Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome (1900)

I wish this book to be a strict record of fact, unmarred by exaggeration…

What is ‘the Bummel’?

Deliberately, but oddly, the book doesn’t explain what a Bummel is until the very last paragraph, where J, the narrator, writes:

‘A “Bummel”,’ I explained, ‘I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.’

Bummel is a German word, appropriately enough since the book describes a cycling tour around Germany. The American edition of the novel avoided this obscurity by being titled simply Three Men on Wheels.

Is Three Men on The Bummel a sequel to Three Men in a Boat?

Sort of. It was published in 1900, eleven years after his most famous work, Three Men in a Boat and features the exact same three characters – ‘J’ the narrator, George and Harris – 11 years further on, when two of them (J and Harris) have gotten married and had children.

What is it about?

It opens in the same way as Boat, with the same three chaps chatting and realising they need a break from their everyday lives. They consider hiring a boat for a sea cruise but remember various disasters when they’ve tried that before, at which point Harris suggests a cycling tour of Germany.

So if the twin narrative frames of Boat were the nature of boats and boating and descriptions of the River Thames and its surrounding towns and cities, the parallel frames in Bummel are comic meditations on the nature of cycling and descriptions of the Germany towns, cities and countryside which they pass through.

What was the bicycling craze?

The 1890s saw an outburst in the popularity of cycling. It was partly due to technical developments in 1880s which made bikes much easier to ride than the former, penny farthing, model, namely the invention of the ‘safety bicycle’ with its chain-drive transmission whose gear ratios allowed for smaller wheels without a loss of speed and then the invention of the pneumatic (inflatable air-filled) bicycle tire which made the whole experience significantly smoother, partly the ongoing development of mass manufacturing process which made bikes much more affordable.

So the two books have this in common: Boat was written to capitalise on the new fashion for pleasure boating on the Thames in the 1880s, and Bummel to capitalise on the 1890s fad for cycling.

(It’s worth noting that the up-and-coming young novelist H.G. Wells was one among many other authors who sought to take advantage of the new craze, publishing his light-hearted bicycling novel, The Wheels of Chance in 1896, between his two heavyweight science fiction classics, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897).)

To quote a useful (American) blog on the subject:

The bicycling craze swept the nation in the 1890s, with insatiable demand keeping nearly 2,000 manufacturers in business. Numerous manuals were published to instruct riders on road etiquette, proper breathing and riding technique, and accident prevention. Sometimes referred to as steel horses, bikes were a cheaper, faster, and more adaptable means of transportation that fostered both self-reliance and sociability. Earlier uncomfortable and unsafe models transformed into safety bicycles featuring cushion and pneumatic tires, coaster brakes, and most importantly a drop frame that was easier for women to mount and navigate.

Which makes it all the stranger that there is actually almost no description at all of the actual bikes. We are told there’s one single bike and tandem, and that’s that. We’re not even told how they carry luggage and such; presumably it is sent ahead by train or somehow, but none of this is explained.

‘What bicycle did you say this was of yours?’ asked George.
Harris told him. I forget of what particular manufacture it happened to be; it is immaterial.
(Chapter ten)

But of course, it would have been of considerable interest, to keen cyclists in his own day and ever since.

Why is Three Men on the Bummel a disappointment?

I remember reading the Bummel immediately after the Boat 30 years ago and being disappointed. Three reasons:

1. Bachelors carefree When they were young bachelors they could do anything. They expected and forgave each other for their irresponsible antics, and so did the reader. The situation is transformed now they are family men and fathers. What is attractive in a 25 year old just starting a career feels immature in a 35 year old father.

2. Family men tied down Families add complexity. I admit to being confused by the entire first chapter of this book, confused about where it is set and who is speaking and who is related to whom. The second sentence is:

At this moment the door opened, and Mrs. Harris put her head in to say that Ethelbertha had sent her to remind me that we must not be late getting home because of Clarence.

Only in the next chapter did I firmly grasp that Ethelberta is J’s wife, Mrs Harris is Harris’s wife (could have been his mother) and – I’m still not sure, but think that Clarence must be J’s son. Anyway it took a bit of effort to figure out who was who and what was going on and effort is not what you want from a comic novel.

All this is in complete contrast to the opening of Boat where the setting is immediately clear and comprehensible: the three chaps are in someone’s apartment thinking about holidays and this segues into the brilliant extended passage about J’s hypochondria. The opening of Boat gripped me; the opening of Bummel confused and irritated me.

3. Cycling tour more random that a journey upriver But by far the most obvious reason why Bummel is less engaging than its predecessor is the setting. Boat follows a lazy boat trip along the River Thames, which, in itself, is packed with meaning and resonances and associations, historical, nautical and – to those of us who grew up or lived by the Thames – personal. Whatever flights of fancy ‘J’ indulges in, the narrative always returns to the simple, central plot of them slowly rowing or towing their way up the Thames. The very simplicity of the central theme is what allows for such wild and fanciful digressions.

Whereas a cycling holiday around Germany has at least 2 problems: 1. It is by its nature random; they could be going anywhere for any reason, there’s nothing compelling, there is no deeper logic to the narrative. 2. They could be anywhere. Next to none of its English readers, then or now, have any idea where the Black Forest or Hanover or Mecklenburg are. Whereas Boat had the deep, almost archetypical logic of the river, Bummel appears random and capricious. It may have many scenes of comedy as intense and fantastical as the previous book, but it lacks the slow steady underlying structure.

4. Less funny Sorry, but the simple fact of the matter is that a lot of Jerome’s comic digressions and sketches in this book are just less funny than in Boat.

5. Sometimes serious See the section below, about Mensurs.

Is it any good as a guide book?

No. I won’t give an exhaustive plot summary because there isn’t a lot of plot. There’s a rough itinerary of their progress around Germany but, even more so that Boat, it’s really just a pretext for a steady supply of digressions and comic tales, some short, some extending for 5, 6 or more pages.

Suddenly, with no mention of the sea crossing, they are in Hamburg, which is not described at all; a sentence later they are in Hanover.

There is an extended passage at the start of chapter 5 where the narrator describes his experiences working on a cheap periodical designed to convey ‘useful information’ on a huge range of topics to its naive readers, the titbits, snippets and advice in question generally having been cut and pasted out of cheap encyclopedias. (Presumably this genuinely funny passage was based on Jerome’s extensive experience as the editor of The Idler magazine, 1892 to 1897, and then of To-Day, 1893 to 1898.)

J tells a story about how a little boy misused a piece he wrote for the magazine about manufacturing hydrogen to cause a small explosion to comically justify why he made the editorial decision that BUmmel should contain no useful information whatsoever.

There will be no useful information in this book…nothing in the nature of practical instruction will be found, if I can help it, within these pages…There will be no description of towns, no historical reminiscences, no architecture, no morals…Lastly, in this book there will be no scenery.
(chapter 5)

This is quite funny as a comic conceit, but it strips away what might have been a useful structure to the text, not so much guide-book useful, but useful in creating some kind of narrative structure. Without even the pretence of trying to be useful, it really does become a long series of anecdotes, reminiscences, comic scenes and observations, many of which are funny, but it lacks the underlying imaginative punch or force or coherence which you want from a book.

Does it at least give their itinerary round Germany?

Up to a point. Although once they actually manage to get clear of England (which they only manage to do by chapter 6 of this 14-chapter book, so that almost half the book is digressive preamble), the first part of the ensuing travelogue is often little more than a name, a brief description, and then some extended comic digressions. Thus the text mentions Hamburg, Hanover, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Nuremberg, Carlsbad, Stuttgart, Carlsruhe, Baden, which they seem to have travelled between exclusively by train. There is some guide book-style content. Here’s a taste:

Stuttgart is a charming town, clean and bright, a smaller Dresden. It has the additional attraction of containing little that one need to go out of one’s way to see: a medium-sized picture gallery, a small museum of antiquities, and half a palace, and you are through with the entire thing and can enjoy yourself.

Brief and pithy, and then it’s off on another comic anecdote. His deflating comments on Berlin are interesting:

Berlin is a disappointing town; its centre over-crowded, its outlying parts lifeless; its one famous street, Unter den Linden, an attempt to combine Oxford Street with the Champs Elysée, singularly unimposing, being much too wide for its size; its theatres dainty and charming, where acting is considered of more importance than scenery or dress, where long runs are unknown, successful pieces being played again and again, but never consecutively, so that for a week running you may go to the same Berlin theatre, and see a fresh play every night; its opera house unworthy of it; its two music halls, with an unnecessary suggestion of vulgarity and commonness about them, ill-arranged and much too large for comfort.

So when does the actual cycling come in?

It is only in chapter ten (of this 14-chapter book) when they arrive in Baden that, as the narrator puts it, ‘we started bicycling in earnest’, from which the reader deduces that all the previous destinations have been little more than tourist visits, with the bikes mostly consigned to the baggage car of trains.

It is here in Baden, that they finally start the actual cycling holiday.

