Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review - The Secret of the Unicorn by Hergé

Short review: A chance discovery at an open air market starts Tintin and Captain Haddock on the trail of lost treasure. Tintin does no reporting.

A model sea ship
Leads to a lost treasure map
And rival claimants

Full review: The story in The Secret of the Unicorn and its sequel Red Rackham's Treasure (read review) is the source from which Spielberg drew the bulk of the material for his movie The Adventures of Tintin, which was a good decision because this is probably the most loved of all the Tintin books, although I am partial to the two part series Destination Moon (read review) and Explorers on the Moon (read review). In The Secret of the Unicorn the roster of characters for the Tintin series finally takes full shape. The first of three two-part stories, and one of the best storylines of the entire book series, this volume begins the process of fully fleshing out Captain Haddock's character into the sharp edged, often inebriated, somewhat out-of-place patrician that fans of the series have come to know. This is also the story line that introduces the last regular characters of the series: The eccentric (and almost completely deaf) but brilliant Professor Calculus and the indefatigable butler Nestor. With the cast of characters complete, the story weaves together what has now become the standard Tintin versus gangsters story with some family history for Captain Haddock and a mystery pointing towards buried treasure.

The World War II era posed a problem for Hergé. Prior to the conflict in which his native Belgium was invaded and occupied, the Tintin series had begun to incorporate overtly political commentary in its stories, in some cases quite critical of the Axis powers. But with Belgium occupied and Hergé's publisher enduring government oversight, this was no longer possible, and the Tintin stories backed away from this political bent. In the first two books written during the occupation, Hergé moved back to his standard gangster driven plot in The Crab with the Golden Claws (read review) and experimented with outlandish science fiction in The Shooting Star (read review), neither of which produced particularly memorable stories. It wasn't until The Secret of the Unicorn that Hergé hit upon the formula that would work: pulp-style adventures in exotic but non-politically charged locales. The result was this story of pirates and lost treasure, and the following two book story involving Inca mummies and hidden temples found in The Seven Crystal Balls (read review) and Prisoners of the Sun (read review).

The book starts with some comic relief as Tintin runs across Thompson and Thomson while the detectives are in the middle of an investigation into a rash of pick pocketings in the local open air market. But before too long the real story rears its head when Tintin comes across a model ship that he purchases as a gift for Captain Haddock. The model ship draws a lot of interest as two other interested buyers immediately offer to buy the ship from Tintin, offering substantially more than he paid for it. Even after being refused, the ship collector Sakharine pursues Tintin to his apartment to renew his offer. In the Spielberg movie, Sakharine is developed into a sinister figure, but in the books, he is more or less just a minor speed bump in the story that vanishes in fairly short order. As with most Tintin stories, The Secret of the Unicorn is built on a healthy dose of coincidence, and when Captain Haddock sees the model ship, he immediately identifies it as the ship his ancestor Sir Francis Haddock captained several generations before, identifying it in the background of a portrait of Sir Francis that Captain Haddock just happened to have hanging in his apartment.

The plot thickens as Tintin's apartment is broken into and the model ship is stolen. Then when he goes to mistakenly accuse Sakharine of stealing the ship (discovering in the process that Sakharine owns an identical model ship), his apartment is broken into and ransacked again. As an aside, Tintin is clearly a bibliophile, as his primary concern over the ransacking of his apartment appears to be the condition of his books. After some slapstick comedy when Thompson and Thomson stop by to investigate the break-ins, Tintin discovers an old scrap of paper behind a cabinet that apparently fell from the now missing model ship. Deducing that it is a clue to a hidden treasure, Tintin rushes back to Captain Haddock's apartment, and coincidence strikes again to drive the plot forward in the form of an old sea chest belonging to Sir Francis that just happened to be in Captain Haddock's possession - including a hat, cutlass, and most importantly, a journal detailing Sir Francis' exploits against the pirate Red Rackham.

It is this section more than any other that had me convinced the first time I read it that the Tintin series was set in the United Kingdom. The key element is that Sir Francis' ship the Unicorn flies the Union Jack, at least in the English language translation. Perhaps in the original French version the Unicorn hoists the Belgian flag, something that seems more likely given that the book was written during the years that Germany occupied Belgium while at war with the U.K. However, I don't know this for sure (not having a copy of the original French translation), and my twelve year-old self certainly didn't know. This coupled with numerous other small cures (such as Thompson and Thomson's references to Scotland Yard) led me to believe that Tintin, Haddock, and their other companions were British. I don't think it materially changes the story for them to be British or Belgian, but somehow it seems more aesthetically pleasing to me mentally for them to be in the U.K.

