Monday, May 28, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #5: Do Butlers Burgle Banks?

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'I'll have another go at that book you brought me from the library yesterday.'

'Is it any good? I picked it because I liked the title.'

'Depends on what you call good. It's about a young man named Torquill who's trying to make up his mind whether or not to be psychoanalysed. Sometimes he thinks he will, and then sometimes he thinks he won't.'

'Well, what more can you ask in the way of suspense?'

'I don't want suspense. I want a good honest love story with trembling lips and shining eyes and heaving bosoms, the lot. But the boys aren't writing that story, any more, curse them.'

—from Do Butlers Burgle Banks? by P. G. Wodehouse

I know the question you are all asking: Is that title accurate? Do butlers burgle banks? Short answer: yes. Long answer...

Meet Bond, Michael Bond. (No relation to this one, although the addition of a talking bear would have made this Wodehouse's weirdest one yet.) Mike has a problem. (cue tempoed snare drums.) He's been left custodianship of the prestigious country financial institution Bond's Bank. He's also been left in a bit of a pickle by his late Uncle Hugo, who gleefully embezzled from the bank before inconveniently passing away before our story open. Now the auditors are on their way, his girlfriend Jill is feeling withdrawn from him, and as perfect as the new butler Appleby is, there's something not quite right about him...

This is another late-era Wodehouse (published in 1968); it's not one of his series adventures and while it's plainly set in the same coincidence-laden, love-conquers-all universe world of his other books, there's no sign or hint of the Drone Club or a Mulliner—Do Butlers Burgle Banks? stands on its own. Aside from his usual plot standbys of butlers, country houses, misunderstandings in romance and how the love of a good woman can turn a criminal mind into an upright citizen, this is really more of a caper novel than many of Wodehouse's plots. Mike hits upon the perfect way to solve his problems: if he arranges the burglary of his own bank, then the missing money can be said to have been among the booty the black-hearted criminals decide got away with. Overhearing this plan, Mike's girlfriend Jill (along with Sally, the quintessential Wodehosue heroine name) and his secretary Ada decide to put it into play themselves, performing a heist the exact same night a criminal gang led by Mike's new butler decides to do the same. Nothing ever goes smoothly in the course of true love and capers, now, does it?

As I mentioned last week, Wodehouse books are never short of criminals, but they're almost always either relatively minor crooks who get foiled or swindle themselves in the end, or in the case of Do Butlers Burgle Banks?, criminals who eventually gain if not start out with a heart of gold and the best intentions. This book and its cast of shady underworld types is as close to Damon Runyon as most anything Wodehouse wrote, populated by crooks with names like Smithy, Ferdie the Fly, and Basher Evans, who is described thusly and brilliantly:
There is only one adjective to be applied to Llewellyn 'Basher' Evans, and it was one which would have sprung automatically to the lips of any resident of Hollywood—the adjective colossal. Though he was impressively tall, it was not his cubits that filled the beholder with awe as much as his physical development. Wherever a man could bulge with muscle, he bulged. He even bulged in places where one would not have expected him to bulge. The clothes he wore had presumably been constructed by a tailor, but it was hard to believe that he could have been adequately fitted out by anyone less spacious in his methods than Omar the Tent Maker.
(I've got to add an aside: Microsoft Word "strongly suggests" that the passive voice in that previous sentence should be changed to 'A tailor had presumably constructed the clothes he wore.' I scoff at this. For shame, talking paperclip. To suggest that a soulless widget knows more about the lyric flow of a perfectly-formed paragraph, not to mention the true dimensions of 'Basher' Evans, than Mister P. G. Wodehouse, is exactly what I might expect a creation of the soulless Bill Gates. Pfui on you, Talking Paperclip. Pfui on you, Bill Gates.)

Of course, the preceding para only sets you up for the full extent of Basher's later religious conversion, in which he sees the light and spends the rest of the novel trying to thwart the criminal plans of his former colleagues by following them around and removing temptation in their way, including shutting the bank vault door (with Ada Cootes on the inside).