We planned a ten days’ tour, which, while completing the Black Forest, should include a spin down the Donau-Thal, which for the twenty miles from Tuttlingen to Sigmaringen is, perhaps, the finest valley in Germany…

But:

We did not succeed in carrying out our programme in its entirety.

As far as I can tell the cycling part of the tour takes them from Baden and features Todtmoos, Waldshut, ‘through Alt Breisach and Colmar to Münster; whence we started a short exploration of the Vosges range’, Barr and St Ottilienberg.

Comic moments, sometimes

Patriotism

Harris is inclined to be chronically severe on all British institutions… George, the opposite to Harris, is British to the core. I remember George quite patriotically indignant with Harris once for suggesting the introduction of the guillotine into England.
‘It is so much neater,’ said Harris.
‘I don’t care if it is,’ said George; ‘I’m an Englishman; hanging is good enough for me.’

The disastrous sea cruise

The long, long story about the time J and his wife hired a boat for a sea cruise and the extreme laziness of the captain, which dominates chapter 2, I found almost completely unfunny. Similarly, there was a long passage about the narrator’s fictional Uncle Podger and the mayhem he causes in his house every time he leaves for work, which wasn’t a patch on the brilliantly funny description of the same Uncle Podger trying to hang a picture on the wall in Boat.

The hose fight

There is a funny description of Harris getting involved in a fight with a man who was hosing down the road outside Hanover and splashed a pretty woman cyclist, which leads to general mayhem.

German kisses

George visits a shop to buy a cushion (Kissen) but by mistake asks for a kiss (Kuss) leading the shop girls to collapse in fits of giggles, though not the reader.

Prague, windows and guides

Having read a very long book about the Thirty Years War recently, which starts with the Defenestration of Prague in 1618, when the disgruntled Protestant estates threw two royal governors out of a window of the Hradčany Castle, I appreciated his joke that the history of Prague would have been much more peaceful if only they’d their houses and castles ‘possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.’

In Prague they hire a guide for the day who takes them all round town and doesn’t stop talking in a rough mix of German and Slavonic. It is only late in the day they realise that almost he’s been saying hasn’t been elaborate descriptions of historic architecture but has a prolonged sales pitch for a patent hair restorer lotion the man has invented.

It is interesting that Jerome comments on the fierce enmity between German-speaking and Czech-speaking populations of Prague. Guides tell them not to speak German in certain parts of the city or they’ll get beaten up. This reinforces the prolonged explanation of the ethnic animosity given in Ernst Pawel’s excellent biography of Franz Kafka who was 7 years old when this book was published.

German law and order

Jerome has an extended comic disquisition on the German mania for order.

Your German likes his view from the summit of the hill, but he likes to find there a stone tablet telling him what to look at, find a table and bench at which he can sit to partake of the frugal beer and ‘belegte Semmel’ he has been careful to bring with him. If, in addition, he can find a police notice posted on a tree, forbidding him to do something or other, that gives him an extra sense of comfort and security.

And:

In Germany there is no nonsense talked about untrammelled nature. In Germany nature has got to behave herself, and not set a bad example to the children. A German poet, noticing waters coming down as Southey describes, somewhat inexactly, the waters coming down at Lodore, would be too shocked to stop and write alliterative verse about them. He would hurry away, and at once report them to the police. Then their foaming and their shrieking would be of short duration.

German regulations

And, naturally enough, for a (sort of) travel book set in Germany, the book has many passages describing the national character and especially the complicated nature of their laws. For example, none of our heroes appreciate the fact that you need not one but three tickets to travel on a train: one for general train travel, one for travel on a particular train, and one to specify whether you are seated or standing. George ignores this and related rules and is fined a hefty sum.

Our heroes are arrested

On the same theme of Order and Rules, the narrator is arrested because he takes a bicycle off a train which is just about to depart the station which he mistakenly believes is George’s. Only when he catches up with George does he realise George has his bicycle and the one the narrator has taken is some innocent German’s. He turns to see the train steaming out the station. He tries to stash it inconspicuously but is spotted by a typically officious German official. He only escapes actual prison because he happens to know a well-placed official in the town (Carlsbad) who testifies to his good character.

All of which leads to reflections on the ‘frequency with which one gets into trouble here in Germany’ and he gives a comic list of German bylaws. In Germany:

  • you must not wear fancy dress in the streets
  • you must not feed horses, mules, or donkeys, whether your own or those belonging to other people
  • you must not shoot a crossbow in the street
  • you must not ramble about after dark ‘in droves’
  • you must not throw anything out of a window
  • you must not joke with a policeman: it is treating them with disrespect
  • you must absolutely positively not walk on the grass
  • you must sit on the correct benches provided, marked for adults or for children
  • you must not leave your front door unlocked after ten o’clock at night, and you must not play the piano in your own house after eleven

Not very enticing, is it? ‘Go for a relaxing holiday in Germany and get arrested for laws you didn’t even know existed!’ is not a very convincing tourist slogan.

In Germany there is no law against a man standing on his head in the middle of the road; the idea has not occurred to them. One of these days a German statesman, visiting a circus and seeing acrobats, will reflect upon this omission. Then he will straightway set to work and frame a clause forbidding people from standing on their heads in the middle of the road, and fixing a fine. This is the charm of German law: misdemeanour in Germany has its fixed price.

German prams

Or take the humble pram. Apparently the Germans had a world of laws regarding what you may or may not do with a perambulator, which he cheerfully describes in all their absurdity, concluding, with typically Jeromian mischief:

I should say that in Germany you could go out with a perambulator and get into enough trouble in half an hour to last you for a month. Any young Englishman anxious for a row with the police could not do better than come over to Germany and bring his perambulator with him.

The deceptions of advertising

Plenty of contemporaries noticed and complained about the explosion in advertising during the 1890s and 1900s, in magazines, newspapers and increasingly intrusive hoardings. Jerome takes the mickey out of posters which very deceptively make cycling look wonderfully easy and relaxing and contrasts it with the often very hard work of puffing up a steep hill in Germany.

Generally speaking, the rider is a lady, and then one feels that, for perfect bodily rest combined with entire freedom from mental anxiety, slumber upon a water-bed cannot compare with bicycle-riding upon a hilly road. No fairy travelling on a summer cloud could take things more easily than does the bicycle girl, according to the poster.

Cycling and women’s liberation

Interestingly, Jerome confirms the comments of social historians I’ve been reading that bicycling amounted to a real social revolution and, in particular, liberated women, giving them an entirely new mobility, and, as a result, transforming the freedom of young couples to ‘date’ far from the eyes of their parents.

Occasionally the poster pictures a pair of cyclists; and then one grasps the fact how much superior for purposes of flirtation is the modern bicycle to the old-fashioned parlour or the played-out garden gate. He and she mount their bicycles, being careful, of course, that such are of the right make. After that they have nothing to think about but the old sweet tale. Down shady lanes, through busy towns on market days, merrily roll the wheels of the ‘Bermondsey Company’s Bottom Bracket Britain’s Best,’ or of the ‘Camberwell Company’s Jointless Eureka.’.. And the sun is always shining and the roads are always dry. No stern parent rides behind, no interfering aunt beside, no demon small boy brother is peeping round the corner…

And in the final chapter, where he delivers an extended review of the German character circa 1900, Jerome makes a special place for the German version of the New Woman sweeping Europe:

The German woman…is changing rapidly—advancing, as we call it. Ten years ago no German woman caring for her reputation, hoping for a husband, would have dared to ride a bicycle: to-day they spin about the country in their thousands. The old folks shake their heads at them; but the young men, I notice, overtake them and ride beside them. Not long ago it was considered unwomanly in Germany for a lady to be able to do the outside edge. Her proper skating attitude was thought to be that of clinging limpness to some male relative. Now she practises eights in a corner by herself, until some young man comes along to help her. She plays tennis, and, from a point of safety, I have even noticed her driving a dog-cart.

The insular English

In several places he satirises the English for their complete and utter failure to learn any foreign language, to get quickly exasperated with any foreigner who is dim enough not to speak fluent English, and the tendency of the English not to simplify their language when dealing with a foreigner, but to repeat the same thing, in difficult idiomatic English, but louder, a phenomenon I have observed countless times.

‘It is very disgraceful,’ I agreed. ‘Some of these German workmen know hardly any other language than their own.’

Taken alongside his comparison of the English and German education systems (the German infinitely superior) shows how some cultural stereotypes (the English are badly educated and useless at languages, the Germans are excellently educated and speak English among other languages, fluently) just never change.

German student duelling clubs

There’s some lovely frivolity in the cycling chapters, but the entire book ends with some unexpectedly serious thoughts. Jerome describes at length German student duelling societies which he candidly considers disgusting and squalid. They were expensive to join and the sole purpose was to spend time in a greasy dirty room with one opponent and two seconds, both your bodies well protected but your faces exposed to the slashes of heavy broadswords. The aim was to acquire as many impressive cuts as possible, which were then tended by not very competent student doctors and result in extravagant scars, in faces ‘cut and gashed, which prove your manliness and social status and are much desired by eligible young ladies. It was ‘a cruel and brutal game’.

