It is still bugging me, but I cannot remember which book I read which mentions this title and author, but never mind. Suffice to say what little I read about the story itself convinced me this was something worth trying. My Pan edition comes with the following blurb:
‘A bank cashier suddenly finds that after a few drinks he is able to read the thoughts of his neighbours – and through this strange power he learns of a murder shortly to be committed. His position is alarmingly embarrassing – especially when the murder is actually done and he is himself suspected. And then, with a little whisky, he is again in “prime thought-reading condition…”’
Before I discuss the book itself I thought it might be interesting to share some information on the author, Geoffrey Kerr (1895-1971). This was the only novel he wrote, and he was much better known firstly as an actor and then as a director and screen and stage writer. Kerr was his stage name when he appeared on Broadway for the first time in 1920, which was probably very sensible given that his real name was Geoffrey Kemble Grinham Keen. By the mid-30s his acting career was pretty much over and from there his writing for stage and screen took off, though previously he had starred in plays he wrote himself such as London Calling (1930). It turns out I have watched one of the films he wrote which was Cottage to Let (1941).
Under the Influence has been described as a fantasy novel, as well as a crime one. Interestingly it seems that Kerr had tried to adapt it for film with George S Kaufman, but it was never completed – which having now read the book I feel is a shame. This is a story which was made for the Ealing comedies.
I have to admit my sole reason for buying this book, at a reasonable price I hasten to add, was because of its gimmick. I don’t know if it is the first example of a character learning of a forthcoming murder through thought reading, but it was definitely my first encounter with it. Another additional interesting feature is that the story is not told in the first person but is written by various characters who were also involved in, or able to observe, certain events. The protagonist, Harry Browne, limits himself to the odd footnote and some introductions. For the first three quarters of the book I would say this was a very good decision, as we get to see Harry in action from a third person point of view. Rather than Harry seeing himself as some kind of superman with a special power, he is far more apologetic about it, and as the book unfolds, we see how vulnerable it makes him as those around him want to exploit him for their own gain, as well as how it complicates his relationships with others. One relationship in particular is his growing romance with Anne Stenton; an aspect of the story which put me in mind of comedy films of the 40s and 50s. I don’t know why Kerr decided to write this tale, but I think his screen and stage writing put him in good stead for crafting his different narrators. Each voice feels authentic and individual, laced with human foibles and myopic viewpoints when it comes to assessing themselves. Moreover, each narrator often comments and critiques those which have come before, which again was an enjoyable aspect of the prose.
So to sum up Kerr’s initial premise is definitely a winner, and it gets his narrative off to a great start. Plot and characterisation work nicely together with information about what is going on being layered adeptly by the different narrators. The thought reading concept is also played in an understated manner, with Harry’s ordinariness emphasised. In some ways despite being the cause of much comedy, his role is that of the straight man. The matter of whether people believe or disbelieve in his ability is equally well handled.
However, we know come to the but, that I am sure a few readers have been waiting for. By the 60/70% point it was beginning to dawn on me that this book was not as good as it was at the start, and the more I read, the more this became a confirmed suspicion. Kerr’s previous writing experience no doubt meant he could write social comedy well, but I don’t think he fully knew how to develop the mystery component. This attached to another difficulty which is the fact Harry needs to middling drunk and relaxed to read people’s thoughts. This initially produces quite a bit of comedy, but eventually ties the hands of the plot, as he eventually just ends up being kept perpetually drunk at one point. This might have been remedied if Harry had done some kind of sleuthing on his own account, but instead he is just kept in hiding, (from the press) in a flat showing his skill to various people. This aspect of the problem, i.e. getting Harry into the right state to thought read, becomes very much overdone, taking up a considerably large chunk of the plot, (which is not good when your book is under 200 pages). Unsurprisingly this became rather repetitive. What Kerr needed to do was to add some further complications into the mix which would compel action on Harry’s part. He is far too passive. Added to this issue is that the later narratives become far less informative for the reader.
So at this juncture in the plot the book loses it steam, despite the true culprit being identified at this point. The ending goes on far too long; a sign that a comic writer didn’t know when enough was enough. Much more should have been made of Harry’s plight when he is put in danger – this moment of jeopardy is treated far too mutedly. Perhaps the comedy of the piece could even have been heightened if there had been less of it and if it was juxtaposed with occasions of peril and suspense.
The comedy aspects of the book are definitely what contemporary reviews concentrated on. The Evening Standard wrote that it was ‘an extremely original contribution to crime fiction and one which will thoroughly amuse the most hardened murder fan.’ Whilst M. L. of the Saturday Review described it as a ‘Wodehousean extravaganza,’ though suggests that ‘Under the Influence may not be one of the weightier contributions to the literature of thought transference, but it is certainly one of the most hilarious.’ I think this is a good place to end my review on, as I think it is fair to say that if laughter and comedy is your priority in reading it, then you’ll be in for an entertaining time. It is a pity that the plot is a bit uneven, but I am still glad I read it.