Based on my first two experiences of reading this author (The Lion in the Cellar (1951) and The Wooden Overcoat (1951)), I was looking forward to reading this book and felt confident it would be a good read. However, I am afraid this was not to be. Whilst in the first two books Branch’s comic touches were masterly and had me laughing out loud, in this book the comic flavour of the piece began well but soon became mired by endless nonsensical dialogue, meaning if there was any humour in there, it wasn’t going to be found easily. Moreover, there is quite a disturbing moment in the middle of the book where slapstick humour becomes sinister. But more on that later. For now this is what the story is about…
Enid Marley, an agony aunt for a less than successful magazine named You, plans to entice her husband back (more out of wounded pride than affection), by pretending to try and commit suicide. Yet this is easier said than done. Her first attempt is foiled by a gas workers’ protest and her second fuels the remainder of the book. She plans to pretend to want to jump from her office window, a plan which goes awry, not resulting in death – though the woman she landed on top of broke her arm, but in confusion. Hands belonging to someone in the office is seen trying to help, yet why do they not admit to it afterwards? Were their intentions good after all? And what happened to the suicide note Enid left? And who is sending anonymous notes claiming to have pushed her? The office editors are baffled as to what has occurred. Suicide attempt? Misadventure? Or attempted murder? Unsurprisingly Enid is less than popular at work so there are many suspects if it was a case of attempted murder? Of course Enid is baffled by the mystery hands, yet she is desperate to not get arrested for attempting suicide (it only stopped being a crime in 1961), so she gives a sinister twist to it in her account to the police.
For Egon, the magazine’s overall editor, the priority is how to use this incident to further the cause of the publication. Meanwhile Rex who is taking over Enid’s job for the time being causes a long chain of chaos when he misaddresses his responses and soon irate readers are heading towards You headquarters. A press reporter stuck in a lift only adds to the confusion, all too keen to boost sales for his paper.
To be fair to Branch the book does start well, opening boldly by incorporating the taboo subject of suicide, yet in her hands made comical, with Enid coming across as quite ridiculous, due to the fact that because she is pretending, the whole process is much more consciously done e.g. deciding what colour of cushion looks less ‘frivolous’ and what tone to strike in the suicide note. Moreover, she spots the ridiculousness in herself such as when she is criticising her actions whilst clutching a drainpipe: ‘How much safer she would have been if only she had not forgotten to take off her shoes! And why, why, why was she clutching her handbag?’
Moreover, I did enjoy how her agony aunt work was used in the story. Enid has a chart and a cross referencing system which means that regardless of the problem there is a formulaic response. Some of the editors joke around with it, but even for the fictitious problem of: ‘I am a Siamese twin… having drugged me, my sister murdered my husband. Can they hang us?’ there is a pre-done response. A response which pops up a lot is: ‘My dear, the tone of your letter suggests that you may be run down. It could do no harm to consult your medical advisor. Could you not get away for a short holiday?’ and it comically jars with the original problems posed.
In the early part of the book I also enjoyed how Branch recreates the manic atmosphere of the magazine office and people talking at cross purposes. The self-interest of the characters in responding to early events was also amusing and also a little disconcerting as you begin to wonder whether this is less exaggeration and more based on real life.
Additionally Enid although unlikeable is enjoyable to read about. She is invariably snobbish, yet being unlikeable has never stopped a character from being funny. Countless BBC sitcoms testify to that. However, Branch’s portrayal of the European Doctor Feltz is a bit crude in its use of stereotypes, an issue which also cropped briefly in The Wooden Overcoat.
Unfortunately after the initial setup, the plot begins to suffer and out of the three Branch novels I have read this is my least favourite. Due to the unconventional nature of the plot, it lacks propulsion and doesn’t feel like it is going anywhere. This differs from the other two Branch novels I have read as in both of those although the plot gets zany and maverick there is a clear sense of the plot moving forwards to a definitive goal. In contrast the plot concept in this book is quite small (not necessarily a problem), but by the half way point it is feeling very stretched out and the pacing of the narrative decreases. What adds to this problem and ultimately made the last quarter of the book a real struggle to finish was the endless dialogue, which was filled with nonsense phrases, dialect and slang, meaning that at points I didn’t actually know what was being said. A lot of the comedy in this book relies on information becoming garbled and there is a serious case of Chinese whispers. But the way this is executed, e.g. in the directionless and confusing dialogue, means that it doesn’t come across as funny and it is definitely overdone. All of these issues culminate in the ending which lacks irony and is rather convoluted to say the least. Now for the disturbing moment. Mixing comedy and crime is a complex task and unfortunately there is a moment where this badly doesn’t work. As I mentioned above many responses to the mail sent in by readers get mixed up, meaning readers receive the wrong messages. This of course should lead to hilarious confusion and consequences. Yet the consequences Branch chooses here are really not that funny. We have grieving parents congratulated on the death of their son, a woman planning to commit suicide, two broken marriages and a case of domestic violence. Not really a barrel of laughs. Moreover, for most of the characters there don’t end up having their confusing situations clarified and in the case of person planning suicide the news reporter in the lift sends someone down to see if they’re dead yet.
All in all I have to say I am disappointed with Branch this time round. So if you are new to Branch I would start with one of her first two novels.