#111: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – P.G. Wodehouse Defames the Detective Story in ‘Death at the Excelsior’ (1914)

TNBs Poison

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.

BLBBoLRMThis 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.

bananaNow, 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.


6 thoughts on “#111: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – P.G. Wodehouse Defames the Detective Story in ‘Death at the Excelsior’ (1914)

  1. I can’t remember reading this one, although I have read a collection of Wodehouse stories named Wodehouse on Crime. Can’t remember a thing about them, but I don’t think they were that good – not that this would surprise you. I think Wodehouse was better sticking with Jeeves and Wooster.


  2. Oh dear! I think part of the problem is that crime novels were so popular during the Golden Age that many authors in other genres had a go at writing one, maybe in order to cash in on the trend. P.G.Wodehouse, A.A. Milne, T.H. White, James Hilton; all excellent writers who maybe should have stayed home, genre wise. A similar thing happened with 19th/early 20th century authors; many wrote supernatural tales, often a whole collection, because those tales were incredibly popular and sold well to magazines.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I recently found T.H. White’s Darkness at Pemberley having had it on my TBB list for a while, so it’s interesting to hear that the perception of it is a poor one. I’ve not yet read any White, so will come to it as a complete blank slate, and you’ve made me even more curious to see what it’s like now…

      Such writin trends continue to this day, don’t they? Seemingly everyone put out a conspiracy thriller with a religious twist after The DaVinci Code, I can’t get into my local bookshop these days for all the Girl Doing a Thing in a Place (Possibly with Another Thing) “thrillers” that have gummed up the works for actually decent thrillers seemingly forever now. And the rise in “new Golden Age” novels — written now, set in the 1940s and forcibly reminding you of this fact every eight lines — demonstrate both an alarming lack of comprehension of the genre and that this sort of thing will continue into perpetuity.

      You know what the next big thing should be? Actually republishing books that are good. Most of the authors are dead, so expensive book tours and royalties can be almost entirely circumvented, and we’d get decent detective fiction back on the shelves. How do we do this? Anyone?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do so agree. My particular bugbears are: the sheer number of serial killer novels out there (doesn’t anyone murder anyone for a proper reason any more?), ‘authorised’ new works using the characters created by a previously popular author such as Agatha Christie (as if anyone emulate her unique style), or even worse, novels where authors themselves become sleuths (Josephine Tey, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Christie again). While I’m not averse to well written ‘fan’ fiction – there are some good modern takes on Sherlock Holmes and Carnacki out there, for example – much of the stuff that makes its way into our bookshops is simply cashing in on a previous author’s popularity.
        Maybe this is why people are turning back to Golden Age fiction, and why imprints such as Dean Street Press, Black Heath Classic Crime and British Library Crime Classics are doing well. I do think, though, that a really good author will probably stay in print anyway through customer demand; but it is easy to see why some reprinted works lapsed into obscurity…

        Liked by 2 people

        • Oh, no doubt some of these resurrected books are pretty dire. I’m opting to keep my own counsel over sime titles which seem be met with near-universal joy, but at I have found myself thinking “This? This is the best we can do for classic reprints?” on more than a few occasions. Though in a couple of cases I have at least benefitted from an affordbale reprint being rubbish where a s/h copy would have been vastly more expensive and still rubbish!

          ‘Continuation’ works fill me with contrary impulses, really. I only have enough interest in the Sherlock Holmes ones, and even that took a lot of acquiring and is pretty much down to John Dickson Carr writing some of his own. Anthony Horowitz has done two excellent Holmes estate novels, too, which certainly helps the cause. Pretty much everything else…nah. And don’t get me started on ‘famous fictional author as sleuth’ novels. Words fail me on that front, and I’d just start violently mashing my keyboard in an attempt to convey my disdain.


          • Absolutely, on all counts. I tend to buy the reprints as Kindle editions if I can; they’re relatively cheap so not a big outlay on unknown material.
            I did read one of the ‘author as sleuth’ novels (won’t say which one to save blushes) and guessed the plot twist before the end of the first page. Turned to the back; yep. Not because I’m a particularly perspicacious person; just the poor quality of the writing and complete inability to plot properly. OK, rant over…

            Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.