Bertie and Punshon: The Code of the Woosters (1938), by P. G. Wodehouse
The Code of the Woosters, as Bertie informs readers at the outset, tells the tale of "the sinister affair of Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, old Pop Bassett, Stiffy Byng, the Rev. H. P. ("Stinker") Pinker, the eighteenth-century cow creamer, and the small, brown, leather-covered notebook." There is, as this suggests, a lot going on in this novel! (Bertie actually left out the part about the policeman's helmet.)
Although of course the book is farcical, there actually is quite a bit of country house criminality going on in it. And throughout the novel knowing allusions are made to detective stories and thrillers.
Extorted by his Aunt Dahlia into snitching from a rival silver collector, Sir Watkyn Bassett, an eighteenth-century cow creamer to which she feels her husband is morally entitled, Bertie makes his way to Bassett's country estate, Totleigh Towers, to commit the criminous deed.
There he encounters in addition to Bassett--who, before he retired as a magistrate, fined Bertie for snatching, while on a drunken lark, a policeman's helmet--one Roderick Spode, leader of a fascist organization known as the Black Shorts. (By the time Spode formed his group, you see, all the black shirts had already been taken by British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, so Spode had to settle for shorts.)
Both men dislike, and are quite suspicious of, Bertie, causing him to reflect doubtfully:
|the deus ex moochina|
Soon he finds another party, Stephanie "Stiffy" Byng, Sir Watkyn's niece, extorting him to steal the cow creamer for her! Bertie finds the whole situation is getting dashed confusing, leading to this exchange with Jeeves:
"I think it would help if we did what they do in thrillers. Do you ever read thrillers?"
"Not very frequently, sir."
"Well, there's always a bit where the detective, in order to clarify his thoughts, writes down a list of suspects, motives, times when, alibis, clues and what not. Let us try this plan. Take pencil and paper, Jeeves, and we will assemble the facts."
This is, indeed, something that is done in several E. R. Punshon detective novels from the period, and it's clear from further references made by Bertie that Wodehouse had read Punshon's Mystery of Mr. Jessop, published the year before in 1937.
A cheerful fire was burning in the grate, and to while away the time I pulled the armchair up and got out the mystery story I had brought with me from London. As my researches in it had already shown me, it was a particularly good one, full of crisp clues and meaty murders, and I was soon absorbed.
This mystery is in fact Mystery of Mr. Jessop. Yet later in the novel, when Bertie is trying to retrieve the small, brown, leather-covered notebook that Siffy has swiped from Gussie Fink-Nottle, he finds inspiration to action in the pages of his mystery:
To give the brain a rest before having another go at the problem, I took up my goose-flesher again. And, by Jove, I hadn't read more than half a page when I uttered a cry. I had come upon a significant passage.
"Jeeves," I said, addressing him as he entered a moment later, "I have come upon a significant passage."
The "significant passage" concerns a section of the book where a young woman's flat has been ransacked, by a person or persons unknown searching for "missing jewels" (actually a diamond necklace). Bertie quotes a portion of the book where the detective--called Postlethwaite by Wodehouse, but actually Punshon's Superintendent Ulyett--lectures "his pal" (actually his subordinate, Punshon's series sleuth, Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen) about "the top of the cupboard" being "every woman's favourite hiding-place." This all comes directly from a passage in Mystery of Mr. Jessop.
To Bertie it suggests an immediate course of action:
I eyed him keenly.
"You see the profound significance of that, Jeeves?"
"If I interpret your meaning aright, air, you are suggesting that Mr. Fink-Nottle's notebook may be concealed at the top of the cupboard in Miss Byng's apartment?
"Not 'may,' Jeeves, 'must.' I don't see how it can be concealed anywhere else but. That detective is no fool. If he says a thing is so, it is so. I have the utmost confidence in the fellow, and am prepared to follow his lead without question."
Of course not all goes as smoothly as Bertie naively expects, and he finds detective novels are not always quite the same as real life.
|It's not up here!|
Another interesting similarity between the two novels has to do with the references to British politician Oswald Mosley's fascist Blackshirts, who in the mid-Thirties were involved during political demonstrations in violent street brawls with communists. Wodehouse's Roderick Spode and his Black Shorts clearly spoof Mosley and his gang.
|a frightful ass in footer bags|
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 that 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?"
