It was startling to finish Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, and find that it was copyrighted in 1962. P.G. Wodehouse hit his stride — well, you could say in 1919, with the publication of four stories as My Man, Jeeves. (Something tells me there are clubs and associations that take all this dating business quite seriously.) The first full-length novel is Right Ho, Jeeves, published in 1934. By the time Wodehouse got around to writing Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, very little had changed, including the menace posed to Bertie’s equanimity by the prospect of marrying Madeline Bassett. She’s attractive enough, except for “that squashy soupiness of hers, that subtle air she had of being on the point of talking baby talk. She was the sort of girl who puts her hands over a husband’s eyes, as he is crawling in to breakfast with a morning head, and says, ‘Guess who?’” Newt-loving Gussie Fink-Nottle appears, sober; Aunt Agatha stays away. Bertie is in fine form as ever: confronting a menacing fellow-house guest he says, “I think if Spode had been about three feet shorter and not so wide across the shoulders, I would have laughed a mocking laugh and quite possibly have flicked my cambric handkerchief in his face.” Sometimes you do want a writer to produce the same book again and again.
I’ll admit I was a little desperate after finishing Emile Zola’s La Débâcle. I needed entertainment — no, I needed jollity! Hence, Wodehouse. Now, I’m pretty new to his work and gosh, there’s a lot of it. Worse, I was reduced to the freebies on offer via Eucalyptus so I ended up with My Man Jeeves, a volume of stories rather than a full-length novel. And half of them didn’t even feature Bertie Wooster. (Like millions of other readers, I became rather fond of Jeeves rather quickly. I especially like the way he “seeps” in and out of rooms.) They’re narrated instead by a proto-Bertie named Reggie Pepper, who is about 15% less imbecilic and thus 15% less funny. Clearly I need to be more careful next time and I’ve learned my lesson: my phone always needs to be stocked with the right kind of beautiful silliness because it may be required at any moment.
Sarah Caudwell wrote a short series of mysteries in the 1980s that featured a group of young, attractive barristers who managed to stumble into and out of murderous situations. The books are clever, arch, drenched in irony, not even faintly naturalistic, and peculiarly of their era in the gleeful emphasis on polymorphous sexuality. The narrator, ambiguously-named Hilary Tamar, could even be a man or a woman — though no straight man I know is capable of describing another man as looking like “an invitation card for a rather frivolous wake.” It’s this narrative voice — a cross between Wodehouse and Edmund Crispin — that makes these novels entertaining.
Thus Was Adonis Murdered takes place in Venice and is in form a locked-room mystery. The Adonis in question is a lawyer with the Internal Revenue and less interesting than his fetching profile at first makes him seem. The plot is parceled out largely in epistolary form, as barrister Julia Larwood writes an account of her Venetian vacation to her colleagues back in London. Because Julia is hapless, sexually voracious, polysyllabic, and accused of the murder, her letters provide a usefully limited account of the Venetian action. Also funny: of one military bore/boor on her Art Lovers’ Tour, she writes, “I would think it odd, he said, that he had never married. I did not in fact think it at all odd — the statistical chances against any woman being prepared to endure both the hairiness of his legs and the tedium of his conversation seemed to me to be negligible.” As I read that over, it seems wrong: surely it should be “the statistical chances of…?” I didn’t notice while reading. The book presents such a glittering, fascinating surface that looking for qualities like sentiment or logic in it seems, somehow, churlish.
Eureka! I finally liked Wodehouse!
I’ve been trying to achieve this feat for years. Many people think it isn’t a feat at all. They find it completely normal to enjoy the antics of Bertie Wooster, as recounted by his affectionate inventor. I have repeatedly attempted to taste the pleasures, and failed. I found Wodehouse twee, or arch, or just annoying. Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster set my teeth on edge. Was I watching the wrong episodes of the BBC productions? Or is Wodehouse a pleasure I’ve grown into, like Proust?
I’m inclined to believe I must have been reading the wrong books. Or possibly there’s a pseudo-Wodehouse out there? A doppelganger who took over the production and didn’t quite hit the marks of hilarity achieved by the original author? A quick Wikipedia search shows an alarming level of productivity. Right Ho, Jeeves was published in 1934 along with Thank You, Jeeves; in both 1933 and 1935, Wodehouse published a novel and a book of short stories. Somewhere there must be a drop-off in quality, and maybe I sampled second-rate books. All I know is that frequently laughed out loud while reading Right Ho, Jeeves, and sometimes I was reduced to whimpering.
