love."

Since returning to London, he had become a private enquiry agent so that he could first catch criminals and then help them to repent: "I make them fall, only to aid them to rise; for when all is lost, their hearts soften." After a wrong-doer is caught, Baltic is "no longer an agent, but a missionary; and in my own poor way I shall strive to bring him to repentance".
"After bringing him to the gallows, a queer way of inducing good, Baltic," another character tells him.
"Whoso loseth all gaineth all," quoted Baltic, in all earnestness; "my mission is not to destroy souls but to save them."

However, his earnestly enthusiastic attempts to forcibly convert a prisoner in his cell do not impress the local bishop who tells him, "Your God is not my God". But he remains a thorough, determined investigator: "I never guess ... I theorize from external evidence, and then try, with such brains as God has given me, to prove my theories."

The Rev Michael Cargrim (known as Mr Cargrim throughout) is the BIshop's Chaplain, and does a great deal of preliminary detective work himself before he gets round to employing Baltic in an aim to unearth what he believes to be his bishop's guilty secret. He is a thoroughly unpleasant character, whose only concern is to pressurise the bishop into offering him preferment.

He was "a dangerous man. He was thin and pale, with light blue eyes and sleek fair hair; and as weak physically as he was strong mentally. In his neat clerical garb, with a slight stoop and meek smile, he looked a harmless, commonplace young curate of the tabby cat kind. No one could be more tactful and ingratiating than Mr Cargrim, and he was greatly admired by the old ladies and young girls of Beorminster; but the men, one and all - even his clerical brethren - disliked and distrusted him .... In every male breast he constantly inspired the desire to kick him." Spurred on by his own selfish ambition and complete self absorption, there was nothing he would not do in order to further his own cause.

The author concedes that "In common with his fellow creatures he also had his good qualities, but these were somewhat rusty for want of use ... Being only a poor curate, he had a long ladder to climb, which he thought could be ascended more rapidly by kicking down all those who impeded his progress, and by holding onto the skirts of those who were a few rungs higher. Therefore he was not very nice in his distinction between good and evil, and did not mind by what means he succeeded, so long as he was successful."

Fergus(son Wright) Hume (1859 -1932) was a prolific English novelist, whose family emigrated to New Zealand when he was three. He attended high school in Dunedin and studied law at the University of Otago, and was admitted to the New Zealand bar in 1885. Shortly after graduation he left for Melbourne, Australia where he obtained a post as a barristers' clerk. He began writing plays, but found it impossible to persuade the managers of the Melbourne theatres to accept or even read them. His first and best-known novel was Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), which he had to publish privately, and this was followed by numerous other detective stories. Hume moved back to England in 1888 and lived in Essex for the rest of his life.

The Bishop's Secret, also known as Bishop Pendle (1900, but recently reprinted)
The Bishop's Secret is set in the convincingly portrayed quiet English cathedral city of Beorminster, somewhere in the Fen District, right at the end of the 19th century. Dr Pendle, the bishop, seems, like most of the other characters, true to life at the time: "In addition to his official salary, he possessed a handsome income, and spent it in the lavish style of a Cardinal Wolsey. He was wise enough to know how the outward and visible signs of prosperity and dignity affect the popular imagination, and frequently invited the clergy and laity to feast at the table of Mother Church, to show that she could dispense loaves and fishes with the best, and vie with court and society in the splendour and hospitality of her entertainments. As he approved of an imposing ritual at the cathedral, so he affected a magnificent way of living at the Palace."

But when Mr Jentham, a sinister gypsy with a scar right across his face comes to see him, the usually amiable bishop seems quite devastated. Mr Cargrim, his "sneaking time-serving sycophant" of a chaplain, who keeps a very close eye on him, realises that he must have some guilty secret and, in order to obtain a handsome living for himself, is determined to unearth it. Then Jentham himself is murdered, and the Bishop and his two sons become likely suspects.

Inspector Tinkler of the local police proves totally ineffective. As the bishop's outspoken and free-thinking friend Dr Graham tells him: "It is a pity that you are not a character in fiction, Tinkler."
"Why, sir? Why, may I ask?"
"Because your author might have touched you up in weak parts, and gifted you with some brains."

It makes a surprisingly interesting plot, with outspoken ladies of the congregation among the entertaining characters, although the real detective Ben Baltic does not appear until about two thirds of the way through the book. He is an original character, who explains that he returned to England from missionary work in the South Seas "for a smack of civilisation." But he is appalled by the evil he finds there there and now regards it as his duty to work as a private enquiry agent to apprehend the wicked so that he can then convert them!

It was, of course, a very class conscious period, as shown by the way that the bishop reacts to the news that one of his sons may marry a barmaid - but he is also shrewd enough to realise what she is really like. But it is all described with a nice sense of humour. Although the ending is rather prolonged, the story holds the interest, and the book was certainly worth reprinting and is to be recommended for those who enjoy such glimpses of the past.


There is a biography of the author on The Literature Network site. His books are listed on the Fantastic Fiction site.



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The Bishop's Secret cover
This is an old cover as shown on the Project Gutenberg site, one of several from which you can download the entire book for free.
Bishop Pendle cover
Above: an alternative title for the same book.
Below: new paperback reprints are now available.
The Bishop's Secret cover
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