In Mystery of Mr. Jessop E. R. Punshon satirically references the London brawls between fascists and communists, indicating that he holds totalitarian ideology in disdain. He would have more to say on this subject the next year in his detective novel Dictator's Way, which appeared the same year as The Code of the Woosters.
Note: Both the Punshon novels mentioned above, as well as three others--Death Comes to Cambers, The Bath Mysteries and The Dusky Hour--will soon be reissued from Dean Street Press. They will have introductions by me in which I further ruminate on the mystery writing of Mr. Punshon. As for Mr. Wodehouse, you should be reading him already!
Humdrum is an adjective first used by mystery writer and reviewer Julian Symons to describe, initially, “John Rhode”, following the passing of Freeman Wills Crofts, proclaiming Rhode the reigning “master of the humdrum” mystery. He later went on to expand his definition, declaring at various times the Humdrum school of writers to include John Street (aka John Rhode & Miles Burton), Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart (J J Connington), G D H & Margaret Cole, Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher (Henry Wade), E R Punshon, R A J Walling, J S Fletcher, Gladys Mitchell and Arthur Upfield. And, just to be clear, he didn’t use “Humdrum” as a compliment.
There’s a good argument that Symons’ opinion influenced others to write off these authors, but given that Symons was reviewing most of these writers in their declining years, was it a fair one? Here, Curtis Evans takes issue with Symons’ claims, by studying three of the above names – John Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and Alfred Water Stewart – and looking at their works and their lives and presents a counter argument. But does that argument make sense?
I decided to take a look at this book after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing. I’m rather fascinated by the history of the Golden Age, especially why some authors became so neglected and why at least one author (naming no names, but she’s from New Zealand) seems to be so lauded, but with my shall-we-say mild obsession with the work of John Street, I thought it was about time to learn more. In fact, I think this provided a nice contrast – I’ve read a (relatively) decent amount of Rhode titles, a few Connington books and one (bloody awful) Crofts title.
Following a section on the overall history of the Humdrum label, the first author to be tackled is Street, his section opening with his early life and pre-Rhode publishing. It then tackles the Rhode and the Burton titles separately, discussing primarily the highlights (and there are many) of his catalogue in order of publication. There are a number of clearly marked SPOILER sections which I skipped through if I hadn’t read the book, but these are easily avoided, but Evans takes the time to expound on the merits of each chosen book outside of these sections. He then takes more of an overview, looking across the canon as a whole, and spending a little time on Street’s work on the Constance Kent mystery. It’s a fascinating study of someone who has rapidly become one of my favourite Golden Age writers and, for me, this section alone was well worth the price of the book. Although I strongly disagree with Evans’ inclusion of Pinehurst (and exclusion of Death In The Hop Fields) in his list of Rhode’s better works
The next section is on Crofts, author of The Pit-Prop Syndicate, which to be fair, Evans doesn’t think much of again. The structure is the same, early life, best books, overview, and here Evans takes time to examine how Crofts’ religious beliefs affected his later books, notably Antidote To Venom – coming soon to a blog near you. Points off for the spoiler in this chapter (clearly marked) that spoils a Street title – I read the spoiler assuming it was about an obscure Crofts title. Grrr… I’ll be honest, I’m still a little reluctant to try Crofts after reading this section – inverted mysteries don’t appeal, nor do overly complex timetable stories. But regardless, Antidote To Venom and Mystery In The Channel will be appearing here soon…
The final section (apart from extensive notes and references) is on Stewart. I’ve read a few J J Connington mysteries and enjoyed them all so this chapter clicked for me more than the Crofts one. It concludes with some fascinating insight into Stewart’s opinions on all sorts of things, including his own books, by discussing extensively his correspondence with writer Rupert Thomas Gould. I found this part of the book extremely intriguing, giving a real sense of the writer himself.
Anyway, overall, this is an extremely impressive piece of work and while it hasn’t quite convinced me to start shouting Crofts’ name from the rafters, it’s so good to read something championing authors that need championing. With a lot of Crofts and all of the Connington books now available, as ebooks at least, and with Rhode about to get some reprints, why not take a look at this to get you inspired? Highly Recommended.