The chilly winds of autumn have blown frostily into Brooklyn this week; it's sweater weather, even for a little stuffed bull. What better time to pull a Wodehouse book titled Frozen Assets (1964) off the bookshelf, especially when you can curl up to read it under a fuzzy afghan with a piping mug of cocoa with mini-marshmallows and some hot buttered toast at your side. Be careful you don't get butter on your book!
Frozen Assets (also known as Biffin's Millions in the USA) bears a handful of resemblances on the surface to his 1955 Something Fishy: not only is there a legacy will set to endow lay-about-town Edmund Biffin ("Call me 'Biff'") Christopher with millions, but there's a catch: he must avoid being arrested before his thirtieth birthday in order to collect, not an easy task for the cheerfully and outrageously inebriated partier Biff. There's a love story too for Biff as well as his sister and his friend Jerry Shoesmith, and most similar to Something Fishy, Wodehouse's recurring characters of publishing magnate Lord Tilbury and shady private investigator Percy Pilbeam also appear. (Hollywood motion picture studio magnate Ivor Llewellyn from Bachelors Anonymous and Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin also is integral to the plot but does not actually appear in the novel). So we're in familiar if not especially innovative territory here for Wodehouse, and Frozen Assets is a comfortable if not exceptional novel.
Which is not to say it isn't a delight to read in patches. I've said in the past that even lesser Wodehouse can be a lot of fun. The love story between Jerry Shoesmith and Biff's practical and pleasant sister Kay (who's already engaged to stuffy and stick-in-the-mud diplomat Henry Blake-Somerset) has some lovely moments, as here where Jerry enthusiastically gushes of romance to an amused but unaffected Kay:
'Be careful crossing the street.'(Incidentally: simoom: 'A strong, hot, sand-laden wind of the Sahara and Arabian deserts: "Stephen's heart had withered up like a flower of the desert that feels the simoom coming from afar." James Joyce. Also called samiel.' Who says you don't learn anything from Wodehouse?)
'Don't get talking to strange men or letting strange women give you candy.'
'Watch out for simooms, earthquakes, and other Acts of God, and hurry back as quick as you can, because every second you're not with me is like an hour. I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you,' said Jerry, putting it in a nutshell. 'Have you ever been struck by a thunderbolt?'
'Not that I remember. Have you?'
'Oddly enough, no. But every time you look at me with those eyes of yours, I feel as if I'd caught one squarely in the solar plexus. They're like twin stars.'
'Well, that's fine.'
'I like it," said Jerry.
In fact, almost everybody who's anybody (with the possible exception of private eye Percy Pilbeam) is in love in this book: even blustery Lord Tilbury is head-over-spats for his bubbly blonde secretary Gwendoline. Of all these love stories, however, Biff's seems curiously the weakest: he reconnects with Linda, Tilbury's niece and his ex-fiancé, and they're married swiftly and business-like in the last few chapters. Linda's probably one of the weaker-drawn characters in the book, and certainly pales before most other Wodehouse heroines, especially in the limelight of Kay. I've read (and re-read) enough Wodehouse by now to know that when he's hitting on all cylinders, every character gets a moment to shine, every one is vital and vividly drawn, and Linda doesn't "pop" the way her peers do. Pity poor Biff for marrying the dull one, then, especially when Gwendoline and he had been making eyes at each other earlier in the book. Ah well, we can't all wind up with the gorgeous blonde.
Still, there's some lovely little moments, plot twists, and touches. In an extended subplot about two-thirds of the way through the book, Jerry locks Biff in his house, minus his trousers, to keep him from getting out and getting sloshed, disturbing the peace, and getting arrested in the final few days before he inherits his millions. Over the next few chapters, a series of visitors to the house in turn lose their trousers to the man before him, allowing us the opportunity to see-well, at least picture-Biff, Lord Tilbury, Pilbeam and Henry Blake-Somerset pottering around nervously in their shorts, like the picture of Biff on the cover of my copy of Frozen Assets. It's a funny bit that escalates but doesn't go overboard; it never develops into farce or Benny Hill territory and each subsequent transfer of pants has just a slightly different twist than the previous one, including the arrival of Gwen's dog Towser, mistakenly fetched when Tilbury calls for trousers. There's also a good old-fashioned posing-as-the-butler subplot towards the end, always good for amusement.
I'm especially impressed, however, with the casual grace and lyric ease with which Wodehouse introduces his characters and their predicaments in the beginning of the novel. As someone who's been struggling to smoothly introduce a parcel of characters in my own story without resorting to too many flashbacks and plot-halting exposition, I'm in awe over the opening sequence of Frozen Assets, in which Wodehouse so casually yet skillfully brings us up to speed on Jerry Shoemaker and his life and predicaments by having him explain his situation to police officers in a Paris police station, punctuated with humorous observations by a sympathetic gendarme who nevertheless upholds the letter of the law to the last zed. It's fast, it's funny, and it's information blended with entertainment. No infodump for M. Wodehouse, non non. We finish out Chapter 1 intimately informed of Jerry Shoemaker: Who He Is and How He Came to Be (In a Paris Police Station). Were I wearing a hat, I'd doff it to your skill, Mister Wodehouse.
Wait a minute. I'll get a hat.
So. Frozen Assets. I'm sorry to say that there's no cheap or in-print edition of it in the USA, but here's a link to used British copies from Amazon.co.uk. Or, you may be able to find it or order it from your local library. It's not great, but it's good Wodehouse. Call it Godehouse.
A Wodehouse a Week Index.