'If you want to know what's the matter with you, my girl, you read too many of these trashy detective stories.'
'Better than reading silly novelettes.'
'May I ask why you call novelettes silly?'
'Because they are.'
'Mere abuse is no criticism.'
'Well, they're full of things happening that don't happen.'
'Well, what were we talking about the other day. Whoever heard of a young fellow being buzzed out of his home because his father wanted him to marry somebody and he wouldn't?'
from Quick Service by P. G. Wodehouse
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a good ham.or
It was the best of times; it was the worst of hams.or
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded ham that has gone off.I could go on all day like this, but let's talk about Quick Service.
And let's be fair to the ham in question: it's not actually gone off; it's merely fatty and cut wrong. That's enough, however, to spur Mrs. Beatrice Chavender to head for London and lodge a complaint with ham merchant James Duff of the Duff and Trotter Paramount Ham Company. And that, as they say, is where the fun begins! Mrs. Chavender was once engaged to Duff, who ducks her visit, leaving her to deal with Duff and Trotter artist Joss Weatherby, who once painted a portrait of Mrs. Chavender that hangs in Claines Hall, the Sussex estate home of her sister-in-law, Mabel Steptoe; but instead Joss meets up with Sally Fairmile (Sally! One of Wodehouse's favorite names for a heroine), Mrs. Steptoe's young niece. Sally's been sent by her fiancé George, Lord Holbeton, to secure the release of George's inheritance, which has been placed in the trust of James Duff. Whew! That's only the first few pages, and already Wodehouse has knitted a tight and elegant scarf out of a tangle of characters most authors would still be shuffling into place several chapters down the line.
By page 40 the plot is roaring ahead at full speed: Duff has fired Joss, Joss has fallen in love (natch!) with Sally, and Mabel Steptoe's husband Howard (ex-boxer and Hollywood star wannabe) has unwittingly hired Joss as his new valet after each of the previous gentlemen's gentlemen has quit in a huff over their difficult-to-manage master. Did I mention that Duff wants to steal that portrait of Mrs. Chavender from the hall in order to use the image in a advertising campaign for ham? How about Chibnall the no-nonsense, bare-fist boxing butler, engaged to pub maid Vera Pym, who's perhaps a little too obsessed with detective thrillers? Well, there you go. Throw in a false mustache and you've got a Wodehouse country house adventure that's much in the spirit of every one of his other country house adventures with mistaken and duplicitous identities and multiple attempts to steal an itembut it's done with his usual charm and panache that all is forgiven.
I've said before that it's possible to argue Wodehouse pretty much wrote the same book again and again over his 93 years. Certainly Quick Service has many of the same elements as the Blandings books and many of his Jeeves books when Bertie heads off to a country estate. I believe I'm going to find this aspect more and more obvious reading the books the way I am: one a week for two years will bring the similarities very much to the forefront in ways his original audience, reading 'em one a year, probably didn't find as obvious. I'm not blaming or pointing my hoof at Wodehouse: heck, I'm delighted at how so many of his books are similar and yet uniquely entertaining. Even when you spot a joke he used beforeand will use again, several timeshe tends to phrase it quite differently each time, so it almost becomes a little treasure for you to spot, as in this exchange about the uneatable ham:
'You bought it, Sally," said Mrs Steptoe accusingly.Wodehouse fans or careful readers of this blog will have immediately spotted that as another version of the 'I've nothing against his morals, but he can't do hair' line in Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin, and Wodehouse will return to the same joke again and again. And it still tickles me pink every time. In fact, since I've spotted the second occurrence of this joke in my Wodehouse a Week project, let's start tallying it through use of the handy 'I've nothing against his morals' counter I'll place in these reviews every time I spot it. Current number: 2. It'll go up in the coming weeks, trust me.
Sally was unable to deny the charge.
'I thought it was bound to be all right," she pleaded in defence. 'It came from the best people in London.'
'The question of their morals,' said Mrs Chavender, 'does not arise. They may, as you say, be the best people in London, though that isn't saying much. My point is that they sell inferior ham.'
