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“An ancient Egyptian evil known as ‘The Beetle’ has arrived in London to wreak a mysterious vengeance on politician Paul Lessingham. When this strange creature, ‘born neither of God nor man’, orchestrates the disappearance of Lessingham’s fiancée Marjorie, it becomes a race against time to solve the mystery of the Beetle and save Marjorie from an unthinkable fate!”
I’m going to be pretty blunt here, there’s only one main reason why I decided to really get into reading this book, and that’s because a dear friend of mine [who is an avid fan of mystery novels] asked me to read it so that we could talk about it since she doesn’t have many others to talk about mystery novels with. I love you with all my heart and soul L, but… you’re killing me, Smalls.
One of the first pages of the edition of the book I have, has an introduction about it’s history, as well as a bit of a warning. “The Beetle and novels of it’s ilk might ‘exemplify ideas that are no longer tolerated, and standards that are no longer judged valid.”
Being as this is a novel from the 1800’s, I guessed that this was just a sort of warning of outdated lingo and language and cringey at best these days. I’ve read lots of ‘elder’ books like that.
I was wrong.
This book is racist and xenophobic as fuck.
Also sexist. Homophobic. Even transphobic. All tidied up in a small little mystery novel.
I should have seen it coming, a lot of ‘Egyptian Gothic’ or other gothic-style stories are like this. The introduction explains that The Beetle was actually released the same year [a few months before] Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and was far more popular upon release for years than Dracula was. But whereas Dracula has lasted the ages and is permanently cemented into pop culture, The Beetle fell into obscurity. Which if you know anything about Stoker, he also tried his hand at Egyptian Gothic, with his book of The Jewel of the Seven Stars. It just was a trend at the time, with how fascinating and mysterious Egyptian gods and lore was.
Too bad the respect of Egyptian artifacts and lore didn’t extend to it’s living peoples. [side-eye]
The Beetle is broken up into four parts, all were different smaller books of the continuing story at the time. Each sub-novel is from the perspective of a different narrator, which all actually surrounds a man that never is the single narrator of his own story, Paul Lessingham. There are;
Robert Holt – A homeless, down-on-his-luck clerk looking for some work who in his exhaustion and starvation stumbles into becoming the abused, tortured, mindless slave for the main antagonist
Marjorie Lindon: The very smart, witty, and sharp-tongued daughter of a politician and the fiancée of Paul Lessingham
Sydney Atherton, a cynical inventor of murderous weapons of war and childhood friend to Marjorie. He is the romantic rival to Paul Lessingham for Marjor’s affections but is unrequited [Marjorie considers him a brother and wants nothing to do with him romantically]
Augustus Champnell – a renowned detective who is already familiar with the general paranormal occurrences and death that surrounds the Cult of Isis and the origin of ‘The Beetle.’
I will give the book credit where credit is due, it’s actually a very well-spun mystery. All of the individual narrators all have their tales intertwined with Lessingham’s in some way or another, and you see the events of the book from their individual perspectives, often out of order, but it nicely fills in puzzle pieces as you go along. There were multiple parts that had my legitimately curious and wanting to keep reading on. Kudos for that, for sure.
However… at what cost, exactly?
There were some parts that were just so offensive I had to stop and put the book down and take a walk in order to get myself in the mindset to be able to keep reading. The main antagonists are from a cult called the Cult of Isis, which are from Egypt. However, there are multiple, and range from being described as Asian [or you know ‘Oriental’ in the case of the book] but their physical descriptions are… gross. The same goes with which may actually be a different character or the first antagonist met [they’re shapeshifters so… who knows] who is described as an ‘Arab.’ Queue more really awful, grotesque descriptions that are offensive as all hell. Think of any old racist caricature drawings of either type of person, and it’s pretty much described that way. The author also writes out the sort of ‘way’ that their speech is to show how/the way they speak, and it just gets real cringey. At one point one of the characters also is trying to ‘guess’ what race/culture one of the antagonist is, and goes through this like, full range of insults and descriptions for the eye shape, nose shape, head shape, skin color, hair texture to try and describe them. Which would be fine, except of the full description is made up of either severely dated terminology, insults, or straight up slurs. One chapter is literally 95% made up of that kind of description text.
The antagonists are also described as fetishizing white skin [and are described as purposely seeking out white women to rape and sacrifice, and white men to rape and pretty much ‘steal the seed from’… yeah it goes there] which goes along with that the antagonists are heavily suggested to be predatory homosexuals [all exchanges between the antagonists and Robert Holt are severely uncomfortable in the homophobia going on, for example] and even so when it’s not predatory, including one man wishing for death when another man gives him mouth to mouth to try and resuscitate him.
