Jeeves and the Leap of Faith, Ben Schott, 2020

jeeves-and-the-leap-of-faithWith his first departure from the canon — Jeeves and the King of Clubs — Ben Schott began the transformation of Bertie Wooster from Wodehousian gadabout and loveable dope to wise-cracking playboy and international man of mystery. Now, with this next installment, Jeeves and the Leap of Faith, the process is complete and the result is the anti-Wodehouse.

The Wodehouse formula is to populate absurd situations with eccentric characters and let it all play out for laughs. The anti-Wodehouse is a series of awkward, mainly unrelated clashes of cardboard cutouts — the good guys are all suave and witty and broadmined, and the bad guys are clumsy and dim and venal — and consequently there’s little foundation for comedy. Schott paints himself into a corner in almost every scene, as did Wodehouse, but the difference is that Wodehouse could talk his way back out again. Schott just plods through the wet paint of weak pun.

This second book descends beneath comparison to Wodehouse, leaving only comparison to the first book on which, it would appear, Schott expended his entire capacity to mimic the Wodehouse style. The clumsy, overwrought wordplay that was the occasional worst that could be said about King of Clubs is the narrative mean above which Leap of Faith rarely rises.

The absence of a resolution to King of Clubs is explained, dubiously, by the fact that many of the threads are picked up again here in what appears to be the second part of a trilogy. This would be valuable information to know before beginning the series, if these disparate threads ever conspired to form a plot. Instead, the tumbling spy story which positions a simple-minded Roderick Spode on the side of the fascists and an insipid Jeeves and rehabilitated Wooster seconded to British Intelligence unfolds in a series of clumsy set-pieces, sometimes relevant, sometimes mystifyingly not. The bizarrely unfunny scene in which Wooster, posing as a vicar, fails to say grace in Latin serves as one of many examples, but in fairness neither this nor any other sequence plummets to the depths of the absurd Eulalie Soeurs diversion from book one.

Wodehouse famously and painstakingly planned his stories, and the result is a legacy of largely unimpeachable comedy. Ben Schott made his name curating miscellany, and the result is just that. Jeeves and the Leap of Faith is a scattered collection of Latin aphorisms, Wodehousian trivia, crossword clues and historical minutiae. Indeed, the inflated appendix is a chapter-by-chapter justification for this mish-mash which is absent from the story itself, and it’s in fact more entertaining.

I confess my bias here at the end so that it can be easily edited out — the idea of a clever Wooster was already done better by Wodehouse in the form of Galahad Threepwood, and the idea of a clever Wooster solving mysteries is done better, even if it’s me saying so, in the form of Anty Boisjoly.

Cocktail Time, Wodehouse, 1958

cocktail-time-coverI can’t get enough of Uncle Fred and although I prefer him as or introducing an imposter into Blandings Castle, it’s refreshing to see his irrepressible wit thriving in this new terrain.

The title of the book is taken from the title of the book that Fred maneuvers his old friend Sir Raymond Bastable into writing, as an indictment of a debauched younger generation and as a reaction to having his top hat knocked off by a well-aimed Brazil nut sling-shot from a window of the Drones club by an assailant whose identity, by page two, provides a very clear idea of the ride the reader is in for.

The success of the book within the book is a catalyst for a sequence of problems which beget solutions which beget still larger problems and at the centre of it all is Uncle Fred, orchestrating the various threads to the inevitable benefit of timid suitors and sundered hearts. I think that Fred ties up more loose ends in Cocktail Time than he does in both his appearances at Blandings (Uncle Fred in the Springtime, 1939, and Service with a Smile, 1961) put together.

The subtly different flavour of Cocktail Time is derived from the new surroundings. There’s no Blandings Castle and hence no Emsworth, Empress, Connie and her type nor Freddie and his. Instead there’s marginally more Uncle Fred than usual and Bastable and his nephew, Cosmo, and Lord Ickhenham’s godson, Johnny Pearce, get to share their unique and uniquely amusing take on events as they rapidly unfold. In Cocktail Time, Uncle Fred doesn’t hog all the funniest lines.

