Monday, August 27, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #18: Something Fishy

I was beginning to wonder how long it would take me into "A Wodehouse a Week" before I began experiencing that remarkable sensation of dèjà vu, that almost indescribable feeling that...wait, have I done this before? Hmmm. Well, anyway, here I am, eighteen weeks in, and this week I peeled open the cover of Something Fishy (1957), published in the US under the title The Butler Did It (which actually ain't a bad alternate title, unlike some of the other re-titlings of Wodehouse's work in the USA. It starts off in the boom days of September 1929, with Mortimer Bayliss declaring 'There's a crash coming, my hearties, a crash that'll shake the fillings out of your back teeth and dislocate your spinal cords.' Hmmm, thinks I. Wasn't there another Wodehouse book I read recently that took place around the Great Crash of '29 and was concerned with money? Ah well, read on. Bayliss's multimillionaire dinner companions form a tontine, pooling fifty thousand dollars each to go to the last of their heirs to marry. I love books about tontines, especially sprawling generational sagas, and since I knew I hadn't re-read a Wodehouse book recently that featured a tontine, I figgered I was on safe ground—no dèjà vu, thank you, just a lovely cup of hot cocoa will suit me a treat!

Turn the page and flash-forward to the year 1955. The first paragraph of chapter two begins:
The sunshine of a fine summer morning was doing its best for the London suburb of Valley Fields, beaming benevolently on its tree-lined roads, its neat little gardens, its rustic front gates and its soaring television antennae.
Of course! Valley Fields! 'Tis the same London suburb Wodehouse set his 1931 novel Big Money, which I read in Week Eight, and discussed the importance of the immediately-post-Wall Street crash era and the suburban London setting. It's one of the wonderful aspects of Wodehouse's cohesive universe that the same setting populated by Berry and Ann in '31 becomes the tableau for a new love story in this stage of 1955. There's no sign of an older Berry and Ann in this novel, so it's not a direct sequel, but the loving descriptions of Valley Field certainly make it part of the same Wodehouse universe, and when later Percy Pilbeam, a shady private detective, shows up, he's a character who appears in several other Wodehouse titles, including Blandings novel Heavy Weather (1933), which I discussed back in Week 6. You think keeping track of Earth-2 history is complicated? Try tracking all the connections and nexuses of Wodehouse's canon—now that's gonna be a big complicated Venn diagram, I'll tell you that.

The feeling of dèjà vu is heightened even one more step with Something Fishy's hero, Bill Hollister, a carefree, chipper, casual young artist who's ever-quick with the quips and offhand humorous observations: he reminded me very much of one of my favorite Wodehouse heroes so far, artist Joss Weatherby from Quick Service, review back in Week Seven. Is it any wonder I glanced back at the title page more than once to see if maybe I have re-read Something Fishy more recently than I expected?

But the plot is new and original (in as much as any Wodehouse plot is), and includes a number of elements not present in the books it reminds me of: the tontine, of course (which is down to its last two, unknowing participants), Keggs the clever and resourceful butler (reminiscent of Jeeves, if Jeeves had a streak of blackmail and a somewhat avaricious nature), and a oversized hideous monstrosity of a statue which looks like it will become this books "Silver Cow Creamer" MacGuffin but instead serves as a light digressive subplot for the uncle of the heroine to paint the offending statuary with a black goatee. Now that I haven't read in any other Wodehouse books! (Yet!)

Once you untangle the tontine business, the story's relatively simple: penniless artist Bill Hollister falls in love with Jane Benedick—not at first sight, but at first hearing in a phone conversation. He later zeroes in on her voice at Barribault's Restaurant in London without even having seen her before:
Jane was puzzled.

'But how,' she asked, 'did you know who I was?'

'I recognized your voice.'

'Recognized my voice?' Jane stared. 'After half a dozen words on the telephone?'

'One would have been ample,' said Bill. He had now gotten over his initial nervousness and was feeling his affable self once more. 'It is a lovely, unique voice, in a class of its own and once heard never forgotten, limpid as a woodland brook and vibrant with all the music of the spheres. When you asked that child in the apron with the gravy spots on it to send the head-waiter along, one could fancy one was listening to silver bells tinkling across the foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.'

'Seas where?'

'In faery lands forlorn. Not my own. Keats.'

'Oh. Well, that's good, isn't it?'

'Couldn't be better,' agreed Bill cordially.
Too bad Jane's engaged to priggish sop Stanhope Twine (a bit of a weed and the sculptor of that ivory eyesore that gets rightfully vandalized). At the periphery circles fatcat bachelor Roscoe Bunyan, the only other surviving heir to the tontine fortune. Informed by retired family butler Keggs of the tontine's existence, Bunyan plots to bribe his sole competitor for the fortune into getting married before he does. But Keggs has his own agenda: fattening his own wallet.