We all know that Bertie Wooster is a fatuous ass, but it’s not easy to write from Bertie’s point of view and still reveal his idiocy. Wodehouse does this with a kind of ingenuousness. “Jeeves, when I discussed the matter with him later, said it was something to do with inhibitions, if I caught the word correctly, and the suppression of, I think he said, the ego.” (It is pretty hard to read that sentence without hearing it in Hugh Laurie’s voice.) So that’s part of the gleeful humor. Then there are the ludicrous predicaments Bertie brings on himself, like engagement, in this book, to a girl he refers to as “the Bassett.” (It’s pretty hard not to add “… hound” to the name, right?) Comedy is always about pacing, and Wodehouse knows how to collapse and how to stretch time: the longest set-piece in this novel is the exquisite prize-giving at the Market Snodsbury grammar school, with a drunken Gussie Fink-Nottle as the star. It goes on forever. You want it to go on forever.
But of course it’s Wodehouse’s style that makes him immortal. And it’s not an austere thing. It’s a riotous, supremely playful accumulation of synonyms, metaphors, slang, Biblical tags, weird abbreviations, snippets of French or Latin. Here is Bertie trying to begin the narrative: “I suppose the affair may be said to have had its inception, if inception is the word I want, with that visit of mine to Cannes. If I hadn’t gone to Cannes, I shouldn’t have met the Bassett or bought that white mess jacket, and Angela wouldn’t have met her shark, and Aunt Dahlia wouldn’t have played baccarat.”
How can you not want more?
Stop the presses for a startling literary discovery — the first inklings of meta-fiction in a Golden Age English murder mystery! Yes indeed: in the early pages of The Case of the Gilded Fly professor/detective Gervase Fen says “In fact I’m the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction.” A bit further on, Fen and the Chief Constable of Oxford spar over the details of the murder and their importance. Fen says, “That’s all very well in a detective novel, where it has to be put in to camouflage the significant things…” and Sir Richard expresses his annoyance at “the sort of detective story in which one of the characters propounds view on how detective stories should be written.” Huh? Did writers really have this acute level of self-consciousness in 1944?
Apparently Crispin did. He was actually musician Bruce Montgomery, a composer and one-time organist at St. John’s College, Oxford, which accounts for sentences like one where he refers to “just that touch of preciosity, the lengthening, shortening, or corruption of vowels which is the prerogative of a good choir.” (A familiar concept to this choral singer.) And he wrote with a level of playful archness that makes his mysteries a cross between Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse. Crispin specialized in following the form of the classic murder mystery while embroidering madly to create a baroque and very funny hybrid. The Case of the Gilded Fly, for instance, is a classic locked-room drama but it also contains the familiar trope of the dramatic performance; the victim of the first murder is the slutty actress everyone in the company loathes. And while Christie or Sayers gave us more or less human detectives, Gervase Fen is something like Sherlock Holmes on Ritalin: variously acutely observant, wildly eccentric, and as distractible as a six-year-old.
None of the characters in this novel approaches three dimensions, but you don’t really mind because the writing is so diverting in that baroque style that harks back to the Dickens, piling phrase on phrase, image on image. (Note to self: at a later point, explore further the Golden Age detective novel as a 19th-century survival.) For instance, Crispin writes a long paragraph on the beginning of the Oxford term: “Notices concerning club activities, many offensively designed, began to appear in college lodges; … a week or so later, more luggage would arrive, under the system ironically described by the railway companies as luggage in advance; tutors heaved regretful sighs, freshmen arrived in a state of crescent bewilderment and anguished self-consciousness, and college cooks meditated enormities.” (Love the use of “crescent” in its archaic sense.)
I had read previous Crispin novels but not this one, which is put out by an outfit called “Felony & Mayhem.” They usefully reissue a series of the older mysteries under their “Vintage” imprint. Notwithstanding their apparent honesty I remained skeptical about Crispin’s dates (this could have been some kind of ironic recycling, I thought) until I got to several parallel love scenes, in all of which the couples merely kissed, and agreed to get married.