The fact that Frederick Lord Ickenham also manifests as Galahad Threepwood and Psmith, according to requirements, doesn’t alter a bit his status as a Wodehousian pillar as distinct and reliable as Jeeves and Wooster. Indeed, as Cocktail Time so deftly illustrates, this mutability gives Fred enormous latitude. This has given me a particular appreciation of Cocktail Time as I plug into it for regular refills of attitude while writing The Case of the Ghost of Christmas Morning, the second mystery featuring Anty Boisjoly whose character is shamelessly inspired by Uncle Fred.

Leave It To Psmith, Wodehouse, 1923

LeaveItToPsmithLeave It To Psmith is, to my mind, the book in which Blandings finds its voice. There’s yet no Empress, and she’s sorely missed, but the absent-minded Lord Emsworth substitutes flowers for his prize pig and Connie is present, as is the efficient Baxter, romance, imposters, a conundrum and, above all, someone like Galahad.

In this, his final appearance, Psmith (the P is silent) has also found his voice as the totem of free-wheeling, free-thinking and fast-talking flippancy that will later be embodied by Emsworth’s brother Galahad and, later still, by Lord Ickenham (Uncle Fred). The perfectly acceptable twist in this case is that Psmith is among the sundered hearts that need joining, and the imposter he introduces is himself, playing the role of volatile Canadian Poet Ralston McTodd. He joins a cast of fellow poets, valets, archivists and thieves to further or foil Freddie Threepwood’s plan to allow Connie’s oppressed husband to secretly divert funds to his step-daughter so that her husband and Psmith’s school chum might buy a farm, ensuring the couple’s happiness.

The full Blandings prior to Leave it to Psmith is Something Fresh and it’s an entertaining book on its own, introducing many of the themes and devices which become, in time, grist for the mill of Psmith and his kind. Henceforth, a Blandings without some variation of Psmith, Uncle Fred, or Galahad is like Wooster without Jeeves.

From my own biased perspective, this might even be the best Blandings because it has, as a percentage of the narrative, more Psmith per square foot than any of the others. The irrepressibly optimistic and interchangeable souls of Psmith, Uncle Fred and Galahad infuse and inspire my own Anty Boisjoly, my answer to a net global shortage of Blandings.

Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Wodehouse, 1939

UncleFredInTheSpringtimeUncle Fred in the Springtime is the fourth time that Wodehouse has sent imposters to Blandings (the first being Something Fresh, in 1915) and the third time he did so on behalf of thwarted romance. He would go on to spirit imposters into the castle on no fewer than ten occasions, eight times in aid of joining sundered hearts.

This was the Wodehouse formula: set the scene with familiar problems, tweak the details, rotate the cast of clever, eccentric, or simple-minded characters, and let them sort themselves out in the most entertaining manner possible.

There’s almost always at least one fragile romance, an imperious sister, and an intransigent peer, and there’s always an Uncle Fred. It’s not always Lord Ickenham, as it is here and in Service with a Smile. In fact it’s usually not the witty, urbane, fun-loving, fast-talking bon-vivant. It’s usually Galahad Threepwood, but the effect is invariably the same — an absolute delight.

Galahad and Uncle Fred are interchangeable in the same way that Connie and the rest of the (eleven and counting) sisters to the beleaguered Lord Emsworth are effectively the same person. Fred and Gally embody an attitude manifest in quick and quick-witted, irrepressibly optimistic dialogue, indifferent to the originality or lack thereof of the underlying plot.

