The Elephant Catcher

This novel, "Jungle Night", by Reginald Wilfrid Campbell (1894 - 1950), was one of my absolute favourites when I was in my early teens. Images of the lonely, strong hero in his tent in the Siamese night; the jungle; heavy, warm rain, thunder, and the sound of agitated elephants fighting close by... I absolutely loved it.

It is the story about the English adventurer, Jim Dales, an elephant catcher in the jungles of Siam. It takes place in the late 1920'ies or so, far away from any "civilization", and tells the tale of how he almost loses his home, his elephants, his friends, his love, and his life.

Major spoilers ahead:

Jim Dales is a stubborn and hard working man (in his thirties I think - it is never specified) with a dream. Two dreams, in fact: he wants to be the most famous elephant catcher in Siam, and he wants to "go after the big herd". His dreams does not seem to include a sweetheart or a family; elephants are his passion, and he is very, very good at what he does.

What he does is catch wild elephants, tame, train and sell them. He has a working force of 71 elephants, which he uses when he goes out to catch the wild ones. He has a loyal troup of "natives"1 who live in his valley, and go out with him on his quests. He also has a few friends and neighbours, all of whom he manages to alienate during the first couple of chapters. But closest to his heart is his favourite elephant, Poo Taw2, a large bull elephant with magnificent tusks - and a somewhat bad attitude towards everyone but Jim Dales.

The pivot point of the whole novel is the fact that someone (an elephant) is murdering its fellow elephants. Jim Dales has a rogue elephant in his valley - or close by - and it is killing his elephants. Obviously it is a big bull on a killing rampage, but is it a wild one or is it one of the tame elephants in the vicinity? Jim investigates, accusing, among others, his neighbour Scottie's "pet" bull elephant Poo Ngurn of the murders.

Parallel to this murder investigation runs another storyline: that of the girl who falls in love with Jim Dales during one of his brief visits to Bangkok. And, adding yet another angle, the notorious villain Sungh Toh does his very best to interfere in any way he can. He too wants the big herd, and he is not adverse to stealing it, once Jim Dales has caught the elephants.3

It turns out, after our hero has made a real ass of himself, that the killer elephant is none other than his own favourite, Poo Taw. Devastated Jim sets out to shoot the elephant, but before he can complete this sad quest he gets some very disturbing news: the villain Sung Toh is driving the big herd down Jim Dales' valley, right towards his ranch and the homes of his employees. To avoid having the village and the ranch trampled Jim Dales collects his own working force, and heads up the valley to try and turn the herd. He rides Poo Taw at the front, more or less hoping to get both the elephant and himself killed in the effort.

A dramatic clash of wild and tame elephants leaves Poo Taw fatally wounded. Jim Dales survives, much to his own chagrin, and is left to mourn the loss of his pride and joy - maybe the only point in the book where I really feel for him. In the end Pat, the girl who loves him, persuades him to come back to the valley (instead of giving it all up, which is what he intends to do after seeing Poo Taw die), and we get a happy ending of sorts.

Jim Dales is described as a self centered loner, and not a very likeable such at that. His friends and associates act as counterweights to the grumpy hero, which is very fortunate for the charm of the whole novel. The storylines go very well together; the murder investigation, the romance, and the fight for the big herd are cleverly handled to keep the reader hanging on to the very last page. I very much recommend this book - if you should be able to lay your hands on a copy.4

  1. The 'natives' are described in a slightly condescending way, probably typical for that day and age. Yet there is a great amount of respect in the descriptions, and though it's hardly politically correct it's never really unpleasant.
  2. "Poo" seems to denote a bull elephant, while the cows' names begin with "Mae".
  3. It is quite clear that the author knows his way around Siam, and he knows elephants. The chapters describing the capture of a smaller herd, the taming and the training are some of my favourite chapters.
  4. A strange thing about this book is that I have not been able to find it anywhere on the Internet. I have Googled it, and I have even tried AltaVista, but to no avail. I believe the book was written no later than 1942 or '43, as the copy I have (a Swedish translation: "Djungelns Herre") was published in 1944. I have only been able to find some tiny snippets of information about Reginald Campbell, stating that he has written 17 "adventures" for sure (11 for "Everybody's Magazine", 1 for "The Popular stories", 1 for "The Popular Magazine", 1 for "Mine", 2 for "Blue Book Magazine", and 1 for "The Frontier Stories"). Whether they are to be regarded as novels or short stories I do not know.

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