Jerome describes the entire culture as being as inexplicable to outsiders but making perfect sense to insiders, as being as compelling to insiders, as bullfighting in Spain or fox hunting in England. But Jerome doesn’t find it at all funny. He thinks it brutalises both participants and arouses in onlookers ‘nothing but evil’.

Jerome on German character

Jerome had a good understanding of Germany. Soon after the the cycling trip the book was based on, he took his wife and children to live in Dresden for two years. When the First World War broke out 12 years later, Jerome made himself unpopular by speaking out against the torrent of anti-German propaganda the conflict unleashed in the press. When the many jokes wear off, you are left pondering his descriptions of the Germans as a nation obsessed with orders and regulations, over-willing to take instructions from every policeman or military officer.

Individualism makes no appeal to the German voter. He is willing, nay, anxious, to be controlled and regulated in all things… The German citizen is a soldier, and the policeman is his officer. The policeman directs him where in the street to walk, and how fast to walk. At the end of each bridge stands a policeman to tell the German how to cross it. Were there no policeman there, he would probably sit down and wait till the river had passed by. At the railway station the policeman locks him up in the waiting-room, where he can do no harm to himself. When the proper time arrives, he fetches him out and hands him over to the guard of the train, who is only a policeman in another uniform. The guard tells him where to sit in the train, and when to get out, and sees that he does get out. In Germany you take no responsibility upon yourself whatever. Everything is done for you, and done well. You are not supposed to look after yourself; you are not blamed for being incapable of looking after yourself; it is the duty of the German policeman to look after you.

And with an officer class trained at university in the enjoyment and infliction of disfigurement and pain.

We prate about our civilisation and humanity, but those of us who do not carry hypocrisy to the length of self-deception know that underneath our starched shirts there lurks the savage, with all his savage instincts untouched…

And:

The German idea of it would appear to be: “blind obedience to everything in buttons.” It is the antithesis of the Anglo-Saxon scheme; but as both the Anglo-Saxon and the Teuton are prospering, there must be good in both methods. Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continue, it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine. But maybe his method has the advantage of producing a continuous supply of good governors; it would certainly seem so…

Or not.

Summary

After a clumsy start, and some long, not very funny stories set in England and/or involving wives, the book gets more interesting when it actually gets to Germany in chapter 6, and, in my opinion, really blooms when they finally get to the actual cycling holiday bit in chapter 10.

A final thought is the odd tonal imbalance in Jerome, or the overlapping of historical periods. What I mean is that his naughty schoolboy relishing of hi-jinks and breaking the law and getting into comedy fights is completely at odds with the stuffy, mutton chops side-whiskers mental image we have of Victorian men, it seems hugely more modern. One minute he’s describing the fight over the water hose, which sounds like utterly contemporary, the next he is talking about chaperones and how young ladies are supervised by their families in drawing rooms and dances which takes us right back to Victorian values.

And then there’s the fantastical Monty Python aspect. He begins a digression about how you find more breeds of dog in Germany than in England but almost immediately steps over a boundary into the fantastical and absurd.

George stopped a dog in Sigmaringen and drew our attention to it. It suggested a cross between a codfish and a poodle. I would not like to be positive it was not a cross between a codfish and a poodle.

Jerome’s signature note is not the ‘gentle Edwardian humour’ I associated him with before I reread these books, it is the continual schoolboy urge to push every comic conceit far beyond the bounds of reason, into the utterly surreal.

I do not know what the German breeder’s idea is; at present he retains his secret. George suggests he is aiming at a griffin. There is much to bear out this theory… Yet I cannot bring myself to believe that such are anything more than mere accidents. The German is practical…about a house, a griffin would be so inconvenient: people would be continually treading on its tail. My own idea is that what the Germans are trying for is a mermaid, which they will then train to catch fish.

Or:

Orchards exist in the Vosges mountains in plenty; but to trespass into one for the purpose of stealing fruit would be as foolish as for a fish to try and get into a swimming bath without paying.

This is the wonderfully fantastical Jeromian note and, at the end of the day Bummel is not as good as Boat because in the later book we hear less of it, it is often more strained and contrived, and, in the final chapter completely eclipsed by the extended meditation on the German character which can’t help but evoke dark thoughts of the terrible events which were to come.


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Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome (1889)

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’ He said we should have fresh air, exercise and quiet; the constant change of scene would occupy our minds (including what there was of Harris’s); and the hard work would give us a good appetite, and make us sleep well.

Three Men in A Boat is routinely included in any list of the funniest books ever written in any language. It describes the lazy dawdling progress of three late-Victorian ‘chaps’ on a 2-week boating holiday up the River Thames from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford and back again. Despite being slapdash in ‘plot’ and very uneven in tone, it was wildly popular upon publication, has sold solidly ever since and been translated into loads of languages. Why?

Guidebook to a new type of activity

One answer is that the book caught the spirit of a moment when commercial activity on the Thames had all but died out, almost the entire barge traffic which dominated it having been decimated by the railway revolution of the 1840s and 1850s. As a result a new fashion had been developing since the 1870s for boating as a leisure activity. In fact at various points the narrator complains about the Thames becoming too busy with pleasure craft, with thousands of skiffs and rowboats and his particular bete noire, the steam pleasure cruiser.

The book was originally conceived as a mixture of history book and tourist guide to cash in on the newish pastime, and quite literally showed ‘how to do it’, with advice on how to hire a boat, what kind to get (our heroes hire ‘a Thames camping skiff’, ‘a double-sculling skiff’), an itinerary with top sights to spot, what to expect, how far to expect to travel each day, with historical notes about Romans and Saxons and kings and queens and the castles and monasteries of each Thames-side settlement.

‘We won’t take a tent,’ suggested George; ‘we will have a boat with a cover. It is ever so much simpler, and more comfortable.’

Admittedly the book as we have it now almost completely submerges this factual information in prolonged comic digressions and humorous sketches, but as a practical guide, it still has a vestigial interest: most of the route, the locks and so on are unchanged and most of the pubs and inns named are still open. Here’s an example of Jerome’s factual but dreamy guidebook style:

From Wallingford up to Dorchester the neighbourhood of the river grows more hilly, varied, and picturesque. Dorchester stands half a mile from the river. It can be reached by paddling up the Thame, if you have a small boat; but the best way is to leave the river at Day’s Lock, and take a walk across the fields. Dorchester is a delightfully peaceful old place, nestling in stillness and silence and drowsiness. Dorchester, like Wallingford, was a city in ancient British times; it was then called Caer Doren, ‘the city on the water.’ In more recent times the Romans formed a great camp here, the fortifications surrounding which now seem like low, even hills. In Saxon days it was the capital of Wessex. It is very old, and it was very strong and great once. Now it sits aside from the stirring world, and nods and dreams.

How to holiday

The second element is it shows you what tone to approach such a holiday in, namely one of humorous self-deprecation. It is not only a guide to the route and its sights, but the mood and manner of insouciant larking around to take on such a holiday.

The book is less of a guidebook than a toolkit of whimsy, humour, comedy, irony, pranks, mishaps and ironic reversals. Reading any passage at random makes you feel lighter and gayer. In fact it is a model, in its simplicity and sustained good humour and sheer fun, of what a modest staycation should be like and, as most of us know to our cost, rarely is.

Humour

This brings us to the third and most obvious element which is the humour, the comedy, and the most striking thing about the book which is how incredibly well the humour has lasted. Much of Three Men in a Boat is still very funny indeed. Jerome manages to turn almost every incident and passing thought into comedy with the power of his whimsy and frivolous invention.

I was hooked from the moment in paragraph three when the narrator describes what a hypochondriac he is, how the minute he reads any advert for a new medicine he becomes convinced he has all the symptoms of the relevant illness, and proceeds to develop this into a comic riff about how he once went to the British Museum to read up on a slight ailment he thought he had, and then found his eye diverted by another entry in the medical encyclopedia and, in the end, ended up reading the entire thing from cover to cover, convinced he had every symptom of every ailment listed in the book, from Ague to Zymosis.

I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

He doesn’t stop there. His new-found health anxiety led him to pay a worried visit to a doctor friend who  sounded him out, discovered where he’d been and what he’d been reading and calmly gave him a prescription for… exercise, fresh air and to stop poking about in subjects he didn’t understand!

The narrative opens on this mood of restless and entirely fictional hypochondria, as the narrator (‘J’) and his two pals meet up for a drink and a pipe, and all agree they need some kind of break, some kind of rest cure… This leads into a comic consideration of all the alternative types of holiday available with the invariable disasters they entail, with a particular lingering taking a sea cruise and a vivid comic description of the prolonged sea sickness it so often leads to… until:

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’

They discuss the novel charms of a slow cruise up the River Thames… And off we go. (Actually, as the book progresses, we discover that they have been on quite a few boat trips up the Thames before, but somehow that doesn’t dampen the initial boyish enthusiasm.)