Which is just as well, because of all solutions that Wodehouse has applied to the same problem, Uncle Fred in the Springtime is the least inventive. The strategy of “stout denial” is employed again and again and, while it’s every bit as funny as any solution that Wodehouse has ever thrown at thwarted romance, it’s a little shiftless compared to the infinitely creative dissemblance of, say, Full Moon, in which Galahad introduces a minor painter into the castle as Edwin Landseer, or Leave It To Psmith in which the title character (another proxy for Fred) appropriates the identity of an obtuse Canadian poet so that he might steal Connie’s necklace in the cause of, obviously, thwarted romance.

My personal bias transcends even that — it doesn’t matter if there are pigs or broken hearts or clever plots and ploys and, in fact, it doesn’t even matter all that much that there’s a Blandings. The single pillar of the castle for me is the persona of Galahad/Fred/Psmith that gives voice to the free-wheeling, free-thinking, and fast-talking flippancy that inspires Anty Boisjoly. This is my answer to the problem of not enough Galahad, even within the books, which I find myself wishing were in the first person and entirely infused with this happy character in the same manner that the Jeeves & Wooster stories are told from the perspective of Bertie.

Jeeves and the King of Clubs, Ben Schott, 2018

jeevesAndTheKingOfClubsJeeves and the King of Clubs by Ben Schott has been received with such fanfare that I find myself in the ironic position of struggling to find something new to say about something which struggled to find something new to say.

There’s been a rush to observe that this daring departure from the beloved Jeeves and Wooster series by PG Wodehouse is not an extension of the canon. Mister Schott himself describes it as an homage, which seems safe enough (although we here at Indefensible have wrapped ourselves in an extra layer of dissemblance in referring to our own The Case of the Canterfell Codicil as having been “written in the style of an homage to Wodehouse”). Nevertheless, there’s plenty here to which a purist could take offence, if offence is what said purist is looking for.

Above all, there’s the rehabilitation of Bertie Wooster, who in Schott’s parallel take on Wodehouse’s world has experienced an intellectual renaissance. The loveable, affable, dependent and dependable Wooster is, in this book, a sort of a cross between Noel Coward and, I suppose, Jeeves. He’s witty and urbane and he regularly and handily gets the better of the dangerous and devious Roderick Spode (Lord Sidcup, to you), who himself has been recast, ham-handedly in some cases, as a Trumpian oaf.

Consequently, the role of Jeeves is rewritten as well. It’s also diminished, not inconsiderably, and the title character has been largely reduced to a supporting technician, working behind the scenes to advance the plot in improbable ways.

Improbable and, rather often, inscrutable. For instance, there’s an entirely extraneous scene set in Eulalie Soeurs, quality foundation garments for discerning ladies, and Spode’s dark secret from The Code of the Woosters. The sequence is so unfunny and awkward that it’s tempting to assume that it’s a genuine editing oversight, something left in from a frivolous early draft in which The King of Clubs was initially going to be written as a Kafkaesque allegory. It’s when encountering these digressions that it becomes most valuable to recall that you’re reading an homage, because as comical and theatrical a scene might be in a Wodehouse plot, it’s always at least tangentially related to the story at hand.

Some and probably most of these departures are unavoidable and predicated on one of the pillar assumptions made by Schott — that readers want to see Jeeves and Wooster address larger threats than crossing Aunt Agatha or marrying Honoria Glossop or facing twenty-eight days without the option. In this variation of Wodehouse’s Britain, war is looming, and his majesty’s government must call upon the wily duo to foil Fifth Columnists already operating within the borders of the kingdom. The theme is a provocative mashup — like those literary exercises that ask how Pride and Prejudice might have unfolded if Netherfield had been besieged by zombies. In Jeeves and the King of Clubs, however, nothing seems to actually get resolved, which may be on its own the single greatest liberty taken by Schott.

