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Wodehouse kills – in a murder mystery

Fans of P G Wodehouse might remember the only Bertie Wooster story narrated by Jeeves. Owing to a concatenation of circumstances Wooster, contemplating living with his nieces against Jeeves’s wishes, is tricked into making a speech at a girls’ school.

Nonplussed, he tells them, “ If you stand outside Romano’s in the Strand, you can see the clock on the wall of the Law Courts down in Fleet Street. Most people who don’t know don’t know it’s possible, because there are a couple of churches in the middle of the road, and you would think they would be in the way. You can win a lot of money betting on it with fellows who haven’t found it out.”

At this point the head mistress interferes, but that is of no import here. The key is “You can win a lot of money betting on it…”

For here’s another idea – you can bet that P G Wodehouse once wrote a murder mystery, and when challenged turn to page 178 of The Uncollected Wodehouse edited by David A Jason. Point to Death at the Excelsior, written in 1914.

It is a classic “locked room” mystery – the victim is found in a locked room on the second floor, and there is an open window with a bar across it nobody could have squeezed through. Detective Oakes is young, full of himself, and cocksure.

His boss, Paul Snyder who runs the Detective Agency, is indulgent despite being patronized by his colleague. The denouement is interesting, considering what Wodehouse thought of mystery stories and the role of women in them, for it is a woman who solves the case.

“For though beautiful, with large grey eyes and hair the colour of ripe corn” Wodehouse had written earlier in an essay, “the heroine is almost never an intelligent girl… she may know perfectly well that the blackbird gang is after her to secure the papers. The police may have warned her on no account to stir outside the house. But when a messenger calls at half-past-two in the morning with an unsigned note that says, “Come at once,” she just reaches for her hat and goes.”

Wodehouse resisted all temptation and wrote a mystery that could stand beside anything by Poe or Chesterton.

Wodehouse was a great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He became a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle and a teammate at The Authors Cricket Club. It may have been a favourite Wodehouse character Psmith who first used the expression, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

The Wodehouse expert Richard Usborne has suggested that the Jeeves character might have been inspired by fictional butlers in Conan Doyle’s works – the name, of course, came from the Warwickshire cricketer, the medium pacer Percy Jeeves.

Wodehouse’s foray into crime isn’t so surprising when you think about it. Both humour and mystery use cover-ups, misdirection, poor communication, misinterpretations. Wodehouse was a master of all of the above, whether it is the stealing a cow creamer, Egyptian scarabs or sundry hearts.

(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)

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Printable version | Jul 15, 2020 2:14:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/wodehouse-kills-in-a-murder-mystery/article31769568.ece

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