Another frequent plot device in the Wodehouse books is the object-that-must-be-stolen, around which much of the action revolves. In Quick Service it's Joss's portrait of Mrs. Chavender: once word gets out that Jimmy Duff is willing to pay through his false-mustache to obtain it, virtually everybody in Claines Hall (except Mrs. Steptoe and Chibnall the butler) are trying to steal it...nobody really wants the thing around except as ready cash to pay off gambling debts (Mr. Steptoe) or ensure that George's legacy will be released (Sally) or to get back his job at Duff and Trotter (Joss) or to make enough money to make good on an ill-timed philanthropic promise (Mrs. Chavender). This of course leads to a series of midnight rambles around the country house where competing thieves, all guests of the house, try to lay their hands on the portrait first, yet in the end, like the ham, it's not a vital element: it's only important to the story as an impetus to put the players in certain positions performing certain shady deeds. Alfred Hitchcock had a name for a prop like this: MacGuffin. But since I'm immersing myself in Wodehouse for a bountiful biennial, I'm going to give it my own name when I refer to it now and in the future, named after one of the greatest and most infamous objects of theft in the Wodehousean world: Sir Watkyn Bassett's famous Silver Cow Creamer from The Code of the Woosters. Therefore, we might say that Quick Service's Silver Cow Creamer is the portrait of Mrs. Chavender...oh, to keep it simple, let's call it the S.C.C., as Bertie Wooster might be wont to abbreviate.
Despite similarities of plot, characters, jokes, and thefts of S.C.C.s,, Quick Service has a remarkable distinctiveness to it primarily through one of Wodehouse's most appealing of his appealing young male heroes: Joss Weatherby. To the best of my knowledge he only appears in this one book, but he's become one of my favorite Wodehouse non-series heroes to date in the baker's half-dozen books I've just re-read. He's bright, cheerful, romantic, and always, always ready with a quick quip. He's sort of the Spider-Man of the Wodehouse world. He addresses the problem of being a valet to the fussy and moody Mr. Steptoe by taking utter command of the situation: through a firm word and a bribe of ten pounds to wear the starched shirt Steptoe wants to avoid. Our boy Joss is a problem-solver, not a moper, and it's men of action who are the best and most likeable Wodehouse heroes. He easily outshines Sally's fiancé George (who is dull, unfocused, and a bit of a cross between Lord Emsworth and Bertie Wooster with little of their natural charm), so it's no surprise when Joss of course wins the heart of fair Sally. And oh my, can the man pitch woo:
A cheery 'Hoy!' broke the stillness, and she turned to see the very person she had been thinking about. Valets did not as a rule saunter about the gardens of Claines Hall in the quiet evenfall, but nobody had told Joss Weatherby that.Of course, Joss isn't immediately knowledgeable of the fact that Sally's engaged, which is likely to throw a spanner in his comparing her to a summer's day. There's a lovely device Wodehouse uses usually at least once a book: he ends a chapter on an absolute cliffhanger of a startling revelation through dialogue, followed by complete small talk, with no immediate depiction of how devastating or surprising this revelation must be to the party of the second part. It's a wonderful Wodehouse quirky touch, and he puts it to great use at the very end of Chapter 12 where dog-walking Mrs. Chavender unwillingly lets loose the truth and then digresses while we're left to imagine Joss's jaw hanging to his shoes:
'So there you are!' he said. 'Do you know, in this uncertain light I mistook you for a wood nymph.'
'Do you always shout "Hoy!" at wood nymphs?'
'I suppose you know that valets aren't supposed to shout "Hoy!" at people?'
'You must open a conversation somehow.'
'Well, if you want to attract, for instance, Mrs Steptoe's attention, it would be more suitable to say "Hoy, madam."'
'Or "Hoy, dear lady!'"
'Yes, that would be friendlier.'
'Thanks. I'll remember it.' He joined her at the wall, and stood scrutinizing the fish for a moment in silence. The evening was very still. Somewhere in the distance, sheep bells were tingling, and from one of the windows of the house there came the sound of a raucous voice rendering the Lambeth Walk. Despite the shirt, Joss had left Mr Steptoe happy, even gay. 'This is a lovely place,' he said.
'I'm glad you like it.'
'An earthly Paradise, absolutely. Though mark you,' said Joss, who believed in coming to the point, 'a gas works in jersey City would be all right with me, so long as you were there. A book of verses underneath the bough'
The quotation was familiar to Sally, and she felt it might be better to change the subject.
'By the way,' said Mrs Chavender, pausing at the door, 'did I understand you to say you loved Sally?'And...end of chapter. How can you not flip the page quick as a flash after a cliffhanger like that?
'Well, I don't know if it's going to affect your plans, but she told me this morning, when we were driving to Lewes, that she was engaged to this Lord Holbeton you may have seen pottering around the place. All right, all right ,all right,' said Mrs Chavender, as the imperious summons sounded once more from above, 'I'm coming, I tell you. The way these darned Pekes keep you on the jump, you'd think they thought you went around in spiked shoes and running shorts.'