Which might leave someone who has yet to read the King of Clubs wondering when all this homaging starts. The answer is the very first line, which is a delight, and representative of a slew of rapid-fire crackers that Schott sets off with not merely an uncanny impersonation of Wodehouse’s voice but a more than passing resemblance to the Master’s apparent ease of execution. There are some clunkers — not the least of which is the jarringly bad joke about Marx and Engels which literally caused me to put the book down for a day — but even they serve to give the breezy narrative style a foundation of confidence, a plucky indifference to the gravity of drafting two beloved icons into the fight against fascism and parachuting them, metaphorically, behind enemy lines.

In Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Sebastian Faulks carefully and gently nudged the canon over the line that Wodehouse dared never cross. That was homage. Jeeves and the King of Clubs is more daring than that, more exhaustive, more to My Man Jeeves as Robert Downey Junior’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is to the Hound of the Baskervilles.

It’s helpful to think of Jeeves and the King of Clubs as an homage to Wodehouse, but it’s even more helpful to read it as a reboot of the Jeeves and Wooster franchise.

The Review of the Case of the Canterfell Codicil

There’s a literary niche for all tastes including, as of October 30, those who think that either Agatha Christie wasn’t funny enough or PG Wodehouse didn’t include anywhere near as many locked-room mysteries as he should have.

The Case of the Canterfell Codicil is a clever whodunnit written in the style of an homage to the master. The result is a hilarious farce in which Wodehousian gadabout Anty Boisjoly (pronounced “Boo-juhlay”, like the wine region) takes on his first case when his old Oxford chum is accused of the impossible murder of his wealthy uncle.

Have a read of some  excerpts and then head on over to your local Amazon dealership:
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Time Travelin’ Gunslingers

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Philip James continues to pulp up the joint with a mashup for the ages — Time Travelin’ Gunslingers is the tale of a US marshal pursuing an outlaw from 1870s Arizona to the prehistoric age, from medieval England to modern day Las Vegas.

Dare Shine is a cut-out white hat who’s all duty and no fear, until he pursues blood-thirsty outlaw Race Brody into the Catalina Mountains, and comes face-to-face with a rowdy gang of Velociraptors. Meanwhile, dull-witted Race is hootin’ and shootin’ his way up the Las Vegas strip, unaware that both men have been put on a collision course by an unseen hand, capable of manipulating time itself.

The marshal discovers, perhaps too late, that there’s a lot more at stake than frontier justice for a renegade outlaw, and he faces monsters, mobsters, magic, and his own fears in the corridors of time to keep Race from fulfilling a prophecy that means the end of everything Dare holds dear.

Time Travelin’ Gungslingers has none of the urbaine, hard-boiled charm of Deceased and Residing in Oakland, and that’s clearly intentional. The folksy, accessible, naive narrative is reminiscent of the heyday of pulp Westerns, when all a lawman had to deal with was a cheatin’ coyote or an ambush at the pass. That same style applied to a story of gunslingers facing time-bending magic, ageless passion, hate, love, heaven, hell and purgatory, creates a very satisfying juxtaposition, like visiting the Louvre in your pyjamas.

Your pyjamas and your running shoes, in fact, because Time Travelin’ Gunslingers is no leisurely pastoral stroll through yesteryear. It’s a quick-drawing, fast-shooting, fast-talking, galloping, rollicking ricochet against the walls of time’s labyrinth. Time travel is achieved by simple magic, and hence no words are wasted trying to explain it as a feature of string theory or faster-than-light travel, and there’s no time for brooding on the effect of butterflies flapping their wings.

In fact, apart from the convention vortex, the story is linear, and there’s little room for existential twists. Time travel is a utility which allows for an original story which has, on its own, plenty of traditional plot pivots without the need for the high-concept hypotheticals that are the typical tropes of time travel stories.

In short, in spite of the prohibition era mobsters, prehistoric monsters, Elvis impersonators and magic, Time Travelin’ Gunslingers somehow manages to deliver an old-fashioned white hat/black hat Western saga. The structure is old-school pulp serial, and each visit to another time and place has its own sub-plot, complete with cliffhangers and plot twists.

