Sunday, April 07, 2013
Five Years of Forgotten Books, Day 7
Charles Benoit is the author of Noble Lives, Relative Danger, and Out of Order (bio as of 2008)
Uncle Dynamite by P.G. Wodehouse
My favorite fantasy about winning the lottery isn’t having the cash to travel all around the world or buying some fancy sports car—it is the blissful knowledge that if I had buckets of the stuff, I’d have a lot more time for reading.
Not (yet) being a lottery winner and paparazzi target, I have to seek out books that cram as much good stuff into one reading as possible, and as a fan of the comic caper novel, that means lots of phony felonious types, rare and priceless/worthless objects, setup plans as intricate as an HDTV manual, multiple mistaken identities, late night crime scene follies, plots that take twists and turns worthy of the Gordian Knot, and a Criminal Mastermind that’s equal parts George Clooney, Cary Grant, John Cleese and Steve Martin, with a heavy dash of a drunken Peter O’Toole. And all of it has to be superbly written with laugh-out-loud chapters, head-slapping brilliant phrases and dialog that fizzes like a champagne cocktail.
Given my caper novel needs, you would assume that I’d make straight for the masterful works of Donald Westlake and you would be correct. Except we’re talking forgotten books and no mystery reader worth the title would forget Westlake. The book I’d like to recommend today has everything you’d expect to find in the best Westlake caper, but—and I know this sounds impossible—this one’s even better. It’s Uncle Dynamite, and it’s by the only author who could out Westlake, Westlake, the inimitable P.G Wodehouse.
If you know Wodehouse, you can stop reading here and call it a day. There’s nothing I can say that can add to The Master’s reputation, and if you don’t know Wodehouse, it’s your loss. But even if you hold Wodehouse in as high esteem as I do (highly unlikely, but I throw it out there just to be sporting), and you haven’t read Uncle Dynamite, well, all I can say is that your quest to discover a meaning to your life is about to be realized.
Lord Ickeham—the Uncle Fred of the title—is the sort of whirlwind you can only encounter in the kind of English clubs where rolls are tossed at the dinner table and vast sums are wagered on the likelihood that the waiter will trip as he carries a tray of cocktails across a shaving cream—covered 13th century Persian carpet. It’s his massive brain that is put to the task of pinching a plaster bust from a country home, a bust that secretly hides a cache of jewels, hidden to avoid paying the customs duty. The bust resides in the stately country home of Sir Aylmer Bostock, a retired colonial governor who collects ghastly African curios and who once went by the nickname “Mugsy.” There’s Uncle Fred’s lovesick nephew, Reginald “Pongo” Twistleton; the lovely Sally Painter, ex-fiancee of said Pongo; the headstrong Hermione, the current Pongo fiancée; Pongo’s pal, Bill, who gazes at Hermione in the way young Romeo used to gawk at fair Juliet; Elsie Been, the straight talking saucy maid who's in love eith Constable Harold Potter, the very same Constable Harold Potter, who had once arrested Lord Ickeham and Pongo during a fracas at the dog races, the self-same dog racing arrest in which Lord Ickeham supplies the false names of George Robinson and Edwin Smith of 14 and 11 Nasturtium Road, East Dulwich. When Constable Potter points this inconvenient truth out to our Lord Ickeham, the peerless peer of the realm simply states that he is, in fact, Major Brabazon-Plank, noted Brazilian explorer…who just happens to arrive for an extended stay at Sir Aylmer’s forementioned country home. And, being a caper novel, there is a bonny baby contest to be judged.
If this sounds impossibly complicated and preposterously ridiculous, then I have done my job well and admirably.
It is one sad shortcoming of the modern educational system that Uncle Dynamite is not required reading in every school in the land, and as a result, this word-perfect caper novel is seldom read by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning mystery readers. Track this book down, give it a read, and if you are not in total agreement that it is indeed, if not the Greatest Single Work of Fiction Ever Written, it’s still a fun read.
You can thank me later.