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.