Friday, 20 February 2015

Death at the Excelsior and Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse

My good friend Sergio is doing the FFB honours today, instead of Patti Abbot, over at his excellent blog Tipping My Fedora.

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.

© www.barnesandnoble.com
Did you know that P.G. Wodehouse had written a locked room murder mystery? I, for one, did not.

There is plenty of adventure, spirit of enterprise, and even an element of mystery in his novels but I don’t remember ever reading about murder in his delightful stories. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a dead body in Death at the Excelsior (1914), the first in the namesake collection of seven stories that includes a couple of Jeeves yarns.

Mrs. Pickett, the matronly owner of the respectable Excelsior Boarding-House, finds Captain John Gunner dead in his room, in the manner described above. She summons Constable Grogan who is, we are told, “a genial giant, a terror to the riotous element of the waterfront, but obviously ill at ease in the presence of death.” I liked that description.

Grogan and the sailors on the waterfront are wary of the formidable Mrs. Pickett who is tormented by the incident, the first such calamity to strike her boarding house. She is not worried about the loss of money as much as the loss of reputation of the Excelsior. She hires Paul Snyder who runs a detective agency in New Oxford Street to investigate the murder. The private eye, in turn, deliberately hands over the case to Elliot Oakes, a newbie on his team looking to challenge his boss and revolutionise the agency’s methods.
 

© www.tower.com
Oakes solves the case in no time and announces that Captain Gunner was killed from the bite of a poisonous snake imported from India. His boss, Snyder, who set out to teach the upstart a lesson, doubts his theory but is impressed.

Has the pompous Oakes actually cracked the murder case? Not really. Reenter Mother Pickett, who teaches both of them a thing or two about sleuthing.

In Death at the Excelsior, Wodehouse has shown us that he could write in other genres too, like detective fiction, and he does so without giving us an investigation and only a locked room and the power of logical thinking to crack open the case. There is humour in the story but not the wit and hilarity that you'd find in, say, a Blandings or a Jeeves story. Even the writing, while clear and unique, is different from the Wodehousian style you might be used to.


Had the story come to me without the name of the author, I’d have never guessed P.G. Wodehouse had written it. Nonetheless, fans of the English humourist will love the story. You can read it at Gutenberg.

23 comments:

  1. great review Prashant - now I really want to read this. Apparently, when John Dickson Carr started publishing more humorous mysteries as 'Carter Dickson', some thought it might have been a Wodehouse pseudonym in fact ...

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    1. Sergio, thank you. I didn't know that little detail about John Dickson Carr but then, sadly, I haven't read the author yet. Hopefully, this year.

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  2. hum, did not know of this one. I remember reading a whole collection of locked room short stories once upon a time. Cannot remember the title now but I enjoyed them.

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    1. Charles, I have read very few locked room mysteries and this one was a rather unusual story.

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  3. Any story by Wodehouse is worth reading. I'll check this one out.

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    1. Bill, I couldn't agree more. I don't see why I don't read Wodehouse more often.

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  4. This sounds like fun! I'm a big Wodehouse fan!

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    1. George, it's a good story. Both my wife and me are Wodehouse fans too. In fact, she introduced me to his books.

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  5. Glad you enjoyed it, but I can't say I'm tempted.

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    1. Col, fair enough. This one's very tame compared to the stuff you read.

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  6. I wonder if the Wodehouse name on this put you off. As you say, if you thought it was by James Briar you'd not have guessed. But would you have liked it better? Sometimes, expectations can be killers for we readers.

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    1. Richard, I don't know about that. I think I'd have read it one way or the other except I didn't know Wodehouse had written anything like this.

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  7. Hadn't heard about this one by Wodehouse, and don't remember reading it in story collections. Thanks for the review, Prashant.

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    1. Oscar, you're welcome. The collection is available online for which I have provided the link.

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  8. Never knew this, Prashant - that Wodehouse had written a mystery, I mean. I'll look for it on Project Guttenberg. I love that certain vintage authors and their work is available for free. I know I'm soon going to have hundreds of titles on my new Kindle. HA! I have no self-control when it comes to books. Especially if they're free.

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    1. Ditto, Yvette. I, too, don't have self-control over free ebooks available legally. You should see my tab! Now I have become a hoarder of ebooks too.

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  9. Prashant, I have never read any Wodehouse, but was not aware that he wrote anything of that type.

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    1. Tracy, I strongly recommend Wodehouse for mental wellbeing. He has me in splits even though his writing and humour is often repetitive. Still, a genius of a writer.

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  10. I love that even back then authors were crossing genres. I hope to do that one day, I just need to write faster.

    This sounds really interesting though. Thanks for sharing it.

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    1. Rebecca, you're welcome. His style here is quite different from the one I'm used to, in his more humourous novels.

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  11. News to me Prashant - I like PGW and have read a lot by him, but had no idea he'd written this. That's a real forgotten book....

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    1. Moira, I'd no idea about this story although the others might have been featured in various collections. For me, it was a forgotten and an overlooked book.

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