Two Criminous Tales from P. G. Wodehouse

In contrast to my beast of a review yesterday, I am hoping that today’s might be a little shorter. The fact it is focused on just two short stories probably means I stand half a chance.

‘Death at the Excelsior’ (1914)

Like many a short story this tale has been published under more than one title. Its’ original name was ‘The Education of Detective Oakes’ and it was printed in Pearson’s, but it was then also published under the title you see above in Plum Stones and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1978. This latter publication contains an abridged version. However, the longest version can be found in All-Story Cavalier Weekly, which printed this story in 1915 under the name of ‘The Harmonica Mystery.’ The variation in titles is interesting as each one picks up on a different aspect of the story. The original one though, in some ways, reflects the narrative’s dominant focus – that of upending the overconfident young private detective.

A boarding house locked room murder with the baffling complexity of how the victim was bitten by a snake, is the focus of this mystery. I enjoyed the lead up to the body in the opening paragraph:

‘The room was the typical bedroom of the typical boarding house, furnished, insofar as it could be said to be furnished at all, with a severe simplicity. It contained two beds, a pine chest of drawers, a strip of faded carpet, and a washbasin. But there was that on the floor which set this room apart from a thousand rooms of the same kind. Flat on his back, with his hands tightly clenched and one leg twisted oddly under him and with his teeth gleaming through his grey beard in a horrible grin, Captain John Gunner stared up at the ceiling with eyes that saw nothing.’

It feels very typical of Wodehouse’s style. After all, whenever Bertie Wooster has any difficult news to tell he does not take the direct approach. (Not that this is Jeeves and Wooster story, I should point out.)

As I mentioned above the main emphasis in the story is the defeat of Elliot Oakes. He works for the Paul Snyder Detective Agency and his boss is keen to cut him down to size, due to his cocky manner and his criticisms of the agency’s methods. Oakes prefers dazzling flashes of inductive reasoning, rather than careful methodical routine work. Furthermore, ‘it had come to his ears that Oakes had been heard to complain of the infantile nature and unworthiness of the last two cases to which he had been assigned. He had even said that he hoped some day to be problem that should be beyond the reasoning powers of a child of six.’

So Paul decides to give him this tricky case to teach him a lesson and naturally humour follows when Oakes gets more than he bargained for. Paul, like the reader, takes much pleasure out of seeing his employee stuck: ‘Mr Synder derived the utmost enjoyment from the report. He liked the substance of it, and above all, he was tickled by the bitter tone of frustration that characterised it. Oakes was baffled, and his knowledge of Oakes told him that the sensation of being baffled was gall and wormwood to that high-spirited young man.’

We know that Oakes is heading for an embarrassing failure when he dismisses the help of the boarding house owner, and returns to his employer early on, convinced he has solved the case.

At the mention of snakes, readers may be wondering whether this tale makes a nod to Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ (1892). However, having now read the piece I don’t think it really does. The final solution is a clever one, yet unfortunately it rather comes out of nowhere, as a crucial fact is not known to the reader. This is more of a story about showing up an egotistical young man rather than one which is focused on presenting a well clued mystery.

‘Misunderstood’ (1910)

This story was published in Nash’s in the UK in 1910, and in Burr McIntosh Monthly in the USA. This second version again was longer and it also had its setting changed to an American one. The tale revolves around James Buffin who is sent to prison after a policeman catches him sandbagging an individual who had crossed him. Buffin vows to has his revenge on the policeman who arrested him. However, this plan goes badly awry. I think Wodehouse was more comfortable at writing this type of crime story and as such the plot twists work better. I feel this narrative is a pre-cursor to the irony laden mystery fiction of Francis Iles and Richard Hull and is a good reminder of how influential Wodehouse was on other authors at that time – a topic I explored more fully in my 5th anniversary blog post.

I have one more blog post to catch up on writing, so I best get typing. But for those who like a puzzle and are wondering which review I am going to write next, here is an anagram of the title: HE TAPE LAP


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