47–50: Mr Mulliner Speaking; Strong Poison; The Thirty-Nine Steps; and Something Fresh

Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world will never stale. He will continue to release future generations from a captivity that may be more irksome than our own.

So said Evelyn Waugh in a 1960s BBC broadcast. Well, every now and again you need a bit of a release from irksome captivity; and, since I’m on a one-man campaign to proselytise the gospel of non-Jeeves Wodehouse (not out of antipathy to the hapless Wooster & co., but on the basis that they get plenty of public prominence without any assistance from me, and are by no means the only creations of old Sir Pelham to deserve the spotlight), I chose a nice collection of Mulliner shorts (stories, that is).

Mulliner is one of Wodehouse’s great narrators. Like the Oldest Member, or the Eggs, Beans and Crumpets of the Drones Club, he regales his audiences, in his case fellow patrons of the Angler’s Rest, willing or not, with tales of others – in his case, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cousins, nieces and nephews. This is the second of three collections dedicated wholly to the man to whom, in the words of our unnamed frame narrator, “any assemblage of his fellow-men over and above the number of one constitutes an audience.” It bursts at the seams with characters; a big-game hunter who, informed stiffly that “life is not all gnus”, responds only “You imply that there are also wapiti, moose, zebu and mountain goats? Well, maybe you’re right”; an artist whose nerves become intolerably tightly-strung upon giving up smoking; a young man whose chief recommendation is his ability to imitate a hen laying an egg; and the infatuating, infuriating Roberta Wickham, who resembles in looks nothing so much as “a particularly good-looking schoolboy who had dressed up in his sister’s clothes”, and in spirit nothing so much as a hurricane. Short and sharp, these are Wodehouse on top form.

A return to Lord Peter Wimsey, and a novel that grew on me; for the first fifty pages, I found myself enjoying Strong Poison distinctly less than Murder Must Advertise. I think it’s that Wimsey falls madly in love with the accused woman, but not really for any discernible reason; he just starts the book in love with her without any obvious history to it. (At one point, she tells him: “If anyone ever marries you it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle.” He responds: “A humiliating reason, but better than no reason at all.”) But the book rebounds; we are told that because “in detective stories virtue is always triumphant”, “they’re the purest literature we have”; the theory is advanced that Wimsey is just “one of those imperturbably self-satisfied people who cannot conceive of themselves as being out of place in any surroundings”; when encouraging a man to propose, Wimsey suggests the formula “How about a spot of matrimony, old dear?” as being “up-to-date, and plain and unmistakeable”, before arguing that on the other hand, going down on one knee “has the merit of originality in these times”, and even floating the notion of doing it by telegram; and Wimsey’s man Bunter gathers information by “cultivating Hannah Westlock almost to breach of promise point.” And we have the following discussion of the different strategies male and female detectives are able to employ:

The male detective, particularly when dressed as a workman, an errand-boy, or a telegraph messenger, is favourably placed for “shadowing”. He can loaf without attracting attention. The female detective must not loaf. On the other hand, she can stare into shop-windows for ever. Miss Climpson selected a hat-shop.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is just an amazing story, I think. It makes you want to roam the British Isles (“I Wanna Wander”, as the fabulously talented Donald O’Connor says). It makes you want to see, really see, the rest of “this heavenly country”, to get out of London and just go. (Can you tell that five days a week in our fair capital are making me restive?)

Not much else to say about this, to be frank. It’s an excellent book, and very fun to read.

What is there to be said about Something Fresh, other than that it marks book number fifty? It is the novel which launches Wodehouses’s single greatest setting – I defy anybody to say otherwise – Blandings Castle, which “has imposters like other places have mice”. The great man starts as he means to go on, introducing us to one of the greatest comic creations ever to grace the page: the Earl of Emsworth, “as completely happy as only a fluffy-minded man with excellent health and a large income can be”, whose mind is so often “as nearly a blank as it is possible for the human mind to be.” We meet the Efficient Baxter, who does not suspect his fellow man of this or that definite crime, but simply suspects them; the butler Beach, with his “fruity voice, like tawny port made audible”; Freddie Threepwood; and the inspiring, delightful, Joan Valentine and Ashe Marson, who are almost a model for Wodehouse’s greatest romance, that of Rupert (I refuse to call him Ronald) Psmith and Eve Halliday. I would humbly direct the reader to basically all of their conversations, but particularly that which touches on the preferential treatment of women (it makes no profound points, but demonstrates delightful repartee). “This odd impulse to leap across the compartment and kiss Joan was not love. It was merely the natural desire of a good-hearted young man to be decently chummy with his species.”

Two things more. The first is this:

“I am kissing you,” he said.
“But you mustn’t. There’s a scullery maid or something looking out of the kitchen window. She will see us.”
Ashe drew her to him.
“Scullery maids have few pleasures,” he said. “Theirs is a dull life. Let her see us.”

The second is this: if you don’t read this book, you will never know how adorably romantic talking about dead mice can be. That is all.

Mr Mulliner Speaking
Author PG Wodehouse
Published 1929
Pages 170
Best line “The tie […] was not a tie at all in the deeper meaning of the word; it was just a deplorable occurrence.”
Best character Simmons, the butler who carries snakes on silver salvers.

Strong Poison
Author Dorothy L Sayers
Published 1930
Pages 188
Best character Bunter.

The Thirty-Nine Steps
Author John Buchan
Published 1915
Pages 136
Best character I honestly couldn’t say. Scudder is pretty engaging.

Something Fresh
Author PG Wodehouse
Published 1915
Pages 200
Best character Freddie Threepwood. One has a soft spot for the soft-minded dear.


9 thoughts on “47–50: Mr Mulliner Speaking; Strong Poison; The Thirty-Nine Steps; and Something Fresh

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