Tag Archives: Bertie Wooster

Invisible Death

Invisible Death – Brian Flynn

This is the sixth in Flynn’s excellent Anthony Bathurst series, originally published in 1929 in the UK – the US edition did not appear until 1936 – and reissued for a modern readership to discover by the indefatigable team at Dean Street Press. It also had an alternative title, The Silver Troika. Both he alternative title and the cover illustration on the reissue could be construed as giant red herrings.

What an enjoyable romp it is, more of a thriller than a standard murder mystery. By this time Flynn had changed publisher and Bathurst seems to have undergone a character transformation, becoming more of a man of action with a certain gung-ho attitude than an intellectual sleuth and is once more ably aided and abetted by his lawyer friend, Peter Daventry, who is even more of a brawler and a crack shot to boot. They also seem to have swallowed and inwardly digested Bertie Wooster’s lexicon of upper-class slang, their dialogue peppered with turns of phrase that would not have embarrassed P G Wodehouse.

There is also a very considerable nod of the head to Conan Doyle. The Silver Troika, a band of evil Russian terrorists, heavily implicated in the murder of the Tsar and on the trail of some incriminating documents and jewellery, seem to have come straight out of The Five Orange Pips. They even insist that their victim leaves the papers in a case on the tennis court at midnight. And if you didn’t get the reference, they are already burnt, of course.  

Bathurst is summoned down to Swallowcliffe Hall by Constance Whittaker to help protect her husband, the Major, from an unnamed threat. It turns out that Major Whittaker was operating in revolutionary Russia and was instrumental in eliminating a number of the Red terrorists. The Silver Troika are after his blood.  

Despite Bathurst’s best efforts, he fails in his principal objective because the Major suddenly drops dead, poisoned, despite no one being near him at the time. Had the Silver Troika effected their deadly revenge, but how did they do it? Or what about the eccentric American entomologist, who keeps appearing on the scene or a deadly butterfly that fluttered around the room? And why are the Troika so beastly to Whittaker’s butler? Has he an even darker past than his association with and unwavering loyalty to the Major would seem to suggest?

With considerably more violence than you would expect from a normally genteel murder mystery of this era, the tale takes some alarming and unforeseen twists. Although Flynn plays fair with his readers if only by allusion and hints, it is almost impossible to guess who the murderer was. The method by which the murder was committed is highly ingenious and is worth reading the book just for that. Justice of a sort prevails at the end by which Bathurst has more than amply demonstrated his talents and ability to solve a knotty problem, even if he left Constance a widow in the process.  

It is great fun and Flynn’s style is so engaging that I found I raced through it in almost record time. That is the hallmark of a good murder mystery cum thriller.

Ring For Jeeves

Ring For Jeeves – P G Wodehouse

If you are looking for a form of pure escapism that will put a smile on your face, you cannot do any better than reaching for something from the Wodehouse canon. Ring for Jeeves, published in 1953 in the UK and the following year in the States under the title of The Return of Jeeves, is an oddity in a couple of respects. Firstly, Bertie Wooster is absent and, secondly, it is written in the third person. It was also adapted from a play, Come On Jeeves, that Wodehouse wrote in collaboration with Guy Bolton.

Why no Wooster? Well, apparently, he is attending a school, “an institution designed to teach the aristocracy to fend for itself, m’lord. […] Mr. Wooster … I can hardly mention this without some display of emotion … is actually learning to darn his own socks. The course he is taking includes boot-cleaning, sock darning, bed-making and primary grade cooking.” Jeeves has been loaned out for the duration to William ‘Billiken’ Egerton Bamfylde Ossingham Belfry, the ninth Earl of Rowcester. Bill, as we will call him, is strapped for cash and has been moonlighting as a bookmaker, Honest Patch Perkins, ably assisted by Jeeves. Unfortunately, they were cleaned out when a large double bet came in and not having the resources to make good their obligations, hot-footed it from the racecourse, followed closely by the diddled punter, a Captain Biggar.

Bill’s sister, Moke, in a desperate attempt to raise some cash for the Earl, has interested an American heiress, Rosalinda Spottsworth, in the prospect of buying the old pile. On the way she meets Biggar, who, inevitably, turns out to be an old flame but whose scruples, honed and polished through service east of Suez, has prevented him from declaring his love because of his lack of funds. Of course, his wager, if paid out, would help immensely in that respect.

There are the usual scrapes, romantic attachments, misunderstandings, incredible coincidences, and plot twists that you would expect from a Wodehouse tale. Jeeves, almost inevitably, uses his phenomenal grey cells, primed by a fish diet, to good effect to ensure that all s resolved in a manner that is satisfactory to all parties. As Wodehouse writes, “Let this fish-fed master-mind get his teeth into the psychology of the individual, and it was all over except chucking your hat in the air and doing Spring dances”.

