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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dr. Mabuse

Norbert Jacques

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To purchase Dr. Mabuse

Title: Dr. Mabuse
Author: Norbert Jacques
Genre: Novel
Written: 1921 (Eng. 1923)
Length: 218 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Dr. Mabuse - US
Dr. Mabuse - UK
Dr. Mabuse - Canada
Docteur Mabuse - France
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler - Deutschland
DVD: Dr. Mabuse - The Gambler - US
Dr. Mabuse - The Gambler - UK
  • Master of Mystery
  • German title: Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
  • Translated by Lilian A. Clare
  • Dr. Mabuse was made into a film directed by Fritz Lang in 1922

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Our Assessment:

B- : good elements, but doesn't manage a nice flow

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

[This review is based on the German original and not Lilian A. Clare's 1923 English translation; all translations are my own.]

       Dr. Mabuse, first published in serial form, was an enormous success in early-1920s Germany, but the novel was soon eclipsed by Fritz Lang's famous series of films based on Jacques' creation, and despite the occasional re-issue (recently also in a revival of the long out of print English translation) remains a fairly obscure literary curiosity. It's sensationalist fiction, from and set in the Weimar Republic as it began its inflationary spiral -- where money was already: "the key to every lock", and attitudes were reckless after years that had been an existential: "lottery of being or not being" Much of the action takes place in the gambling dens where the man of many disguises and enormous suggestive powers, Dr.Mabuse, takes advantage of the wealthy and carelessly carefree.
       Mabuse is long a shadowy and elusive figure in the novel -- appropriately, as he appears in a variety of guises and doesn't readily show his true self. Indeed, the central character in the novel is public prosecutor Wenk, who senses a pattern to the odd crimes being committed, people losing at the card table, often to a mysterious man they themselves supposedly invited to play along -- yet have almost no memory of, after the fact. When Wenk himself takes a seat at the table he gets a sense of the hypnotic spells Mabuse can weave.
       The "psychopathological doctor" -- so Mabuse's nicely ambiguous own description of himself, which suggests that he isn't just an expert in the field of psychopathology, but possibly might well (also) be a doctor suffering from such a condition -- explains his fascination with gambling:

Games of chance are the oldest form, the strongest and most common form in which those who lack traditional artistic talent are able to feel like artists.
       The ultimate manipulator, Mabuse strings along a variety of victims, toying with them -- also in not taking as full advantage of them as it would seem he could. Before he even knows what hit him, even Wenk is knocked unconscious and wakes to find himself robbed -- but the responsible party returns his valuables, keeping only the notebook in which Wenk had begun piecing together the case.
       It is all a bit of a chess game between investigator and criminal -- Wenk realized as soon he woke, for example, that it wasn't his valuables but rather only the notebook the perpetrator was interested in -- but given the unusual talents of Mabuse -- especially his hypnotic powers of mind-control -- he is a particularly difficult adversary to come to grips with. (Mabuse is also a man of many disguises; amusingly, Wenk also plays the dress-up game, changing his physical appearance for his undercover work -- but he isn't quite as good at it as Mabuse.)
       Matters escalate to murder but the central crime in the novel is when Mabuse sets up Count Told to cheat at the card-table, disgracing him -- and facilitating Mabuse's kidnapping of Countess Told. The count doesn't know what came over him:
I did something I didn't want to do. I have banished myself from society ! I will be a cheat util the end of my days. Can no one help me ?
     I know that I did something. But I don't know how I did it ! And why, and for what purpose.
       He turns to help for Wenk, who has a pretty good idea who is behind it -- but Wenk inadvertently also pushes him into the hands of Mabuse, who treats the count as a doctor (with a rather different idea of a 'cure' than most professionals would have). Mabuse is so adept at disguising his identities that he can get away with this and more fairly easily.
       Mabuse's trophy -- the countess -- is, he recognizes, a vulnerability. As he explains to her:
     "I desire you. That is more than love -- for me ! You are here, because my desire can not be resisted."
       He always gets what he wants -- and promises to make of her whatever she wants. Single-minded in his pursuits Before he kidnapped her -- consumed only by: "Herrschenwollen und Hassenmüssen" ('needing to dominate and driven to hate') -- his passion throws him slightly off his otherwise so carefully planned game(s). Indeed, he decides he's now ready to take up his esape-plan, retirement in the depths of the Brazilian jungle, in the fantastical Eitopomar that he has been secretly constructing.
       Wenk remains a thorn in his side, coming close to catching him at times. Finally, Mabuse decides he wants to catch Wenk alive rather than just get him out of the way -- "Alive, like a fly in a glass" -- allowing for the final dramatic chases and confrontation (which takes place in a small plane at high altitude, with only Mabuse, the countess, and Wenk on board; one of them is not there for the landing).
       The original serial form makes for a somewhat choppy narrative, with the story too rarely picking up any real flow. There is an underlying arc of sorts -- the cat and mouse game between Wenk and Mabuse -- but it doesn't follow smoothly. Things happen, and then other things happen. There's limited character-development or insight -- and where there is some it too is incidental, and not sustained.
       Some of the episodes are very nicely done: Mabuse driving the somewhat hapless count to suicide, for one. Some of Mabuse's escapes and police-evading trickery are quite fun -- though too much of this is all too precisely diagrammed by Jacques, more instruction-manual than thriller. There are some decent asides, especially the ones that are era- and locale-specific -- such as when Wenk visits the countess' home and she begins to fall in his esteem when he sees the Expressionist paintings on her walls -- only for her to dismissively reveal that it's husband who like the stuff, while she doesn't get it either (finally coyly asking whether Wenk sees things her way: "Oder is der Herr Staatsanwalt auch expressionistisch ?" ('Or is the public prosecutor also expressionistically inclined ?')).
       It is an interesting depiction of the times, with Jacques' focus on decadent gambling dens nicely showing the rot of this society. Among the most richly-imagined and amusing scenes has Wenk go to a new, state-of-the-art gambling den, complete with the latest technology so that at the push of a button everything incriminating can be hidden if the police raid the place: a demonstration has the gambling-tables quickly disappear, replaced by a floor on which 'a quartet of naked twelve-year-olds dance' to the music of violins and flutes: 'a concession to the police -- the naked girls !' (a touch of illegality, so the police can say they found something, but one that's more acceptable than the casino it covers up). The icing on that cake ? Even this programe is changed weekly .....
       In an Afterword Jacques wrote years later he describes some of his ambitions in how he wrote the novel, decrying the literary styles of the day and aiming for a much more immediate approach, summing up that he was trying to do was:
keine Erregungen, sondern nur Regungen zu geben, nie eine Ursache, sondern immer nur eine Wirkung; alles ist ausgeprägt zur Bewegung.

[not to give any excitations, just movement; never a cause but just an effect; everything stands out in activity.]
       In some ways, he was too successful, giving the novel a feel of random events struck together -- even despite the underlying story-arc. With a protagonist who can be almost anyone -- Mabuse is a man of many disguises -- and with hypnotic mind-controlling talents that can force almost anyone to do whatever he wants them to Jacques makes it both too easy and too hard on himself: Mabuse is compelling, especially up close, but also ultimately too vaguely presented to really capture the imagination.
       Dr. Mabuse is rather frustrating as a thriller and was probably more fun to read in its original serialized presentation, bit by bit, rather than in longer stretches. Parts are very good -- some scenes, and many of the episodes -- but it just doesn't come together very well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 December 2015

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Dr. Mabuse - the Hambler - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German-writing, Luxembourg-born author Norbert Jacques lived 1880 to 1954.

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