Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday's Forgotten Books, October 14, 2016

(From the archives)
Charles Benoit is the author of Noble Lives, Relative Danger, and Out of Order

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.

Sergio Angelini, THE POWER OF THE DOG, Thomas Savage
Yvette Banek, SILENCE OBSERVED, Michael Innes
Les Blatt, LAMENT FOR A MAKER, Michael Innes
Elgin Bleecker, COCKFIGHTER, Charles Willeford
Brian Busby, SEA LORD, William C. Heine
Bill Crider, WINTER GIRL, Harry Whittington
Martin Edwards, THE END OF THE WEB, George Sims
Richard Horton, THE LIVING END, Stanley Elkin
George Kelley, WHO THE DEVIL MADE IT and WHO THE HELL'S IN IT, Peter Bogdonavich
Margot Kinberg, INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE, Ray Berard
Rob Kitchin, THE HUMAN FLIES, Hans Olaf Lahlum
B.V. Lawson, SPENCE AT MARBLY MANOR. Michael Allen
Steve Lewis/Barry Gardner, DOUBLE-MINDED MEN, Philip R. Craig
Todd Mason, Isaac Asimov, autobiographical works 
Neer, A Baker's Dozen from the Delhi Book Fair 
J.F. Norris, THE GODDESS, A DEMON, Richard Marsh
Steven Nester (RAP SHEET), JUNKY, William Burroughs
Matthew Paust, ALL DAY AND A NIGHT, Alafair Burke
Reactions to Reading, THE RED THUMB MARK, R. Austin Freeman
James Reasoner, YOU'LL GET YOURS, Thomas Wills
Richard Robinson, Unfinished Series
Kevin Tipple/Barry Ergang, FIELDS FOR PRESIDENT, W.C. Fields
TracyK, A PERFECT SPY, John LeCarre


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Thanks for including me int he roundup Patti!

Charles Gramlich said...

Been reading a few classics here lately. Need to get to some Wodehouse

Todd Mason said...

Happily, everyone else is more prompt than I am, as often:

the autobiographies of Isaac Asimov

A very elegant FFB set today, from the assembled!

Todd Mason said...

I see Martin's popped in as well.

Mudpuddle said...

unc. dyn. is a total gas... i need to reread it it's been way too long...

neer said...

This post has made me so nostalgic about that time when my sisters and I read Wodehouse all the time and laughed like crazy. It's ages since I picked a book of his but next time I go to the library, I am going to look for this book. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for including my post, Patti. And very glad you picked a Wodehouse novel for your own. Those were some great stories!