Play acting

And this is another aspect of it: the three chaps in the boat are in a sense playing at being late-Victorian larks. There is a strong element of play-acting, of theatricality, in many of the best scenes and this encourages the reader to take part in the acting.

When I was a student there were chaps who liked to wear boaters and blazers and hire punts on the river. They were acting the part of chaps punting along the willow-strewn river while their lady loves lay back among the pillows, trailing one hand in the river and holding a glass of chilled champagne in the other. It encourages a spirit of acting.

The models of the narrator’s two chums, Harris and George were, in real life, the founder of a London printing business (Harris) and a banker who would go on to become a senior manager in Barclays (George). But not on this trip. On this jolly jaunt they are acting the parts of incompetents and fools larking around.

Male friendship

Which brings us to the chappiness of the chaps, the fact that the book is not only a record of an idyllic trip through an idealised bit of English landscape, but is also an idealised account of male friendship. If only our real friends were as whimsical, funny, amusing and doggedly loyal as the chaps in the boat.

Having gone on various all-male holidays myself, I know that a key element of them is the sense of exaggerating each other’s shortcomings and characteristics. Things always go wrong and the sign of a good holiday, and of a good relationship, is to retain good spirits and a sense of humour whatever happens.

Without wanting to sound too pompous about it, a key element in this kind of practical, camping, outdoors-style venture is the element of forgiveness. If one of you sets the tent up all wrong so that it falls down in the middle of the night in the middle of a rainstorm, it takes a lot of character, and of love, not to get angry but to keep your sense of humour.

One way to manage this is to turn each other into cartoons. I had a couple of friends who went on an epic journey across South America. They had difficult times made worse by drunkenness and general incompetence. They discovered early on that the way to avoid anger and arguments was to treat each other as cartoon caricatures of themselves, so they weren’t criticising each other (which is hurtful) but were attacking each other’s cartoon avatars (which was funny and defused tensions).

In fact they developed a particularly powerful variation on this theme which was to mimic a couple of  fictional sports commentators, Brian and Peter, alternating commentary on their real-life activities in wheedling, whining, microphone voices of two fictional

‘In a long career of cocking up travel arrangements, surely this is Dave’s biggest screw-up of all, turning up at the airport a day after their flight had left. Brian.’

‘Thank you, Peter, yes in a lifetime of commentating on drunken Brits fouling up abroad, I think this definitely takes gold medal. It looks like young Dave now has no serious competition for the Most Incompetent Tourist of the Year award which he has, to be fair, put so much effort into winning’.

By turning each other into comic caricatures, male friends can be quite brutally critical about each other, but in a way which defuses tension and increases male bonding.

George and Harris

So the three chaps are not only characters but caricatures, types. Very early in the book we learn that Harris is caricatured as the Lazy One.

Harris said he didn’t think George ought to do anything that would have a tendency to make him sleepier than he always was, as it might be dangerous. He said he didn’t very well understand how George was going to sleep any more than he did now, seeing that there were only twenty-four hours in each day, summer and winter alike; but thought that if he did sleep any more, he might just as well be dead, and so save his board and lodging.

And the drinker.

I wonder now, supposing Harris, say, turned over a new leaf, and became a great and good man, and got to be Prime Minister, and died, if they would put up signs over the public-houses that he had patronised: ‘Harris had a glass of bitter in this house;’ ‘Harris had two of Scotch cold here in the summer of ’88;’ ‘Harris was chucked from here in December, 1886.’

No, there would be too many of them! It would be the houses that he had never entered that would become famous. ‘Only house in South London that Harris never had a drink in!’ The people would flock to it to see what could have been the matter with it.

And the glutton:

Harris said there was nothing like a swim before breakfast to give you an appetite.  He said it always gave him an appetite.  George said that if it was going to make Harris eat more than Harris ordinarily ate, then he should protest against Harris having a bath at all.

While George is caricatured as Dim, so that everyone can enjoy feigning surprise every time he makes a sensible suggestion (which he does, in fact, all the time; the whole idea of a trip up the river is his, after all). George always knows ‘a little place just round the corner’ which will serve a jolly fine whisky or brandy or whatever the occasion demands. ‘George said he felt thirsty (I never knew George when he didn’t)’.

And ‘J’, the narrator, thinks of himself as the imaginative, soulful one who does all the organising, a contention the other two vehemently deny.

Englishness

A central aspect of Englishness is a kind of dogged incompetence. I have Canadian cousins and I am quietly appalled at how good they are at everything. Their jobs, their cars, their airplane deals, the house on the lake, their camping, their barbecues, they’re just super capable at everything.

By comparison, whenever I try a barbecue the sausages are burned on one side, raw on the other or smell of paraffin; I not only can’t handle the massive armoured cars most people drive around in these days, but they terrify me. Whenever I went camping the inner tent always touched the outer tent so that the rain came through and, generally, dripped precisely on my face or that of my angry partner. I went canoeing once but, although I’m quite confident on water, ended up going round in circles and eventually gave it up in frustration.

In all these respects and more I think of myself as very English, in living a life of quiet frustration, putting up with endless humiliation by shop assistants, local government officials, crooked financial advisers, maladroit tradesmen, pestering insurance salesmen and countless other rip-off merchants, living in a small, over-crowded, angry country run by buffoons, painfully conscious all the time of my own failings and lack of ability.

For a whole year I’ve been meaning to fix the trellis currently leaning against the fence to the fence with battens and screws so I can plant some climbers for it. But in order to do that I need to figure out where to go to buy the wood to make the battens, how to saw them to length, which make of electric screwdriver to buy (battery or cord) and then which size of screws. It is a forest of impenetrable obstacles. I wonder if it’ll ever get done. Can’t help feeling my Canadian cousins would have done it in half an hour and then got on with organising another delicious barbecue.

(I’d written that paragraph, looking out the window at the trellis, before I came across the sequence in chapter 3 of Three Men In A Boat describing at comic length the legendary incompetence of the narrator’s Uncle Podger and the mayhem he causes his entire extended family, the servants and neighbouring shopkeepers in his cack-handed attempts to simply hang a picture on a wall. The inability to do even the simplest household chore reminds me of all Charles Pooter’s domestic accidents in Diary of a Nobody. Both books show that being useless at even the simplest household tasks has been a hallmark of English comedy for at least 130 years.)

Heroic failure is the English way. As no end of commentators have pointed out, the British most remember their military disasters, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Mafeking, the massacre at Isandlwana, the Somme, Dunkirk and the Blitz. We like it when we’re being hammered. Until very recently our tennis players and our footballers have been notable for their dogged third-rateness (Tim Henman, any England squad since 1970).

American humour tends to be smart and snappy, a festival of fast-talking, wisecracking one-line-merchants from Groucho Marx through Cary Grant in his screwball comedies to Woody Allen. English humour is about fumbling and falling over things: Dad’s Army, Some Mothers Do Ave Em. Ooh Betty. They don’t like it up ’em, Captain Mainwaring. This tone of perplexed failure is perfectly captured in the narrator’s description of bathing in the sea from the start of the book:

It is the same when you go to the sea-side. I always determine—when thinking over the matter in London—that I’ll get up early every morning, and go and have a dip before breakfast, and I religiously pack up a pair of drawers and a bath towel. I always get red bathing drawers. I rather fancy myself in red drawers. They suit my complexion so. But when I get to the sea I don’t feel somehow that I want that early morning bathe nearly so much as I did when I was in town.

On the contrary, I feel more that I want to stop in bed till the last moment, and then come down and have my breakfast. Once or twice virtue has triumphed, and I have got out at six and half-dressed myself, and have taken my drawers and towel, and stumbled dismally off. But I haven’t enjoyed it. They seem to keep a specially cutting east wind, waiting for me, when I go to bathe in the early morning; and they pick out all the three-cornered stones, and put them on the top, and they sharpen up the rocks and cover the points over with a bit of sand so that I can’t see them, and they take the sea and put it two miles out, so that I have to huddle myself up in my arms and hop, shivering, through six inches of water. And when I do get to the sea, it is rough and quite insulting.

English weather

Foreigners often accuse the English of being obsessed with the weather. This is because it is so perverse and unpredictable. Occasionally we do actually have hot summers but my lifetime has been marked by confident predictions of ‘barbecue summers’ which end up being dismal washouts. Not that the English weather’s particularly interesting, it’s rare that you have really hot blue-sky summer days and, where I live in London, we rarely if ever have snow in winter. English weather is usually boring and mundane, lacking vivid extremes, like English culture generally. I read once in the CIA Handbook that for more than 50% of the time the English sky is grey and overcast. I remember it feeling like that during the entire premiership of John Major, 1990 to 1997.

Anyway, any adult English person has had the experience of organising a barbecue or birthday party or wedding reception outdoors in a garden or park or grand mansion only to have it rained off by steady, grey. ‘Rain stopped play’ is one of the commonest terms in cricket. It’s amazing that Wimbledon ever makes it to the final on schedule given the amount of time lost to English summer rain. The gloomy weather is a big part of that heavy-hearted sense of entirely predictable failure and disappointment which is at the heart of the English character.

