P.G. Wodehouse, like A.A. Milne, was clearly not a fan of his first name. Also, both gentlemen are primarily known as writers of a particular type, style, or genre but nevertheless had a stab at a crime story just to keep their eye in, like. Milne’s novel The Red House Mystery (1922) was mocked by Raymond Chandler but is actually a very readable first attempt that makes me wonder what else he could have produced had he persevered within the genre. Contrariwise, Wodehouse’s ‘Death at the Excelsior’ (1914) is a poisoning tale in a boarding house that does just about everything wrong.
So let’s have a look at that, then…
Just to get the first issue out of the way — and this is of course in no way Wodehouse’s fault — this was included in the Black Lizard Big Ol’ Book of Impossible Crime Stories despite it not being an impossible crime. Sure, the body is found in a locked room but there’s a key readily to hand to unlock it, and it’s never really confronted that someone could have, y’know, killed the man and then walked out, locking the door behind them. Also, there’s an open window. Yes, it has bars over it too close together for a person to fit between, but that’s never stopped even the most conventional and decidedly non-impossible murderers going about their wretched business. But since we can’t guarantee Wodehouse ever intended this as a masterstroke of the impossible crime genre, the assumption of such is beyond his control and only really bears pointing out because of my pedantry.
This is a slightly longer tale than the Max Afford impossible poisoning I looked at last week — I’d guess it’s about half as long again — and Wodehouse allocates these additional words to very good intentions: the dispatch of the arrogant young PI whose employer feels to be in need of a lesson, there’s space for a false solution that takes into account the evidence on offer, and then there’s the triumph of the amateur detective previously dismissed by the professional. In fact, it’s a remarkably early attempt at marshalling all the elements that would become rather central to the development of the genre overall. And it’s certainly aged well in terms of its style: there’s a lightness of tone and a fleetness of foot in proceedings that would cause the unwary to date it far later than the eve of the First World War. But it’s still really quite bad.
The problems start, well, with the characters. We’re told that “[Snyder] had a strong suspicion that the conduct of this case was going to have the beneficial result of lowering Oakes’ self-esteem. If failure achieved this end, Mr. Snyder felt that failure, though it would not help the Agency, would not be an unmixed ill,” but there’s never anything in Oakes’ character or comportment to suggest that this is a problem. Paul Snyder, his boss, comes across if anything as the bigger arse for sending someone along to waste the time and money of a client just to settle some personal grievance. And then there’s Mrs. Pickett, in whose bourn the murder occurs, presented thus at first appearance…
Her silence, her pale eyes, and the quiet decisiveness of her personality cowed even the tough old salts who patronised the Excelsior. She was a formidable influence in that little community of sailormen.
…but come the end, well, appears to be an entirely different person:
[Oakes] had come prepared to endure a dull evening absorbed in grim silence, and he found himself instead opposite a bottle of champagne of a brand and year which commanded his utmost respect. What was even more incredible, his hostess had transformed herself into a pleasant old lady whose only aim seemed to be to make him feel at home.
Now, fine, the snaring of a murderer may have something to do with this, but it’s an unwarranted and unexplained transformation that would almost serve as a twist if anyone felt that commenting on it. Which, of course, they don’t.
“But JJ,” you’re not saying, “it’s a crime story, so it’s about the crime, not the characters. Like, focus on what’s important, dude.” And so you shall have your wish. The false solution is terrible; and more than that, it’s lazy. A legitimate objection is raised by Snyder when Oakes presents his case — Snyder, remember, who is trying to bring Oakes down a peg or six — and when Oakes just dismisses it Snyder goes along with this without complaint. Then when Mrs. Pickett comes to suggest that Oakes has it wrong, Snyder argues with her (no doubt protecting the fee he’s going to claim…) even though he knows that there are problems with the solution which he says to her “struck me as logical and convincing”. I mean, the inability to keep a consistent thread on so small a cast is really unforgivable.
But the crowning glory must go to the solution. Put aside the fact that it’s not even close to fairly-clued — the crucial aspect doesn’t even crop up until the very final pages, so don’t bother solving-along with this one — or that it relies on the kind of situational knowledge that it would be all but impossible to obtain under any normal circumstances. I can almost forgive that purely on the nascent nature of the genre, the fact that detective fiction is still very much feeling its way at this stage; I don’t like it, I detest this exact conceit, in fact, but I will forgive it because I’m so magnanimous. What I can’t forgive is that once the solution is presented, once the murderer has confessed, once the entire issue is put to bed, the accepted solution does not match the crime described. That murder method would not engender the misplaced assumption that everyone — everyone — labours under for the entire duration of the story.
Now, fine, occasionally there is misdirection with regard to murder methods in detective fiction — I’ve reviewed a book in the last few weeks that trades on exactly this and loved it. But when the correct method is uncovered you can at least see how that mode of dispatch would be mistaken for another (the impossibility that crops up at the end of Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, for instance). Here, that’s not the case. What we’re told is the solution would not be mistaken for the method we’re led to believe is responsible. And it is So Very Very Annoying, the entire enterprise undertaken on an entirely false premise, purely to make a mystery out of nothing. And don’t give me that “it’s a farce” nonsense, either. That sort of apologism has no place here. Yes, Wodehouse wrote a lot of farce, but this is not among it. Wit and farce are not the same thing by any stretch of the imagination, and this is simply bad writing.
I take no particular pleasure in tearing something down, but the problems this has are so very great — and Wodehouse is apparently greatly admired as an author, though thankfully not of detective fiction — that it sits sourly with me that this will be read and taken as demonstrative of the genre or puzzle plots in particular. It’s not good, it’s not worth your time, and it’s not something I ever want to see wasting space in an anthology again that could be used for something worthwhile like bringing Arthur Porges to the masses.