Time Travelin’ Gunslingers is in Amazon from March 16.

Deceased & Residing in Oakland – New Pulp Cover, New Pulp Price

Deceased and Residing in Oakland has a new pulp price to celebrate its new pulp cover.

Pulp_Fiction_Book_Coversample

The zombie/noir mashup has also been completely edited and revised — misspellings and misnomers have been all but eradicated, leaving an unobstructed, hard-boiled narrative of zombies, detectives, dames, drugs, death-metal and Nietzsche. Everything you want in a modern ode to the pulp-fiction potboilers of the forties and fifties.
That includes a new, old-school cover, complete with digital dog-ears and heightened halftones.
The illustration — capturing reluctant private detective Conrad Crete in the moment he finds himself alone in an Alcatraz prison surrounded by zombie concubines — is by Fiverr favorite Adrian Doan Kim Carames (www.fiverr.com/krrjuus) and the vintage, maltreated cover effect is courtesy of http://www.bluelightningtv.com.
Part of the appeal of pulp fiction — in addition to the shamelessly effusive language, audacious stories, and exaggerated personalities — is the easy, breezy, low commitment cover price. So the ebook version of Deceased and Residing in Oakland now has a permanently pulpy price of 99 cents to complement its classic cover and contents.

Like a Metaphor

The Big Sleep

The three-word titling metaphor, seen here in its natural habitat.

The source of the charm of pulp fiction is its freedom from the manners imposed on high literature leaving it, like the imagination of a child, unfettered and unfiltered by any notion of shame. Popular fiction is as free as beat poetry to be as absurd and exaggerated as its readers will stand, and the limits of what readers of pulp fiction will stand have never been plumbed.

The phenomenon reproduces like rhizomes, popping up in improbable plots as outrageous characters and gaudy dialogue and, most particularly in the case of American crime fiction, the effusive simile.

The simile and her abstract sister metaphor have been with us for as long as it’s been helpful to describe something by comparing it to something else, which probably literally predates language itself or at the very least adjectives. Statistically, this is probably a bad thing, but for occasional passages of spun gold it’s objectively not.

It’s in American crime fiction where, like Braque’s tableaux of found objects, this handy instrument is elevated to an art form. Yet its utility and ubiquity mean that the device largely goes unnoticed in context, like shoelaces and every line in this article so far.

The etymological wellspring of the practice is the word “hardboiled”, so succinct that the rest of the metaphor isn’t even necessary to encapsulate the stoic cynicism of the private detective as twenty-minute egg. The best of them are like that, hard and hurting and, ideally, humorous.

Arguably the first hardboiled fiction is The False Burton Combs, by Carroll John Daly, and it builds a good case on tough-talkin’ street jargon of dames and dicks and a sparse but convincing distribution of juxtaposition:

“There ain’t nothing in governments unless you’re a politician. And as I said before, I ain’t a crook.”

“One of the others was fat and looked like an ex−bartender.”

“He paints up those three crooks like they were innocent young country girls.”

These were early days, though, before Hammett really got going and nearly ten years before Chandler would give up the oil game and bring us…

“He collapsed like a half-filled sack of sand.”

“ It glittered like a Ziegfeld chorus.”

and

“His clothes fitted him as though they had a soul of their own, not just a doubtful past”

which is a respectable showing for the first time out of the gate (Blackmailers Don’t Shoot, Black Mask, 1932).

The best of them paint a picture too big to be seen in anything but the abstract, composed of jungian touchstones and communal memory…

“Waves rose like apparitions at the surf-line and fell like masonry.”

Ross MacDonald, The Barbarous Coast

“The rain was hitting the streets as though fired from a machine gun.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. I sneaked over to the side entrance and pressed a bell and somewhere a set of chimes made a deep mellow sound like church bells.”

Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely

“It was ten minutes by foot, if you were on your way to church, about two and a half minutes if your old lady was chasing you with a razor.”