It's a very light and whimsical romance, and even if you push the tontine business to the back of your mind as a complicated distraction, the dialogue is sparkling and witty and the protagonists utterly loveable, especially Jane's absent-minded but fiercely supportive uncle Lord Uffenham. Houses are burgled, butlers are knocked out, letters of intent are stolen, engagements are broken, and everyone, even the baddies, are happy in the end. There are a pair of references to World War II that surprised me; Wodehouse usually doesn't let the dark history of the real world intrude on his fictional Albion. The first is brief but especially grim: a character mentions casually that several of the sons who were eligible for the tontine died in the war. Bill briefly mentions he was in the military ('When you were fourteen, I must have been slogging through Normandy on my way to Paris with the army of liberation.'), and together they're a curious but distinctive pair of references that, unlike many of Wodehouse's topical references, date the action squarely in the post-war world. But the shadow of the war is never allowed to intrude too heavily on the fun and the frolics of this novel.

I was especially delighted by the finish of this book: it appears to wrap up in Chapter 18 with the engagement of Bill and Jane and the arrival of a steaming hot cheese omelette, but turn the leaf and discover there's fifty more pages left to come. I haven't yet discovered many instance in which Wodehouse uses such a "false ending," but this one's very likely to go down as one of my favorites, because he pulls the same trick twice: all appears well at the end of Chapter 22 with Bill and Jane happy to get married despite losing the tontine money, and a lesser author would have typed "THE END" and pushed back in his chair, calling it a day and heading off for a brisk whisky and soda. But Wodehouse continues on for another couple dozen pages and trumps his first two endings with a final twist worthy of O. Henry. I shan't ruin it for you here if you want to read the book yourself, but it's a delightful turn of events in which everyone thinks he's gotten the better of everyone else but only Keggs and Mortimer Bayliss know the whole story. What's more, Wodehouse plays absolutely "fair" with this twist ending: once you read it, you nod in amazed and impressed agreement that you had all the clues before you but you didn't put it together. Like a good mystery, truly the butler did it.

On one of my grand trips to London I picked up the Vintage UK paperback edition of Something Fishy (with a vibrant and warm color illustration of Lord Uffenham painting that black beard on the statue). As you are no doubt fired up by my review and recommendation, here's where I usually show you where to pick up a copy of the book yourself. But alas! Can't quite do that this week: Something Fishy/The Butler Did It is out of print in the US, and though there are older editions listed on Amazon, you'd need to win a tontine to afford 'em. But I have well learned from the example of resourceful and tricky Keggs the butler to make a sneaky suggestion: pick up a copy of P. G. Wodehouse: Five Complete Novels, a remainder house repackaging of a quintet of his classics. I've got an old copy of this omnibus sitting on the Wodehouse Collection shelf and I pulled it down to peek at it to see, yes indeed, it contains The Butler Did It....and there's plenty of relatively inexpensive used copies available on Amazon. That's five books for the price of one, and believe me, it's a bargain a little stuffed bull would be proud to make. That big omnibus will serve you well if you're stuck on a desert island too, and I'll be returning to it in future weeks when I tackle the other four books contained within, including 1951's The Old Reliable, which I don't own in any other edition. See? Pick it up now, start reading, and you'll be way ahead of me! And you can't say that about any other little stuffed animal on line, I bet.


SallyP said...

Wit, whimsy, and a twist at the end? I MUST find this.

Anonymous said...

Try tracking all the connections and nexuses of Wodehouse's canon—now that's gonna be a big complicated Venn diagram, I'll tell you that.

I actually saw an attempt at this diagram once, in a book of Wodehouse criticism I stumbled 'pon once in the library. Needless to say, it was a multi-page fold-out of truly awe-inspiring graphical complexity.

Keggs himself is an excellent example of Earth W's interconnectedness. He was actually Wodehouse's first ultra-competent butler character, appearing in an early short story (in The Uncollected Wodehouse), and he popped up in novels at least once a decade after that. And in one of the Uffenham books (it might be Something Fishy, or maybe Money in the Bank, I can't recall), it's revealed that his sister is Battling Billson's girl Flossie from the Ukridge stories. Which, I think, is the only connection between the Ukridge stories and the rest of Wodehouse's world. I suspect Keggs is like Earth W's Anti-Monitor or something.

(Sorry for rambling, Bully, but this stuff fascinates me.)

Bully said...

That's not rambling, that amazing! I haven't hit Keggs yet in any other books but now I'm eager to do so. And yes, the Battling Billson family connection you mention is a plot point in Something Fishy, although I didn't discuss it above!