Hence the national obsession with weather forecasts, on telly, the radio, in all the papers, despite the fact that any rational adult knows the weather forecast is usually wildly wrong. I remember looking at the BBC’s weather forecast for my part of London which told me it was hot and sunny despite the fact that, out the window, at that very minute it was chucking down with rain. As in so many big organisations, reliance technology meant the weather forecasters were relying more on their expensive computer model than looking out the bloody window.

Three Men In A Boat shows you that nothing has changed, the weather forecast was just as rubbish 130 years ago:

I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper. ‘Heavy showers, with thunderstorms, may be expected to-day,’ it would say on Monday, and so we would give up our picnic, and stop indoors all day, waiting for the rain.—And people would pass the house, going off in wagonettes and coaches as jolly and merry as could be, the sun shining out, and not a cloud to be seen.

‘Ah!’ we said, as we stood looking out at them through the window, ‘won’t they come home soaked!’

And we chuckled to think how wet they were going to get, and came back and stirred the fire, and got our books, and arranged our specimens of seaweed and cockle shells. By twelve o’clock, with the sun pouring into the room, the heat became quite oppressive, and we wondered when those heavy showers and occasional thunderstorms were going to begin.

‘Ah! they’ll come in the afternoon, you’ll find,’ we said to each other. ‘Oh, won’t those people get wet. What a lark!’

At one o’clock, the landlady would come in to ask if we weren’t going out, as it seemed such a lovely day.

‘No, no,’ we replied, with a knowing chuckle, ‘not we. We don’t mean to get wet—no, no.’

And when the afternoon was nearly gone, and still there was no sign of rain, we tried to cheer ourselves up with the idea that it would come down all at once, just as the people had started for home, and were out of the reach of any shelter, and that they would thus get more drenched than ever. But not a drop ever fell, and it finished a grand day, and a lovely night after it.

The next morning we would read that it was going to be a ‘warm, fine to set-fair day; much heat;’ and we would dress ourselves in flimsy things, and go out, and, half-an-hour after we had started, it would commence to rain hard, and a bitterly cold wind would spring up, and both would keep on steadily for the whole day, and we would come home with colds and rheumatism all over us, and go to bed.

Voilà the English national characteristics: the complete incompetence of the forecasters, the blithe indifference of the newspapers (or radio or telly) which publish this twaddle day after day, the utter unreliability of official information, the inevitability that whatever you decide to do will be wrong, and the one over-riding certainty of disappointment. A Philip Larkin world.

Hence, the one time our trio of chums need a cab to collect their stuff from the front door and take them to Waterloo station in a hurry the road, which is usually packed with empty cabs hurtling back and forth, is empty. Similarly, when they get to Waterloo they can’t find anyone who knows the platform for the train to Kingston.

Activities the English (in the shape of J, Harris and George) are doomed to fail at

  • going on an ocean cruise – seasickness
  • putting up a tent in the rain – recipe for homicidal rage
  • hanging a picture on a wall – reduce entire family to tears
  • swimming in the sea – cut your feet to ribbons and get half drowned
  • running a train system – it was an over-priced shambles in the 1880s and still is
  • washing their own clothes in the river – disaster
  • rigging up the hoops and canvas over the boat for the night – they manage to get tangled in the cloth and nearly throttled
  • cooking scrambled eggs – J had never heard of this dish before but Harris turns it into a burned mess
  • opening a tin of pineapple with a knife – impossible to do without serious injury
  • finding a room for the night in Datchet – never do this
  • singing a comic song after dinner – Harris should be banned from even trying
  • playing the bagpipes – when a young fellow J knew practiced at home the neighbours called the police and accused him of murdering his family

To say nothing of the dog

I’m not a dog person, but I appreciate that many English people are, and so I can see that the character of the dog Montmorency, a mischievous fox terrier, is a vital component in the story. He brings a warm, snuffling supplement to the human narrative, either getting into mischief or shedding an ironic light on the human shambles, adding the final cherry on the cake to many a comic moment.

Take the scene in chapter 14 where the chaps knock up a supposed Irish stew by combining the leftovers in the party’s food hamper:

I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.

A cat couldn’t do that, add that final comic touch. Any sensible cat would have sloped off long ago to the warm lap of a homely lady happy to stroke and feed it fishy titbits all day. A dog sticks it out through thick and thin, no matter how incompetent his master(s). Mind you, Montmorency is not quite the tail-wagging, faithful hound some people make out.

When first he came to live at my expense, I never thought I should be able to get him to stop long. I used to sit down and look at him, as he sat on the rug and looked up at me, and think: ‘Oh, that dog will never live. He will be snatched up to the bright skies in a chariot, that is what will happen to him.’

But, when I had paid for about a dozen chickens that he had killed; and had dragged him, growling and kicking, by the scruff of his neck, out of a hundred and fourteen street fights; and had had a dead cat brought round for my inspection by an irate female, who called me a murderer; and had been summoned by the man next door but one for having a ferocious dog at large, that had kept him pinned up in his own tool-shed, afraid to venture his nose outside the door for over two hours on a cold night; and had learned that the gardener, unknown to myself, had won thirty shillings by backing him to kill rats against time, then I began to think that maybe they’d let him remain on earth for a bit longer, after all.

To hang about a stable, and collect a gang of the most disreputable dogs to be found in the town, and lead them out to march round the slums to fight other disreputable dogs, is Montmorency’s idea of ‘life’.

And again:

Fox-terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs are, and it will take years and years of patient effort on the part of us Christians to bring about any appreciable reformation in the rowdiness of the fox-terrier nature.

And:

We spent two very pleasant days at Oxford. There are plenty of dogs in the town of Oxford. Montmorency had eleven fights on the first day, and fourteen on the second, and evidently thought he had got to heaven.

The dog is one more prompt for that amused exasperation which is the tone of the book throughout, that resigned tolerance of each other’s foibles (that’s to say inadequacies and incompetence), the cussed obstinacy of the universe, the stupidity of other river users, with the dog thrown in as an additional element of chaos and frustration.

Montmorency’s ambition in life is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.

To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable.

He came and sat down on things, just when they were wanted to be packed; and he laboured under the fixed belief that, whenever Harris or George reached out their hand for anything, it was his cold, damp nose that they wanted. He put his leg into the jam, and he worried the teaspoons, and he pretended that the lemons were rats, and got into the hamper and killed three of them before Harris could land him with the frying-pan.

Harris said I encouraged him. I didn’t encourage him. A dog like that don’t want any encouragement. It’s the natural, original sin that is born in him that makes him do things like that.

Montmorency helping to untangle the tow line

The dog speaks, by the way. It is given a variety of opinions and several passages of dialogue, once with the cat in Marlow High Street, once when it challenges the kettle to a fight. And it’s not the only normally non-speaking entity to be attributed agency. I was particularly taken with the story of his earliest attempt to sail a boat in which he and his friend struggled to even erect the mast and then managed to get themselves completely tangled up in the sail.

The impression on the mind of the sail seemed to be that we were playing at funerals, and that I was the corpse and itself was the winding-sheet. When it found that this was not the idea, it hit me over the head with the boom, and refused to do anything.

Digressions

Three Men In A Boat in a sense consists almost entirely of digressions. It’s as if, having laid out the narrative of what actually happened in its logical order, Jerome then pondered how he could exaggerate every single incident into the most preposterous comic riff possible.

He has a fantastic comic conceit, i.e. the ability to take a simple idea and develop it into a preposterous and fantastical series of exaggerations. Thus when they’re discussing what food to take, they all solemnly agree no cheese, which prompts J to launch a fairly straightforward joke about the way cheese is very smelly.

For lunch, he said, we could have biscuits, cold meat, bread and butter, and jam—but no cheese. Cheese, like oil, makes too much of itself. It wants the whole boat to itself. It goes through the hamper, and gives a cheesy flavour to everything else there. You can’t tell whether you are eating apple-pie or German sausage, or strawberries and cream. It all seems cheese. There is too much odour about cheese.

But this is only the beginning: mention of cheese leads the narrator to remember the time a friend bought some cheeses in Liverpool –

I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool. Splendid cheeses they were, ripe and mellow, and with a two hundred horse-power scent about them that might have been warranted to carry three miles, and knock a man over at two hundred yards.

– a story which becomes steadily more inflated and preposterous over the next four pages, as the cheese proceeds to alienate all the passengers in the train back to London, his cab driver who collects him at the station. The wife of the man he transported it for announces she is moving out of her house (and taking the children) until the cheeses are removed, and then the story develops a surreal, almost horror story persistence as the narrator tries dumping the cheeses in a nearby canal only for the barge drivers to insist the smell is making them ill and that he trawls them back up; he next sneaks them into a mortuary, but the coroner complains that he is trying to wake the dead, and the entire, by this stage surreal and absurd fantasy, only comes to an end when he takes them all the way to the coast and buries them deep in the sand, although people can still smell their strong whiff, but (comically) attribute it to ‘bracing’ sea air.

