Jeeves 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.