Chester Himes, All Shot Up

“There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure.”

Ross Macdonald, The Drowning Pool

Or they sketch a character in the present with the full pallet of past and personality…

“As far back as Lieutenant Anderson could remember, both of them, his two ace detectives with their identical big hard-shooting, head-whipping pistols, had always looked like two hog farmers on a weekend in the Big Town.”

Chester Himes, A Rage In Harlem

“…the stigmata of the trouble-prone.”

Ross MacDonald, The Chill

“His nose spread itself across his face like an inadequate police cordon trying to hold back an ugly mob.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Of course it’s the danger, deception and desirability of the inevitable femme fatale that test the distance between cynicism and sentiment…

“She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.”

Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister

“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket”

Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

“She was all legs and hair with a pleasantly hilly terrain in between.”

“Her lips were full and quivery. When she talked she looked like she’d been dubbed into English from a language that had 900 words for ‘foreplay’.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“She ran the tip of her red tongue slowly across her full cushiony, sensuous lips, making them wet-red and looked him straight in the eyes with her own glassy, speckled bedroom eyes.”

Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem

“From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

Raymond Chandler, The High Window

But it’s arguably when the poetry of the pulp fiction simile stays close to its hard boiled roots that it’s at its sad, cynical, psychological best…

“…as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and would never remember it again. “

Raymond Chandler, The High Window

“In wine was truth, perhaps, but in whisky, the way Hoffman sluiced it down, was an army of imaginary rats climbing your legs.”

Ross Macdonald, The Chill

“He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him see the works.”

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

“She visibly weakened when she said that. She always visibly weakened when she said that, and the feisty went somewhere quiet to have a good think.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“He looked around at the daylight as if it had betrayed him, again.”

Ross MacDonald, Black Money

Deceased and Residing in Oakland

noir-coverDeceased and Residing in Oakland is a mystery thriller in the tradition of American Crime Fiction, set twenty-five years after the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. San Francisco is a city under siege — it’s heaving with refugees and it’s seething with crime — but it’s still a city. It’s got cops and courts and commerce, and it’s got one burned out cop in particular living a careful life a bay away from the rot that still stalks the suburbs, looking for a heartbeat. All he wants is a quiet life, but when he’s hired to track down the mysterious daughter of one of the city’s elite and the case starts killing his friends, he’s forced on a high-velocity ride among the eccentric citizens and dangerous diversions of fortress San Francisco and all the way back to the last place he ever wants to be.

The story is a fast-paced genre-mixer presenting a hard-boiled mystery in the style of 1940s noir but with characters, twists and tension that can only occur in a Bay area struggling to sustain the remains of civilization. The result is a world-building exercise that depicts a thorough and convincing city of high-density, multi-purpose buildings, Frankenstein cars and an economy based on dark entertainments and goods retrieved from the suburbs by daredevil privateers.

Author Philip James makes no effort to hide his admiration for preceding pulp greats and the narrative regularly veers very close to homage, with an endless supply of Chandlerisms like “Mean in a feral, fundamental way. Mean the way cats are stealthy and bees are industrious and vultures are indiscriminate diners.”,  “She finished her drink and brought the glass down like the gavel of a hanging judge” and “There was a night behind her that was more than mere darkness.”

But the attention to noir narrative doesn’t make this any less a zombie thriller, and the style extends to the undead as “like an army of macabre marionettes made of broom handles and sack cloth” and “staggering and broken and with parts missing and debris acquired, like a taxi that’s just driven madly through a dense jungle.”

The plot and poetry are matched by the population of eccentrics including a one-armed barkeep, a philosophy professor preaching Nietzsche beneath the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge, a alluring blonde pinup girl who can out-drink the toughest detective, a ruthless villain with a sadistic henchman, the world’s luckiest pirate and a shell-shocked former zombie-squad officer with an overdeveloped sense of symmetry and paralyzing fear of the undead.