So it’s: 1. a book of wonderful comic digressions, a kind of unscholarly, more mundane version of Tristram Shandy – but also 2. it struck me how extended these digressions are; he rarely stops a comic conceit after a sentence or two when he can carry it on for as many paragraphs as possible.

Look at the four paragraphs about Montmorency’s character quoted above. Jerome could have stopped after the first paragraph, he’s made his point, it’s very funny. But he presses on for another three paragraphs, milking the notion of Montmorency being a serious hindrance to anyone trying to pack a bag to the absolute max.

Or take the extended sequence about the utter rubbishness of weather forecasts which I quoted above. That’s only the beginning. The weather riff then goes on for twice as much again, leading into a prolonged passage about the barometer in a hotel in Oxford which obstinately pointed to ‘Dry weather’ while it was raining so hard the lower part of the town was flooded.

Probably the book’s central quality is the ability of these digressions to take a comic ball and run with it for a really extended period of time, never dropping it, but blowing the original comic balloon up to the size of a zeppelin.

The fantastical

This raises a third point, which is the tendency of many of the jokes to cross a border from the realistic  to the ridiculous and then continue on into the positively fantastical. Many if not most of J’s extended anecdotes have this quality of exorbitancy, meaning: ‘exceeding the bounds of custom, propriety, or reason’.

I realised this during the account of their inability to find the right platform at Waterloo for the train to Kingston. At first it is realistic, in the sense that big train stations often are chaotic. Then it becomes enjoyably farcical as porters, officials and even the station master give completely contradictory advice. But then it crosses a borderline from exaggeration into outright fantasy when they find a train driver who’ll take them wherever they want to go for half a crown, so they pay up and this man drives his train to Kingston, without telling the station authorities or any of the passengers aboard apart from our chums.

So we went to the high-level platform, and saw the engine-driver, and asked him if he was going to Kingston. He said he couldn’t say for certain of course, but that he rather thought he was. Anyhow, if he wasn’t the 11.5 for Kingston, he said he was pretty confident he was the 9.32 for Virginia Water, or the 10 a.m. express for the Isle of Wight, or somewhere in that direction, and we should all know when we got there. We slipped half-a-crown into his hand, and begged him to be the 11.5 for Kingston. ‘Nobody will ever know, on this line,’ we said, ‘what you are, or where you’re going. You know the way, you slip off quietly and go to Kingston.’

‘Well, I don’t know, gents,’ replied the noble fellow, ‘but I suppose some train’s got to go to Kingston; and I’ll do it. Gimme the half-crown.”

By this point it’s become as fantastical as a children’s story. You feel it’s only a small hop and skip and a jump from here to the Hogwarts Express. And then the punchline:

We learnt, afterwards, that the train we had come by was really the Exeter mail, and that they had spent hours at Waterloo looking for it and nobody knew what had become of it.

The book is generally described as a heart-warming story of a trio of chaps messing about in a boat. This element of fantastical exaggeration is surprisingly under-reported.

And excess. Here is the narrator descanting at length about the types of people who insist on fencing or chaining off their little bits of the Thames waterfront, or erecting officious noticeboards:

The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered:

‘Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.’

People associate the book with mellow nostalgia, but I hope I’m showing that it’s quite a lot more extreme and disruptive than that suggests. There’s a surprising amount of this comic excess, talk of murdering and strangling and burning and trampling and so on.

There’s a good microcosm of the process in chapter 12 where in just a few sentences you can follow the thought process going from reasonable to exaggerated to manic.

Maidenhead itself is too snobby to be pleasant. It is the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion. It is the town of showy hotels, patronised chiefly by dudes and ballet girls. It is the witch’s kitchen from which go forth those demons of the river—steam-launches!

(The more I read, the more I realised Jerome isn’t dealing in jokes; he writes entire comic sketches. Although he doesn’t do the deliberate surrealism, the way he carries a comic conceit from the funny onto the exaggerated and then to outlandish conclusions reminds me a bit of Monty Python. It is no surprise to learn that he started his career in the arts, in the theatre, as an actor, and wrote a dozen or so plays alongside his career as a prose writer and magazine editor.)

Purple prose and historical fantasias

This brings us to the last aspect of the book worth noting which is the continual advent, in between the extended comic digressions, of passages of over-ripe purple prose. This comes in two flavours: 1. soppy rustic idylls about nature and 2. historical fantasias when the author presents sub-Walter Scott descriptions of the passage of Good Queen Bess or some such historical personage through whatever historic old town or castle they’re boating past.

The many over-ripe nature passages are clearly written with his tongue firmly in his cheek:

The red sunset threw a mystic light upon the waters, and tinged with fire the towering woods, and made a golden glory of the piled-up clouds. It was an hour of deep enchantment, of ecstatic hope and longing. The little sail stood out against the purple sky, the gloaming lay around us, wrapping the world in rainbow shadows; and, behind us, crept the night.

We seemed like knights of some old legend, sailing across some mystic lake into the unknown realm of twilight, unto the great land of the sunset.

And are nearly always the prelude to an almighty thump of bathos. In this case J experiences this great communing with Nature at its most spiritual just before he steers their boat into a punt full of anglers who proceed to curse and excoriate them in extensive and colourful terms. So the purple passages are, at bottom, another type of joke, a variation on the idea of the extended comic passage.

Although some of them are maybe just meant to be happy, light and evocative, slightly tongue in cheek, but also capturing the beauty of unspoilt countrside.

Down to Cookham, past the Quarry Woods and the meadows, is a lovely reach. Dear old Quarry Woods! with your narrow, climbing paths, and little winding glades, how scented to this hour you seem with memories of sunny summer days! How haunted are your shadowy vistas with the ghosts of laughing faces! how from your whispering leaves there softly fall the voices of long ago!

Like P.G. Wodehouse a couple of generations later, the over-egging of these descriptions is part of their knowing, light, good humour.

2. A good example of his historical fantasias is when the trio reach Runnymede and J gives an extended imagining of Bad King John being forced to meet his rebellious Barons and taken on a barge to the island where he is obliged to sign the historic Magna Carta, all visions of bluff, manly, hearts-of-oak Englishmen.

the heart of King John sinks before the stern faces of the English fighting men, and the arm of King John drops back on to his rein, and he dismounts and takes his seat in the foremost barge. And the Barons follow in, with each mailed hand upon the sword-hilt, and the word is given to let go.

Slowly the heavy, bright-decked barges leave the shore of Runningmede. Slowly against the swift current they work their ponderous way, till, with a low grumble, they grate against the bank of the little island that from this day will bear the name of Magna Charta Island. And King John has stepped upon the shore, and we wait in breathless silence till a great shout cleaves the air, and the great cornerstone in England’s temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid.

Many critics have objected to these passages as disrupting the flow of what they think of as a comic novel and feel ought to remain strictly in character as a Comic Novel. But I have already shown that the text is not as straightforwardly humorous as people think. To my mind both the rural visions and the historical fantasias are natural extensions of Jerome’s tendency to really extended comic fantasy. They are another type of tall tale. They share, along with the comic passages, the tendency to exorbitance, to overstep the bounds of ‘realism’ into fantasy.

Many critics have come down hard on these passages but, personally, I found them amusing and entertaining diversions, a relief from the need to be laughing all the time, so they added to the variety and pacing the text.

Also they have the charm of their time. It’s not as if we, nowadays, in 2021, get to read very much high-minded Victorian patriotic history. Modern historians are devoted to debunking the past and showing what a sexist, racist, slave-ridden society Britain has always been. It’s as pleasant to slip into Jerome’s manly, patriotic visions of English history as it is to pretend, for the duration of the reading, that one is a late-Victorian young buck messing about on the river.

Mock heroic

The mock heroic as a literary genre consists of:

satires or parodies that mock Classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature. Typically, mock-heroic works either put a fool in the role of the hero or exaggerate the heroic qualities to such a point that they become absurd.

Obviously Three Men In A Boat isn’t a mock heroic work in this sense but, like much comedy, it uses mock heroic techniques. All I mean by this is two things:

1. As an extension of his habit of slipping into extended historical fantasies, Jerome also slips, often in the space of a sentence, into humorously comparing one or other of his companions or the dog, to heroic historical counterparts; as when Montmorency sees a cat in Marlow High Street:

We were, as I have said, returning from a dip, and half-way up the High Street a cat darted out from one of the houses in front of us, and began to trot across the road. Montmorency gave a cry of joy—the cry of a stern warrior who sees his enemy given over to his hands—the sort of cry Cromwell might have uttered when the Scots came down the hill—and flew after his prey.

He doesn’t say which of Cromwell’s battles he’s referring to, maybe to Cromwell’s decisive victory over them at the battle of Worcester in 1651. But the point is the humour in the vast dysjunction between a dog spying a cat in a road and one of the great battles of British history.