In any event, it turns out that Sir Francis had a run-in with the pirate Red Rackham which resulted in the sinking of both of their ships, but not before a hard-fought sword fight between the noble Sir Francis and the treacherous Rackham. During this confrontation, Sir Francis learned of the treasure that Rackham had acquired during his exploits, and after blowing up the Unicorn to keep it from falling into the hands of the pirates, created a series of clues to lead his descendants to the trove. In a substantial departure from the books, the movie The Adventures of Tintin changed the source of the treasure from Rackham's piratical endeavors to a secret cargo being carried by Haddock's ship on behalf of the Crown, which makes Haddock something of a traitor insofar as he failed to turn over the location of the treasure to the proper authorities when he returned home. Claiming pirate booty as one's own is one thing, claiming the contents of the cargo you are carrying for your government as your own is quite another. This whole sequence is told mostly via flashbacks as Haddock recounts the events to Tintin in his apartment (and not in a drink induced frenzy at a Foreign Legion outpost like in the movie), filling in Tintin and the reader on the key elements that make the scrap of paper Tintin found in his apartment meaningful.

But Tintin doesn't have the scrap of paper - the B-plot comes crashing into the A-plot as Tintin discovers his wallet has been stolen by a pickpocket. And then when Tintin takes Haddock to see Sakharine (and see if his model of the Unicorn has a scrap of paper hidden in its mast), they discover Sakharine has been attacked and his model stolen. Obviously someone is also after the treasure, and Tintin and Haddock almost get more clues when one of the gentlemen who had vied for ownership of Tintin's now-stolen model Unicorn at the beginning of the book shows up just in time to be downed by a drive-by shooting. When asked who was behind his shooting, he apparently has enough strength to point to some sparrows and say "there", but not enough to leave a less cryptic clue, like a name. Things begin to look up when Tintin's wallet is recovered (and Tintin has to help Thompson and Thomson with some basic detective work), but then take a turn for the worse when Tintin is chloroformed and kidnapped (as an aside, I have to wonder where the crooks in the Tintin universe get their supplies of chloroform - it seems at times that it is so common that they must be able to pick it up at the corner store).

Through his usual methods of investigation by being captured coupled with a villain who spills the beans at the first opportunity, Tintin foils the villains and solves the mystery. Along the way, there is some adventure and the first appearances of Marlinspike Hall and the long-suffering butler Nestor (who is in the employ of the villains at this point). Captain Haddock arrives with Thompson and Thomson just in time to save the day, and everything turns out okay. We also find out the meaning of the cryptic "sparrow" clue bestowed upon Tintin earlier, and it turns out to be a clue that was so cryptic that it really only makes sense if you already knew the answer. In other words, with what he thought was his dying breath, instead of giving a name, the character in question used that effort to hand out a clue that was certain to be incomprehensible to the recipients. It is also during this sequence that Tintin is once again knocked out by a couple blows to the head, and then displays his amazing punching prowess by slugging a pair of much larger men into unconsciousness.

Although this is only the first half of the story, the volume does come to a reasonable stopping point, wrapping up the portion of the story that relates to hunting for the treasure map quite nicely. Oddly, for a story about looking for lost pirate treasure from a ship that sank in the Caribbean, all of the action in the book takes place in Tintin's home country, making this the first book in the series in which Tintin does not cross any international borders. The other odd thing about the story is how quickly the villains go from antique dealers, to thieves, to attempted murderers - in Hergé's world it seems that once you get into smuggling or larceny that you are perfectly willing to scale up to murder without a second's thought. And your clueless butler will be willing to help you. All three of the two-part stories in the Tintin series are excellent, and represent the best of Hergé's work. Loaded with mystery, action, comedy, and fun, The Secret of the Unicorn is no exception, and is the first half of what I consider to be the second best Tintin story ever made.

Previous book in the series: The Shooting Star
Subsequent book in the series: Red Rackham's Treasure

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  1. Great Review! I'm glad you compared it to the movie. Having seen the movie but not red the books yet, I see there are some deviances (aren't there always?) but not enough that it really changed the story much. I'd never had any desire to read Tin Tin before the movie but plan on reading these in the future now.

  2. @Nicola: The movie is a combination of three books (The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham's Treasure) with various elements drawn from all of them, plus a fair amount of material that is entirely original to the movie (the curse of the Haddocks, the descendant of Red Rackham, pretty much everything in Bagghar, and so on). The movie is true to the Tintin mythos, but it is a story that is only somewhat related to the books themselves.