Police!!! (1915) is a collection of romantic comedies with a vaguely cryptozoological theme. Each story features a young hero out to scrounge up a new discovery and/or get laid. Or the 1915 version of "laid", which involves swooning, smooching (implied) and marriage (explicit).
Ten years earlier, Mr. Chambers wrote one of his best works - In Search of the Unknown (1904) - a classic of the Weird that combines macabre humor with genuine scientific curiosity. Halfway between H.R. Haggard and Dorothy Parker, Unknown collects the adventures of a single man (in both senses of the term) as he wrestles dinosaurs and women alike.
That book is, rather unfairly, long-forgotten: partially because it is too light-hearted for most Weird devotees but mostly because no one (else) bothers to wade through Mr. Chambers' 800 volumes of syrupy poo.
Police!!! is a putative sequel and is remarkably inferior in almost every way. It is, in fact, syrupy poo.
As a short story collection, rather than a single (slightly fragmented) narrative, Police!!! quickly defines itself as formulaic, repetitive, and dull. Each tale follows an identical structure: scientist goes on mission, scientist finds girl, scientist finds monster, scientist loses monster, scientist loses girl. What a lark!
Most of the stories then end with some variation of "It was ok that my career was crushed and the love of my life eloped with my workmate... there's a hot typist at my new job". Although it reminds us not to take anything too seriously, this punchline gets old very quickly.
Even the cryptozoology - one of the delights in Unknown - is somewhat watered down. Whilst the 1904 collection gives us dinosaurs (repeatedly) and lizard-men, Police!!! treats the readers to really big trout and scantily-clad cavegirls. And it isn't just about the monsters - Mr. Chambers does chuck in the occasional 3-eyed swamp-person - it is about the balance of the Weird and the Goofy. Unknown manages to make bedfellows of the romantic and the supernatural (or hyper-natural). Police!!! does not. When it comes down to it, Police!!! is like hearing one's senile great-uncle combine a fishing story with how he met his future bride. (And then winking inappropriately at the end.)
When Mr. Chambers focuses his humor in other areas, Police!!! somewhat redeems itself. The final story, "The Eggs of the Silver Moon" is something of a mystery - two competing professors each trying to hatch the best butterfly for an exhibit. The protagonist is the (slightly whiny) administrator caught in-between them. The pompous combatants steal the show (and the butterflies), goofily hatching plot after plot against one another. Imagine a Tom & Jerry cartoon as written by your grandmother (if she had a serious thing for Lepidoptera).
Mr. Chambers' merciless portrayal of the bombastic, chauvinistic clutch of professors in "One Over" also merits a few giggles. Whilst scheming against their new (female) leader, the professors pound the table, drink too much, fall asleep, yell in German and generally make asses of themselves. It is a fun little scene - albeit one ruined by the ceaseless slapstick of the "adventure" that follows.
Like The Slayer of Souls, Police!!! is a particularly gutting failure because it involves Mr. Chambers returning to the heartland of his excellence. Nature + romance + the Weird + a bit of sarcastic comedy. This should equal a success. But, unfortunately, it feels more like a late-game punt - a lazy collection of soulless shorts that needn't have been collected. Like most of his work so far - even the largest disappointments - it displays flashes of excellence. However, in the case of Police!!! those are very few and far-between.
[Editor's Note: You can read the entire text of Police!!! - with the original illustrations - at Project Gutenberg. Nothing quite captures the essence of this book like the oil painting of a couple cuddling whilst watching an eruption of oversized trout.]
[The Repairer of Reputations is our extended attempt to redeem the forgotten & derided works of Robert W. Chambers.]