Then we get to the gender and sex stuff. Based on the descriptions of the characters, the antagonists are either trans, or intersex maybe? The descriptions make a big point to confuse the male protagonists because they don’t know if the antagonists are ‘men, women, or ITs!’ [there is a whole lot of calling them ‘its’ and ‘less than human’ because of this] because the face/head/musculature of the individuals do not ‘match’ their genitals or chests, as well as having a ‘feminine face and body’ but ‘parts’ that do not match, as well as descriptions of people who are/have both, and then neither at the same time. They weren’t described in neutral or scientific ways, of course. It was all pointed to be horrors, perversions, abominations, etc. I had this tiny little part in me that was kinda sorta appreciative that there were descriptions of trans/intersex individuals in an 1800’s novel because so many people seem to think their existence has been ‘recent’ or a ‘recent trend’ but then to see how they’re described and of course being predatory, rapist-murderers… not so much.
There was less emphasis on the horrors that these individuals can literally shapeshift into massive terrifying beetles that are anywhere from the size of large beetles [think like stag or hercules beetles], to beetles that are large cat or small dog sized, to beetles larger than humans than you know, they having masculine faces and body shape but the ‘wrong’ genitals. Get your priorities straight, Richard Marsh. It is way more WTF to see someone turn into a 7ft tall man-eating insect than seeing a man with breasts and no penis. Just sayin.
After all of that, is it surprising that it’s also generally sexist? There’s not many women in the story, and only one that is a main character. While I do actually really like Marjorie’s character [but not what she’s put through], she’s still treated like garbage by her father and her childhood friend. While I understand that the times weren’t exactly kind to women then, not a single woman can get by without being called dim witted or hysterical for little to no reason. The character Sydney is atrocious to Marjorie only because he’s mad she rejected him, and constantly insults her after, and women as a whole. At one point saying ‘I’d sooner be absurd than a fool in petticoats.’ [which was meant to be an insult of all women]
So all of that, plus sprinkle in general xenophobia about nearly everyone being anti-foreigner, and any time there’s a description of Egypt or the Middle East, it’s always described as ‘stinking’ or ‘dirty’ or other varied insults. Anytime someone does something bad, everyone expects a foreigner and get all pearl-clutchy if they find out it’s not, etc.
And again, I get this book was written in the 1800’s. Things, like the intro, have changed and a lot of the book is ‘outdated.’ But I have also read other books from the 1800’s and older that aren’t as bad as this was.
Another sidenote of something that I 100% didn’t like is Sydney’s character is an inventor, leaning on the side of mad scientist. There’s this while subplot about him building a sort of death machine that he wants to make into a war-time machine to kill people by the hundreds. He has made it so that there are little glass balls full of poison vapor that when broken, are inhaled and kill all who inhale it. A real piece of shit on top of everything else we’ve seen about him being a piece of shit to Marjorie for rejecting him. In his ‘I want to get revenge against her and the man she’s in love with’ he randomly picks up a cat near the house of his rival that just so happens to be a nearby stray, and fucking kills it because he thinks it belongs to his rival. We’re never told if it was! He literally just murders a cat for no reason! He also kills a friend of his, but the person is brought back from the dead by one of the Cult of Isis members. Then that subplot of his death machine is never used again. I thought that surely, with all this build up, this is what is going to be used against the cult, right? Or how the protagonists can fight 7ft tall beetle monsters right? NO. It’s never brought up AGAIN. He also never experiences any fallout for his actions!
Additionally, this is a weird thing and not a strike against the book, but the ‘Beetle’ from the title is based after an Egyptian Scarab. It is specifically mentioned to be in the Scarabaeus family, and is greenish gold. Much like what we see in Egyptian art. I understand that the artists who are paid for making cover art, especially with mass market books or public-domain books probably don’t read the book for those details, but the book is an Egyptian Gothic, so it’s pretty heavily hinted at even before getting to the descriptions of The Beetle itself and the kind it’s supposed to be. Yet the vast majority of the covers of the books do not have a Scarab type beetle on the cover. Not even remotely in the same family despite being a beetle. I’m assuming it’s because the actual Scarabaeus family of beetles are all actually pretty squat, bumbly, and cute looking? Or at the very least not intimidating. [Unless we’re going on the adaptation of The Mummy from 1999, in which scarabs are terrifying] Instead I’ve seen multiple covers of pincer or stag beetles, or really just made up beetles with huge menacing mandibles.
So after all of this ranting, can I really recommend this book? No, not really. There are so many classic mystery books out there that aren’t horrendously offensive that exist. If you are wanting to read a piece of history, sure, then maybe I can recommend it. But that’s about it.
I give The Beetle 2/5 Death Vapors
“But the most astounding novelty was that about the face there was something which was essentially feminine; so feminine, indeed, that I wondered if I could by any possibility have blundered, and mistaken a woman for a man; some ghoulish example of her sex, who had so yielded to her depraved instincts to have become nothing but a ghastly reminiscence of womanhood.”
[wow, guy. Fuckin’ yikes]