2. My other point is more specifically lexical, meaning specifically about language, and more specifically than that, about quotes. Like many comic authors before and after him, Jerome creates a comic effect by juxtaposing descriptions of his clumsy mates and their scrappy dog with solemn and portentous quotes, the more solemn and portentous the funnier the effect, and what language is more solemn and portentous than quotes from those twin peaks of the English language, Shakespeare and the Bible?

Thus he ends a comic passage about his school days and the unfairness of the way the only boy in his class who loved schoolwork was always ill and off school, whereas J and his mates, who hated schoolwork, always showed disgusting good health no matter how hard they tried to get ill and get days off school – he ends this passage with a mockingly solemn aphorism from the Bible:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven…

Although the naughty schoolboy in him can’t help adding a comic and demotic phrase to the end of this quote:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven and baked.

You can almost imagine J or one of his friends solemnly intoning these phrases in the persona of a dreary vicar, delivering a wise and learned mock sermon on the subject of Harris falling into a stream or George driven mad with frustration at having a tin of juicy pineapple but no can opener to open it with.

(Compare and contrast with the use of Biblical quotes and phraseology by Jerome’s contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, who was saturated in the Bible, its phrases and rhythms, and aspired to, and sometimes matched, the solemnity of the original, as in Recessional.)

So much for comically inappropriate use of Biblical phraseology, as to Shakespeare, comic characters for centuries have used tags from the Bard out of context in order to heighten a comic moment. Thus when George forgets to wind his watch and wakes in the early hours to see, with panic, that it is a quarter past eight and he needs to be at the office by nine, his response is to repeat in comic mode an exclamation from Hamlet, tragically intense in its original context, but long since watered down to become a comic expostulation:

‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ exclaimed George; ‘and here have I got to be in the City by nine.’

3. As I wrote this I realised that alongside the mock heroic presence of these two reliable old warhorses, the Bible and Shakespeare, in the text, there is a notable absence: there are no Latin tags. Jerome had a surprisingly harsh upbringing in the East End, attending a day school, unlike most of the authors and critics of the time, who enjoyed the blessings of a preparatory school followed by public school followed by Oxford or Cambridge, all of which of course, soaked them in the Classics and explains why later Victorian literature is littered with Latin tags which ‘everyone’ was supposed to understand.

Not so Jerome. The absence of Latin is one of the subtle indicators of the slightly lower class vibe of the text which contemporary critics picked up on and criticised (see section on Demotics, below).

The narrator as raconteur

This wide range of comic effects is possible because the narrator early on establishes his persona as a raconteur, a story-teller and memoirist, which allows him very casually to introduce as many memories and incidents and anecdotes as he wants. The narrator’s tone and voice immediately create a very relaxed, flexible and roomy atmosphere. It’s indicated by the number of passages or sequences which overtly begin as memories and tales:

  • I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch—hay fever, I fancy it was…
  • I remember my brother-in-law going for a short sea trip once…
  • Another fellow I knew went for a week’s voyage round the coast, and, before they started, the steward came to him to ask whether he would pay for each meal as he had it, or arrange beforehand for the whole series…
  • He always reminds me of my poor Uncle Podger…
  • I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool…
  • I lived with a man once who used to make me mad that way. He would loll on the sofa and watch me doing things by the hour together…
  • I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper…
  • There was a boy at our school, we used to call him Sandford and Merton…
  • It was my misfortune once to go for a water picnic with two ladies of this kind [fussed about their dresses]. We did have a lively time…
  • One golden morning of a sunny day, I leant against the low stone wall that guarded a little village church, and I smoked, and drank in deep, calm gladness from the sweet, restful scene…
  • Speaking of comic songs and parties, reminds me of a rather curious incident at which I once assisted…
  • I remember being terribly upset once up the river (in a figurative sense, I mean). I was out with a young lady—cousin on my mother’s side…
  • I remember going up once from Staines to Windsor—a stretch of water peculiarly rich in these mechanical monstrosities—with a party containing three ladies of this description…
  • I knew a young fellow once, who was studying to play the bagpipes…
  • I was one of a party who hired an up-river boat one summer, for a few days’ trip….

Some highlights

Passages that stood out for me included:

  • the time Harris not only got lost in the Hampton Court Maze but persuaded a whole load of other people to follow him until they were all lost
  • the time J took some young ladies dressed in the latest fashion for a boat trip and the comedy of their things getting wet and dirty
  • the comic passage about the time he was having a soulful moment in a graveyard which was interrupted by an interfering old man who wanted to show him all the tombs and monuments
  • the extended description of Harris making a complete fool of himself trying to sing a comic song after a dinner party
  • the comic anecdote of the German professor who sang a tragic song about a dying maiden but who two mischievous German students had told the foreign audience was actually a cheerfully comic song so that the foreigners guffawed and tittered all the way through, rendering the professor speechless with anger
  • the notion that the kettle can hear you expressing a wish for tea and so deliberately refuses to boil, so the best thing is to talk loudly about how the last thing you want is tea, then the perishing thing will boil, alright!
  • how, back in good King Henry’s day, the innocent day tripper couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into the bloody king and Ann Boleyn on one of their many snogging trips
  • the procession of our heroes down Marlow High Street after a shopping expedition for food and drink, accompanied by the ‘boys’ of almost every shop in the town, plus random urchins and various stray dogs

by the time we had finished, we had as fine a collection of boys with baskets following us around as heart could desire; and our final march down the middle of the High Street, to the river, must have been as imposing a spectacle as Marlow had seen for many a long day.

Jerome’s demotic tone

Nothing excuses violence of language and coarseness of expression…

Contemporary critics, upper-middle class to a man, tutted about Jerome’s slangy expressions and disapproved of the lower-middle-class character of the protagonists. They disliked their levity, their lack of respect for their elders and betters and authority figures of all types. Nothing is taken seriously, everything is debunked. Education.

I don’t understand German myself. I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since.

Or the high minded activities of worthy philanthropists.

In the church is a memorial to Mrs. Sarah Hill, who bequeathed 1 pound annually, to be divided at Easter, between two boys and two girls who ‘have never been undutiful to their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to steal, or to break windows.’ Fancy giving up all that for five shillings a year! It is not worth it.

Even the modern reader can, I think, detect moments when Jerome seems to be deliberately using slang expressions for effect:

  • She was nuts on public-houses, was England’s Virgin Queen.
  • For once in a way, we men are able to show our taste in colours, and I think we come out very natty, if you ask me.
  • We—George, Harris, and myself—took a ‘raw ’un’ up with us once last season, and we plied him with the customary stretchers about the wonderful things we had done all the way up. [where ‘stretchers’ seems to mean tall tales or whoppers]

The narrator has a habit of adding ‘like’ at the end of sentences, which is clearly non-orthodox and deliberately put in to make the tone just that bit East End.

  • Neither the beef nor the strawberries and cream seemed happy, either—seemed discontented like.
  • We had had a sail—a good all-round exciting, interesting sail—and now we thought we would have a row, just for a change like.

Equally non-U is the way the tone of many of the passages is surprisingly immoderate.

I never see a steam launch but I feel I should like to lure it to a lonely part of the river, and there, in the silence and the solitude, strangle it.

Take the extended passage about the wretched people who put up loud signs warning boaters from mooring on their river frontages which I quoted above, in which J tells us he’d like to burn down their houses and Harris declares he’d like to slaughter their entire families and sing comic songs on the ruins!

In addition to humorously contemplating murder and arson, the narrator cheerfully confesses to having, as a boy, been a thief, pure and simple:

Having acquired a taste for the water, I did a good deal of rafting in various suburban brickfields—an exercise providing more interest and excitement than might be imagined, especially when you are in the middle of the pond and the proprietor of the materials of which the raft is constructed suddenly appears on the bank, with a big stick in his hand.

And appears to recommend stealing a boat in the here and now:

To those who do contemplate making Oxford their starting-place, I would say, take your own boat—unless, of course, you can take someone else’s without any possible danger of being found out.

And the text contains a number of incitements to actual vandalism, which I can well imagine the property-owning classes and all right-minded critics sharply disapproving of.

Of course the entrance [to the Wargrave cut off the Thames] is studded with posts and chains, and surrounded with notice boards, menacing all kinds of torture, imprisonment, and death to everyone who dares set scull upon its waters—I wonder some of these riparian boors don’t claim the air of the river and threaten everyone with forty shillings fine who breathes it—but the posts and chains a little skill will easily avoid; and as for the boards, you might, if you have five minutes to spare, and there is nobody about, take one or two of them down and throw them into the river.

The three chaps come over as fairly middle class with their ‘drats’ and ‘dashes’ and ‘come on old chap’s so I was surprised when J admits a more working class accent in his circle. He describes going boating with a lady friend and how much it changed her temper for the worst. But it was her accent which surprised me.

‘Oh, drat the man!’ she would exclaim, when some unfortunate sculler would get in her way; ‘why don’t he look where he’s going?’

