Tag Archives: P G Wodehouse

Weekend At Thrackley

A review of Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville

The only Alan Melville book I had read before was Quick Curtain, which I enjoyed, and so I was keen to try Weekend at Thrackley, his debut novel, also published in 1934 and reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. I vaguely remember Melville from the sixties when he was what we would now call a TV and radio celeb. This is a delightful romp of a book.

It uses the classic locus for a murder mystery story, a country house to which its owner, Edwin Carson, invites a small but select group of disparate characters to attend a soiree. Carson is a bad egg, a jewel collector who has amassed a collection the envy of the world but which he keeps hidden in a well-fortified underground cellar with more than a suspicion that he is none too scrupulous about how he acquires them. The staff at the house, headed by the loathsome butler, Jacobson, are all male, all bruisers and add to the air of menace. It is the type of house to which, as Freddie Usher remarks, that you take a revolver to.

Five of the six guests invited possess desirable jewels. The odd one out is Jim Henderson who has barely a bean to his name. Carson claims that he knew Henderson’s father out in South Africa, having been in prison together, news to Jim. Jim is less keen to have more than a passing acquaintance with Carson, bit is loath to pass up a free weekend. He goes down to Thrackley with Usher, who has recently inherited the Usher diamonds, and as they approach the house, they knock a young lady off her bike. It turns out to be Mary, Carson’s daughter.

Instead of the promised tennis, fishing, and golf, there are rum goings on over the weekend, and inevitably some of the guests are relieved of their gems. The windows and doors are alarmed and the perimeter fencing and gates have a live electrical current running through them. Escape for the guests is impossible or, as Melville describes it, they have as much chance of leaving “as a drunk man with St Vitus’ dance has of getting to the top of Ben Nevis on a pair of antiquated rollerskates”. Only the completion of Carson’s fiendish plan and his departure will see their liberation. A combination of Jim’s courage, Freddie’s bluster, and Lady Stone’s spirit means that things do not go quite as Carson had planned.

This is not a classic murder mystery. There are deaths towards the end of the book, but there is no mystery about them. Carson’s motivations are also crystal clear. Indeed, the only mystery is why Jim had been invited to the party in the first place. This is revealed at the end in what is an unbelievable and disappointing resolution.        

The plotting may not have the nuance that you might expect from a novel of this period and genre, but what it lacks in that direction it makes up in spades in humour. The dialogue, and some of the characters, seem to have been lifted from the pages of a PG Wodehouse novel. The characterization is well-observed and believable, the dialogue sharp and witty and the pages are peppered with bon mots and beautifully crafted and witty turns of phrase. It is a sheer delight to read, revelling in its own presposterousness, but written with enough spirit and elan to carry it all off brilliantly.

For the time Mary’s character is fascinating. She is not just the love interest that I expected at the beginning, but has an integral part to play in how events unfold and earns her billing as the woman who foiled a criminal mastermind. Melville allows the reader to compare and contrast her with Raoul, the archetypal stage bimbo, the latest sensation of the London stage and at whom Carson is tilting his metaphorical hat. Strong women will out and it is a pleasure to see a writer give one such an important role in their book.

Thoroughly recommended.

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 – February 2020 (1)

Summer Lightning – P G Wodehouse

This is the third novel in the Blanding series, published in July 1929, initially in the United States under the title of Fish Preferred and then nineteen days later in England under its more commonly recognised title. It was serialised in the Pall Mall Magazine either side of the book’s publication, between March and August 1929, and in the US in Collier’s ahead of its being released in book form.

Since the initial Blandings’ story, Something Fresh, the castle seems to have been teleported to rural Shropshire, Lord Emsworth has taken up breeding prize pigs, The Empress of Blandings is his pride and joy and wins prizes at the County Agricultural Show, and the Efficient Baxter has been sacked from his role as secretary for allegedly throwing flower pots at his lordship and has been replaced by the love-lorn, hapless, Hugo Carmody.

The plots are rather formulaic involving broken engagements, imposters and attempts on the security of the pig. Hugo and Lord Emsworth’s nephew, Ronnie Fish, find themselves engaged to the wrong girls and se what limited ingenuity they possess to remedy their predicaments. Lady Constance plots to get the Efficient Baxter back in post. Sir Galahad is determined to embarrass the local aristocracy with saucy tales of their youthful improprieties in the Reminiscences he is beavering away. The obvious way to get his Lordship’s undying gratitude is to steal his pig and recover it. But what is a seemingly simple plan is complicated by the hiring of a detective, Percy Pilbeam, who, although he thinks finding a pig to be below his professional dignity, takes up the challenge because he has also been engaged to steal Sir Galahad’s manuscript.

All clear? There are more complexities than that but, suffice it to say, matters get more or less resolved satisfactorily with the Efficient Baxter humiliated once more and Pilbeam thwarted.

It is tempting to compare and contrast these stories with the Jeeves and Wooster stories. The Blandings stories with their third person narrative lose a little of the immediacy of the Wooster stories with their first person narrative and the butler, Beach, is a shadowier, less pivotal character than his more famous counterpart, more an accomplice than a resolver of tricky situations.         

But you don’t pick up a Wodehouse book to engage in formalised literary criticism. You should just pinch your nose and dive headlong into a wonderful world as far as detached from reality as you can get. The characters are stereotypes, for sure, but part of Wodehouse’s genius is to be able to wring the last drop of humour from their behaviour and luxuriate in his glorious dialogue and descriptive phrases that stay long in the memory. The opening sets the scene, “Blandings Castle slept in the sunshine. Dancing little ripples of heat-mist played across its smooth lawns and stone-flagged terraces. The air was full of the lulling drone of insects. It was that gracious hour of a summer afternoon, midway between luncheon and tea, when Nature seems to unbutton its waistcoat and put its feet up.” and once he’s off, Wodehouse never lets go.

It is a satire of sorts of the aristocrats and a world long since gone, if it ever existed. More importantly, it is the purest form of escapism and while you read it, the world and our place in it doesn’t seem too bad, after all.