Of course, is it any surprise that there's happy endings all 'round for absolutely everyone from Lord to butler, but not before Wodehouse spins the wheel a few more times: the novel seems to be dancing to a lovely end towards the bottom of Chapter 16Joss has the portrait in hand, Sally's broken her engagement to George, all is well in Sussex. Surely this must be the happy ending, and the fact that there's still fifty or so pages left in my right hoof only suggests maybe the entire tail end of the book will be hints on how to keep your ham in fine mettle. Oh no, no, nosuddenly at the end of Chapter 16 James Duff doesn't want the portrait anymore and won't pay one thin pound for it, and the couples are penniless and...oh, it's too sad for words, but there's fifty more pages to turn everything around again and tie it up in lovely neat rewarding packages. I usually dislike movies or novels that seem to have false endings and milk another subplot out of the story (I'm lookin' at you, Pirates of the Caribbean), but for Wodehouse it's just one last dip in the roller coaster before he sends our hero and heroine off into the Sussex sunset with a laugh in their hearts and a kiss on their lips. Quick service, indeed. And there is, of course, a fine moral to be learned:
'My God!' said Joss, struck by an unnerving thought. 'Do you realize that if I hadn't overslept that morning, we should never have met?'Need another lesson? Why, of course. Apply yourself, dear friends, to the lesson of Howard Steptoe, former boxer:
'No. I was supposed to be at the office at ten. If I had got there on time, I should have been gone long before you arrived. But owing to having stayed up late, shooting craps, I didn't clock in until eleven. What a lesson this should teach to all of us.'
'To shoot craps?'
'That, of course. But what u was really thinking of was how one ought never to be punctual. From now on, I shall make a point of always being at least an hour late for everything.'
'Including the wedding?'
'Mr Steptoe was a boxer?'The lesson? It's simple, of course, and Dorian will back me up on this: when you're facing off against a boxer named Wildcat, you will get the tar whaled out of you.
'Preliminary bouts on the Pacific coast. The first time I ever saw him was at the American Legion stadium in Hollywood. He was getting the tar whaled out of him by a fellow called Wildcat Wix.'
Quick Service was published in 1940. While not the final pre-WWII book he wrote, Wodehouse would not publish another book in the UK until 1946, following his incarceration and release from a German prison camp...and his jocular, extremely controversial radio broadcasts for the Germans, which turned many of the British people against him. I'll read and discuss his German talks later in "A Wodehouse a Week," but for the moment this is in many ways Wodehouse's last novel of his innocent British life. The criticism from the British press and many of his peers (including venomous attacks by A. A. Milne) led Wodehouse to move to Long Island after his release and the end of the war. The very epitome of British cheer, Wodehouse would never again set foot on British soil. His final book written in England (Money in the Bank) was eventually published in the UK in 1946 (four years after it had been released in the USso strong had the anti-Wodehouse national sentiment been). The next book he would write originated from his New York home, and is one of his finest: the Jeeves and Bertie novel Joy in the Morning. Long Island clearly agreed with Wodehouse, but in retrospect, it's difficult today to read Quick Service and Money in the Bank without realizing they Wodehouse's British swan songs.
Pocket-sized paperbacks are easy to carry around over the past seven days while I read it and prepare for "A Wodehouse a Week," so I've been reading Quick Service in the Penguin paperback edition, featuring another one of those lovely Ionicus illustrations, this one of Joss strong-arming James Duff in his office while surprised Sally looks on. The cover of this paperback is so sun-faded the browns and oranges have turned yellow, but Sally's hat, purse, and shoes are still a wonderful shade of blueexactly as I pictured them. I've actually got several editions of Quick Service on the big Wodehouse bookshelf here in Brooklyn, gathered from several corners of the globe: a bright orange Collier US hardcover reprint I picked up ten years ago this summer at "New York is Book Country," a slightly worn but still lovely British edition from Herbert Jenkins (missing dust jacket but still much beloved), a 2004 Everyman Library edition...the book is even contained in full in The Most of P. G. Wodehouse a wonderful paperback omnibus that is sort of a buffet of stories about the Drones Club, Mr. Mulliner, Ukridge, Blandings, Jeeves, and various golf stories plus this full novel. If you've never read Wodehouse a collection like this is a fantastic way to dip into his work and sample something from column A, something from column B, and an egg roll of Lord Emsworth and the Empress of Blandings. Of course, Quick Service is available in the US in the Overlook Press uniform hardcover edition: click on the Amazon link to the right to purchase it, or scout about Amazon to find a number of used paperback editions of the novel that starts with ham and ends with a kiss. All the things I like best between two covers.