On losing an old friend and rediscovering his very old books

A few weeks ago I wrote dismissively about a volume of James Thurber’s essays. Even as I typed out those comments I knew I’d get a call from our friend N. Nanda Kumar to urge me to give that Thurber another try. He had lent me the book, as he lent so many, with no hints at all about when I might return them.

Occasionally he gave me books to keep. He had books in his stash that no one else had, and books that maybe nobody ought to have. I still have The Portable Hamlet by George Haimsohn (Illustrated by Same), which consists of doodles and one-line scene summaries, many downright rude. Smack in the middle of the title page, Nandu has scrawled his signature in red ballpoint.

The year I wrote a column on vintage crime fiction, Nandu phoned after each column appeared in print to ask when I was going to write about Raymond Chandler or Leslie Charteris or Erle Stanley Gardner, or “maybe some of the old crime writers”.

He was about 25 years my senior, but there was a 50-year gap between my idea of vintage and his. In the matter of punctuation and grammar, however, we were both of an equally old school, easily outraged at improper use of hyphens or the word “comprise”. For yonks Nandu was an editor at The Hindu and he used to say that articles about books had to be especially clean, because the readers of those articles would know the difference.

We often chatted on the phone about what each of us was reading or writing, and then we wandered on to any old topic: waterlogging in Chennai streets, rules of the road, compost. Then he’d ask, “Is that blighter around, that good-for-nothing?” and I would hand the phone to my husband. Or he’d sign off more simply, with, “Talk to you later, then. God bless.”

On July 31, to mark the passing of an old friend, I opened The Saint Goes West by Leslie Charteris. The book contains three novellas. In “Arizona”, Simon Templar, aka the Saint, goes after murderous Nazis mining for mercury. As in most thrillers of the time, the scenes are set in a riot of mixed metaphors, pretty girls, and dastardly villains who, instead of killing the hero promptly, let him smoke a leisurely cigarette and talk for pages. This is the only serious story of the three. In “Palm Springs” and “Hollywood”, the Saint must remind fellow characters there’s a war on and even becomes slyly meta, declaring that servants can’t be suspects because “the butler did it” has been done to death. As the Saint narrowly escapes having a movie made about him and drives off into Sunset Boulevard, bodies strewn behind him, the reader is assured that he will be back.

So there, I’ve written about Charteris. I’ll also give the Thurber another look, Nandu, since you’re obviously not in a hurry to have it back. RIP. And God bless.

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