Despite fully half the recurring characters in this novel being crooks of one sort or another, some repentant, some not, there's no real harm done and everything's forgivable in the end. One of Wodehouse's great strengths is showing us the joy and humor in everyone, from Basher's discovery of that old time religion to career crook Horace Appleby finding true love with Ada Cootes. Even late Uncle Hugo, embezzler who caused all Mike's current woes, has a lovely and typical Wodehousean reason to have pocketed a few hundred thousand pounds from his own bank: because he enjoyed donating it to build public libraries and hospitals and being a beloved figure of the community for doing so:
'He was loved by everybody and wanted to stay loved, and the way to retain that universal esteem was to go on being Wellingford's Lord Bountiful. I supposed he started in a perfectly straightforward way by using his own money, and when that ran out he had to stop being a guardian angel or use other people's. It's the sort of thing that happening all the time. At my prep school there was a boy who was a great favourite with one and all because of the lavish way he stood treats to everyone at the school shop. "What for you, Jones?" it used to be. "And you, Smith? How about another jam sandwich, Robinson?" He didn't seem to care how much he spent. It was only later that it was discovered that for some weeks he had been helping himself right and left to the contents of his schoolmate's pockets. He, too, had probably begun by using his own money, and after it had gone he couldn't face the thought of having to stop being the popular hero.'

'Little beast!'

'Not at all, Gussie. He was quite a good sort. He all liked him, even after the facts were disclosed. He's a member of parliament now.'

'He would be.'
There's something about the bank theft plot, even seen through the cheerful mirror of the Wodehouse world, that lends itself to a movie comedy: this would be a perfect caper picture...Wodehouse's Eleven, maybe? I can see, f'r instance, Hugh Grant and Rowan Atkinson in something like this...toss in, say, Robbie Coltrane or Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis and you've got a film I wouldn't mind seeing. Of course, that sort of picture never seems to take off well in the States, but they do pretty nicely in the UK, don't they? In fact, you could build a pretty good theatre or film script straight from the pages of the book, Wodehouse's dialogue is so fast and dry:
'Shall I smooth your pillow?'


'Mix you a cooling drink?'


'Or take the dog for a run?'

'He can't run, he's much too fat. He's just had half my breakfast.'

'Got to keep his strength up.'

'I sometimes think he's a tapeworm cunningly disguised as a dachshund.'
See? That's practically Tom Stoppard minus the social commentary. Incidentally, did you notice the complete absence of "he said" and "she said" from that sequence? It's something that Wodehouse does a lot in his extended fast-reply retorts, and I hadn't really noticed it fully until reading Do Butlers Burgle Banks?. Part of it contributes to the script-like appeal of the book, but at the same time you can see, if you know Wodehouse's writing methods, it's all absolutely intentional. Wodehouse's final unfinished book Sunset at Blandings (which I'll probably review in my very last week of this project, ah, way about April 2009) shows several drafts of his writing at work, and how utterly careful and precise he was at editing and revising to get just the right rhythm of words down. If there's no "he said," there's absolutely none needed: not only is his dialogue so careful and clear that you don't get confused about who's saying what, but it figuratively dances off the page with more energy that way, unbound by the restrictions of editorializing. Which is not to say that Wodehouse writes sparely or tightly, oh no. He can ramble with the best of them, but unlike the most of them, you always wind up enjoying the ride. Here's fully half a printed page of dialogue that does really nothing to advance the plot but which is both a lovely portrayal of the two characters as well as a typical Wodehousean free-thought in an elegant waltz:
'You know, a thing I've never understood,' said the General, 'is how fellows could drink champagne out of women's shoes.'

'Did they?'

'In the old days frequently.'

'Yes, now to think of it, I've heard that.'

'Can't have been pleasant.'


'Still, there you are.'

'No accounting for tastes.'

'You're right.'

'Takes all sorts to make a word.'

'Exactly. Very well put.'

It is possible, thought not probable, that the conversation might have plumbed even deeper depths, but at this moment Horace appeared again.
Now that's how you do naturalistic decompressed dialogue. Take that, Brian Michael Bendis!