One of the intriguing features of the book is that post World War 2 realities are pervading into even the gilded cage in which Wodehouse’s characters live. As Sir Roderick, Moke’s husband and employed as a floorwalker at a store, Harridge’s, exclaims, “We’re all workers nowadays!” Jill, Bill’s wife, earns her crust as a vet. This change in society gives some colour to Bertie Wooster’s surprising decision to improve himself by learning some of life’s essential skills.

The book isn’t one of Wodehouse’s best, somewhat undercooked and missing Wooster’s input and insights. Ample compensation is provided by the author’s mastery of language and penchant for an apt simile. Biggar peppers his speech with some astonishing oaths; “well, simmer me in prune juice; Well, mince me up and smother me in onions!; Fricassee me with stewed mushrooms on the side! That just go to show how impoverished our language is now. Wodehouse even attempts some risqué double entendres, perhaps the best being; “when I saw Whistler’s Mother pass us on her way to the starting-post, I was conscious of a tremor of uneasiness. Those long legs, that powerful rump”.

Entertaining enough but a long way short of his best.  

Book Corner – March 2020 (2)

The Code of the Woosters – P G Wodehouse

The seventh in the series of books featuring Bertram Wilberforce Wooster and his inscrutable gentleman’s personal gentleman, Reginald Jeeves, it was published in 1938 and in my view the best of the lot. That’s saying something as any Wodehouse cannot fail to lift the jaundiced spirit of the reader and put a smile on their face, but this is the bee’s knees.

One of the qualities of a timeless classic is that a reader from any period can find something which resonates with them. For me in these parlous political times, there is the oafish figure of Sir Roderick Spode, the self-proclaimed leader of the Black Shorts, clearly an allusion to Oswald Mosely. What resonated with me was Wodehouse’s take on the Voice of the People. “The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?” Never a truer word.

The plot is as usual convoluted and involves Bertie visiting Totleigh Towers, the country residence of Sir Watkyn Bassett, uncle of Madeline. Bertie is persuaded to visit, against his better judgment as he has previous with Sir Watkyn having appeared before him on a charge of pinching a policeman’s helmet, an encounter that left him £5 lighter in the pocket, on a double mission – to save his chum Gussie Finknottle’s impending nuptials with Madeline and to steal a silver cow creamer that his uncle wants.    

There are many twists and turns and Bertie is in danger of being married to both Madeline and Stiffy Byng, who has an on-off relationship with another of his pals, the curate “Stinker” Pinker. Sir Watkyn, given Bertie’s previous, suspects that he is there solely to steal the creamer. Initially, he dragoons the violent Spode to keep a watch on proceedings but Bertie has his number, courtesy of some dirt that Jeeves from his network of gentlemen’s gentlemen has been able to unearth, and so has to resort to the local policeman, Oates. Oates, inevitably, has his helmet stolen and Wooster is the number one suspect.

Suffice it to say, that the superior intellect of Jeeves manages to cut through this Gordian knot and peace and tranquillity is restored. There is a lot of fun to be had in getting there.

Wonderfully eccentric and preposterous as the plots are, what makes a Wodehouse book so special, and this one in particular, is his marvellous use of language. He is on fire with his one-liners, any one of which I would have been proud of penning. Take these for example:

He paused and swallowed convulsively, like a Pekingese taking a pill”.

“She was fully aware that she was doing something that even by female standards was raw, but she didn’t care”.

It was a confusion of ideas between him and one of the lions he was hunting in Kenya that had caused A. B. Spottsworth to make the obituary column. He thought the lion was dead, and the lion thought it wasn’t.”

“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled. “

“Memories are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is best not to stir them. “

The leitmotif of this marvellous book and hence the title is the code of honour by which the Woosters conduct themselves. As Bertie says, “One doesn’t want to make a song and dance about one’s ancient lineage, of course, but after all the Woosters did come over with the conqueror and were extremely pally with him.”  A wonderful, uplifting book and one of Wodehouse’s best.

Book Corner – December 2019 (1)

Something Fresh – P G Wodehouse

I always find the world that Wodehouse constructs is the perfect antidote to the madness of modern life and also a form of light relief from some of the heavier tomes I have been working my way through. This is the first of the Blandings books, published in 1915 and known in the United States as Something New, and introduces us to the absent-minded Lord Emsworth, his dim-witted son, Freddie Threepwood. and the butler, Beach.   

I have come to the Blandings books somewhat late and after reading a number of the tales of Jeeves and Wooster. Perhaps this was a mistake because I cannot help but conclude that, if this book is anything to go by, the miss that indefinable chemistry present in the relationship between Wooster and his valet, Jeeves. Threepwood isn’t a patch on Bertie and Beach is a pale shadow of a figure compared to the inimitable Jeeves. I also found it harder to get into than other Wodehouse books.