Do Butlers Burgle Banks? is good fun, and the caper plot is different enough to make it distinct from many of his other young-lovers-overcome-adversity plots, It's quite serviceable Wodehouse, although he's not quite the top of his craft in here. There's at least one character (Mike's Aunt Isabel) who, while delightful, doesn't virtually nothing to move the plot forward, and more of a crime for a Wodehouse book, you could excise with without doing a speck of harm to the plot—unthinkable in the best of Wodehouse novels where every single character and the estate pig is absolutely essential to the plot and removing one thread makes the others fall apart without it. Wodehouse also misses a chance to tidy a dangling plot line: early in the book Horace Appleby, the criminal butler, thwarts a pickpocket. As there is a veritable rogues' gallery of crooks working for and against Appleby in the story and the town, it would have been a neat and usual Wodehouse coincidence to set this character to return later and be connected to others—but we never see him again. So, this isn't one I recommend as your first Wodehouse, but it's certainly a lovely and quirky alternative to cleanse the palate between Mulliners or Jeeveses or Blandingseses. And there's plenty of gold in here. How can you dislike a novel that features Mike and Jill cheerfully discussing their almost-certain impending arrest:
'If the slightest thing slips up, I shall do my stretch behind bars.'

'So shall I. But I shan't mind if we're together.'

'I'm afraid we won't be together. Prison's aren't co-ed.'

'Well, we'll have a wonderful time when we both get out.'

I read Do Butlers Burgle Banks? in a Penguin paperback edition with another wonderful Ionicus cover (see above). This is a mid-eighties printing and Penguin has slightly revised the typography on the jacket to reflect a more modern sensibility than the admittedly dated-looking seventies typography on their earlier printings (see, f'r instance, the seventies edition of The Inimitable Jeeves. I also have the book in the Everyman Wodehouse hardcover edition—a copy I bought, my extensive Wodehouse collection notebook tells me, on the table of Blackwell's Books in the Charing Cross Road on my most recent Christmas holiday to London. Ah, wonderful memories, and a great fun souvenir. You can pick up that same hardcover edition by clicking on the box to the right, or hunt and peck around on Amazon for 'other editions' and you'll find several paperbacks available at discount prices from Amazon Marketplace third party booksellers, including the Ionicus Penguin edition. Take it from's worth embezzling a few pounds to do so.


Matthew E said...

Haven't read this one. I think. Certainly I don't own it yet.

A while ago, Amazon sent me a notification about a Wodehouse book I had never heard of before: Very Easy Crazy Patchwork, cowritten with Betty Barnden.

My reaction was, "What?!"

I cannot but believe that Amazon messed up. Wodehouse, coauthoring a book on handicrafts? Wind from a monkey's backside. Ever hear of this?

Anonymous said...

Weren't Mike and Jill characters in one of the PSmith books as well? Or was it another Mike and Jill? (Probably; it's been a while between Wodehouses for me.) So the book might be connected to other series...

SallyP said...

Hmmmm...I suppose that I must go out and find this. Usually I keep to Bertie or Blandings, but Wodehouse is one of those authors who just keep me in a state of giggles throughout the book.

I now have the sudden urge to go out and play croquet.

Bully said...

Weren't Mike and Jill characters in one of the Psmith books as well?

I had to pull my Mike books off the shelf to double-check this one. Mike Jackson (not Bond) went to Wrykyn (in, natch, Mike at Wrykyn) and met Psmith in Mike and Psmith. Mike and Psmith reappear in Psmith in the City. I don't immediately find a Jill in connection with that Mike (although I'm just re-flipping through the Mike books), and Mike later marries Phyllis in Leave it to Psmith. Wodehouse used Jill (and Sally) many times as names for his heroines, though. There's Jill in Jill the Reckless, but she marries Wally. (Daniel Garrison's Who's Who in Wodehouse would be of some help here if I bothered to look up the last names of the characters!)

And Matthew, Amazon very definitely messed up. They don't list Wodehouse as an author, but they do have Wodehouse's The Coming of Bill listed as an "if you like this, you'll like this" book. Huh.

Matthew E said...

Yeah, I saw that. It's actually kind of a slam at Crazy Patchwork Made Easy, because I can't imagine anyone liking The Coming of Bill if they liked anything else.

Anonymous said...

Ah, faulty memory. I blame lack of sleep. And not having read the PSmith book in question in a very long time! :-) Thanks, Bully.