That said, the Wodehouse aficionado will not be disappointed. There is the usual mix of eccentric characters and the plot, thin as prison gruel as it may be, provides the author with a canvas broad enough to let his comic imagination run wild. Much of the action takes place in Blandings Castle, home of Lord Emsworth. On a rare visit up to London, his Lordship, in a moment of absent-mindedness, pocketed a rare Egyptian scarab, the pride and joy of an American millionaire, J Preston Peters.

Peters is unwilling to risk a scene by asking his Lordship directly for the return of his property, not least because his daughter is engaged to be married to Threepwood. Instead he hires a young crime novelist, Ashe Marson, to steal the item back. This is the cue for lots of skulking around in the middle of the night, mistakes, alliances, mishaps and food spillage. There is also some love interest, Ashe in pursuit of Joan Valentine, who is also on a mission to repatriate the scarab. The saga resolves itself, satisfactorily for all parties but that isn’t really the point of the book.

The point of the book is the language and it is very apparent that Wodehouse is limbering up to become the master of comedic image that he was in his pomp. Take this description of the impression that Beach made on Ashe when he first met him; “Ashe’s first impression of Beach, the butler, was one of tension. Other people, confronted for the first time with Beach, had felt the same. He had that strained air of being on the very point of bursting that one sees in bullfrogs and toy balloons”.        

And how about this for a mastery of economy in the use of language and yet painting an extremely funny image? “Lord Emsworth raised his revolver and emptied it in the direction of the sound. Extremely fortunately for him, the Efficient Baxter had not changed his all-fours attitude. This undoubtedly saved Lord Emsworth the worry of engaging a new secretary. The shots sang above Baxter’s head one after the other, six in all, and found other billets than his person. They disposed themselves as follows: The first shot broke a window and whistled out into the night; the second shot hit the dinner gong and made a perfectly extraordinary noise, like the Last Trump; the third, fourth and fifth shots embedded themselves in the wall; the sixth and final shot hit a life-size picture of his lordship’s grandmother in the face and improved it out of all knowledge”.

Wonderful stuff but not his best. And the Empress is nowhere to be seen. She doesn’t appear until the late 1920s.

Book Corner – March 2019 (3)

Joy in the Morning – P G Wodehouse

I find Wodehouse, and particularly his tales of Wooster and Jeeves, to be the literary equivalent of my comfort blanket. No matter how many times I read them, I find I discover something new. It’s a delight to be whisked away from your daily grind to a world of dense toffs and clever, perceptive servants. Of course, this world barely ever existed and is an anachronism by modern standards but it is worth just suspending belief to enjoy the wonders of Wodehouse at his best.

And I concur with many of Wodehouse’s critics that this is perhaps his finest work, certainly his best Jeeves and Wooster story. It had a difficult birth, Wodehouse working on it in Le Touquet when he was rudely interned by the occupying Nazis. His wife, Ethel, had the foresight to pack up the fledgling manuscript when she left France to join him in Berlin and was completed up in the Harz mountains in Degenershausen.

Joy in the Morning, which takes its title from a line in the thirtieth Psalm, was initially published in New York in August 1946. As Wodehouse was under a bit of a cloud in Blighty and paper was in short supply, the book didn’t reach his British audience until June 1947. The scarce paper was not wasted in bringing this wonderful novel to the reading public. Some American editions are entitled Jeeves in the Morning, missing the point entirely in that lovably infuriating Yankee way.

Those familiar with Wodehouse will know what to expect. It is a classic comedy of errors, using shovel loads of coincidence to keep a frenzied plot going. Bertie Wooster is persuaded to visit Steeple Bumpleigh, home of his formidable and tyrannical aunt, Agatha and her hubby, Lord Worplesdon. Worse too, Wooster’s former fiancée, Lady Florence Craye, is in attendance. Will Bertie get himself hooked again?

The book is a frenzied tour de force, love triangles, envious suitors, vengeful suitors, a house fire, a fancy-dress ball, a country cottage burnt to the ground, a miscreant boy, a policeman, a friend of Bertie’s, who is out to get him, a prospective merger of two shipping companies and much, much more. There is even a gag that runs through the book about a fretful porpentine which manifests itself when Bertie finds a hedgehog in his bed, as you do. The countryside is a dangerous place.

The momentum of the book is such that it is very difficult to put down as you are drawn to see what happens next. You are quickly absorbed by the beauty and vibrancy of the writing and the inventiveness of the Wodehousian simile. To give you a taste; “she came leaping towards me, like Lady Macbeth coming to get first-hand news from the guest-room” and he span round “with a sort of guilty bound like an adagio dancer surprised while watering the cat’s milk.

Through all of this mayhem, Wodehouse can take a step and poke fun at himself and his dodgy war record. Talking to Boko Fittleworth, yes, the names of Wodehouse’s characters are eccentrically bizarre, Wooster says, “I doubt if you can ever trust an author not to make an ass of himself.

It’s a glorious romp, guaranteed to put a smile on your face and help you forget about the modern world. What is there not to like?