And it’s a telling detail that J doesn’t like Maidenhead because it is ‘too snobby’ and la-di-dah:

The London Journal duke always has his ‘little place’ at Maidenhead; and the heroine of the three-volume novel always dines there when she goes out on the spree with somebody else’s husband.

To summarise: it’s not as posh as it seems. In fact it’s odd to think a book so entirely associated with Hooray Henries dressed in boaters and blazers, hiring punts and hampers and recreating what they considered to be the book’s ineffably upper class and joshing tone, was ever criticised for its lower class attitude

It is just a comedy, but it’s a good deal more rough, anti-social and subversive than most people remember.

It is an ancient place, Streatley, dating back, like most river-side towns and villages, to British and Saxon times. Goring is not nearly so pretty a little spot to stop at as Streatley, if you have your choice; but it is passing fair enough in its way, and is nearer the railway in case you want to slip off without paying your hotel bill.

What he thought of the nineteenth century

  • some quaint-perched eyrie on the cliffs of Time, from whence the surging waves of the nineteenth century would sound far-off and faint.
  • The sun had got more powerful by the time we had finished breakfast, and the wind had dropped, and it was as lovely a morning as one could desire. Little was in sight to remind us of the nineteenth century.
  • I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life.
  • Mr. W. Lee—five times Mayor of Abingdon—was, no doubt, a benefactor to his generation, but I hope there are not many of his kind about in this overcrowded nineteenth century.

A purple patch about the river Thames

The river—with the sunlight flashing from its dancing wavelets, gilding gold the grey-green beech-trunks, glinting through the dark, cool wood paths, chasing shadows o’er the shallows, flinging diamonds from the mill-wheels, throwing kisses to the lilies, wantoning with the weirs’ white waters, silvering moss-grown walls and bridges, brightening every tiny townlet, making sweet each lane and meadow, lying tangled in the rushes, peeping, laughing, from each inlet, gleaming gay on many a far sail, making soft the air with glory—is a golden fairy stream.

But the river—chill and weary, with the ceaseless rain-drops falling on its brown and sluggish waters, with a sound as of a woman, weeping low in some dark chamber; while the woods, all dark and silent, shrouded in their mists of vapour, stand like ghosts upon the margin; silent ghosts with eyes reproachful, like the ghosts of evil actions, like the ghosts of friends neglected—is a spirit-haunted water through the land of vain regrets.

He’s fallen in the water

In chapter 13 they moor in a grassy spot for lunch. Harris makes himself comfortable on the loose edge of a little stream, starts to carve the appetising steak pie they’ve brought with them but, before anyone can do anything, the earth gives way and he falls into the stream, emerging moments later from amid the reeds muddy, wet and cross. The steak pie isn’t too happy, either.

The incident itself is fairly funny, but two things make it Jeromian. One is that Harris doesn’t just fall in the water, he vanishes! One minute he’s there, something distracts the other two for a second or so and, when they turn back, Harris has vanished leaving them utterly bewildered! For a moment they are thunderstruck… until they hear a wet groaning coming from the reeds. The book is full of moment like this, not just a bit funny, but extreme, like theatrical coups de grace, like a kind of verbal special effect, which stuns author and reader alike.

The second element is the cod Biblical, mockingly philosophical tone of the narrator as he describes the scene, a tone which marinates the entire book, by assuming a high-falutin’ tone in effect mocking all things earnest and pompous, mocking teachers and vicars and property owners and stationmasters and sextons, mocking Great Writers and Lofty Sentiments; contrasting the Timeless Wisdom of the Books of Books and the Immortal Spirit of Nature with the clumsy reality of three hapless young chaps who keep falling in the water and endlessly fighting.

Harris believes to this day that George and I planned it all beforehand. Thus does unjust suspicion follow even the most blameless for, as the poet says, ‘Who shall escape calumny?’ Who, indeed!

Shakespeare, again.


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The Diary of A Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith (1892)

NOVEMBER 19,  Sunday. I don’t pretend to be able to express myself in fine language, but I feel I have the power of expressing my thoughts with simplicity and lucidness.
(from the diary of Charles Pooter)

It helps if you know that the diary’s authors, George and Weedon Grossmith, were both entertainers. George, or ‘Gee Gee’ as he liked to be known, was born in 1847, began his career as a singer and entertainer in 1870 and went on to work closely with Gilbert and Sullivan, being the first performer and ‘creator’ of many of their chief parts at the Savoy Theatre, from 1877 onwards. Gee Gee became a prolific writer of comic sketches and songs. Leaving the Savoy in 1889, he toured Britain and America as an entertainer and singer till 1901 and his autobiography was titled Reminiscences of a Clown.

Weedon Grossmith was George’s younger brother, born in 1854. At first he trained as an artist at the Slade, and exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery and the Royal Academy. But art didn’t work out and he, too, succumbed to the lure of the theatre, joining a drama company in 1885 and touring the provinces and America. Weedon wrote a novel and a series of plays, and managed Terry’s theatre in London for over a decade, appearing in numerous roles, until 1917.

The point being, then, that the brothers were extremely well practiced in writing and performing comedy when they were approached by the editor of Punch magazine in 1888 to write a satirical skit about the humdrum life of a pompous, lower-middle-class ‘nobody’.

The whole thing was intended as a satire on the recent flurry of eminent ‘somebodies’ in the worlds of politics and the arts publishing autobiographies and diaries – why not the diary of someone of absolutely no significance whatsoever?

And thus was born the character of Charles Pooter, well-meaning but rather stuffy, priggish, married father of one, clerk in a stuffy, old-fashioned firm in the City, who tries to lead a dignified and respectable life but who fate is constantly twitting and undermining – in the form of a temperamental servant, a layabout son, numerous uppity tradesmen, unreliable friends and the sniggering mockery of the younger clerks at his work.

The first episode of the fictional diary was published in Punch magazine in May 1888 and it then ran for 26 fortnightly instalments until May 1889. At that point the text didn’t have illustrations and the story ended with an entry for 21 May, when Charles’s disrespectful, good-for-nothing son, Lupin, finally secures a job at Charles’s own firm, Perkupps.

However, when the text was prepared for publication in book form in 1892, the authors added a further four months’ entries to the text, and 26 illustrations by Weedon Grossmith. These are amiable pen and ink sketches typical for the time, none of them masterpieces, but they have a significant impact on the text, vividly bringing the characters to life and introducing a form of visual punctuation which makes you dwell a fraction longer on scenes and moments, letting them sink in.

APRIL 30 — I seized her round the waist, and we were silly enough to be executing a wild kind of polka when Sarah entered, grinning, and said: “There is a man, mum, at the door who wants to know if you want any good coals.”

Plot overview

Charles Pooter is a clerk in Perkupps, a firm in the City of London. He is happily married to Caroline or ‘Carrie’, as he affectionately calls her. He has two male friends, Gowing and Cummings, who pop round to see him most evenings, for a chats or a game of dominoes. The diary opens on 3 April, a week after Charles and Carries have moved into a new house:

‘The Laurels’, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway—a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement, with a front breakfast-parlour. We have a little front garden; and there is a flight of ten steps up to the front door, which, by-the-by, we keep locked with the chain up. Cummings, Gowing, and our other intimate friends always come to the little side entrance, which saves the servant the trouble of going up to the front door, thereby taking her from her work. We have a nice little back garden which runs down to the railway. We were rather afraid of the noise of the trains at first, but the landlord said we should not notice them after a bit, and took £2 off the rent. He was certainly right; and beyond the cracking of the garden wall at the bottom, we have suffered no inconvenience.

This opening paragraph sets the tone. Unlike much Victorian writing, it is concise. With precision it not only describes the kind of suburban house in question, but immediately conveys the tone of fussing over details and concern over money which are such a large part of Charles Pooter’s existence.

The opening also conveys the Pooters’ social situation to a t. Having a house and a servant doubtless makes Charles and Carrie just about lower-middle class, but the detail of the railway roaring along the bottom of the garden every few minutes, so fiercely that it has cracked the garden wall, conveys just how precarious their achievement is. And the fussing and fretting about Sarah the servant which runs through the entire book shows the Pooters completely lack the money or savoir faire of the true middle classes.

Theirs is a world of continual small failures and petty humiliations which they are always trying to look on the bright side of. Charles is continually ripping his trousers or wearing ones which are too short or the wrong kinds of boots. The junior clerks at his work take the mickey out of him and throw scrunched-up paper balls at him or mutter nicknames as he walks past, such as ‘Hornpipe’ when he happens to be wearing trousers tight at the knee though loose over the boots, like a sailor.

Charles is thrilled when he is invited to the Mayor’s annual ball then deflated when he realises everyone else in his office has been invited, too, and further demoralised when he finds that the rude and incompetent ironmonger he’s paid to remove the scraper from outside the front door of The Laurels, is also there and boozily treats Charles – to his chagrin – as a social equal.

Charles is a well-meaning man entirely trapped in the prison of his own personality. He gives us quite a few examples of ripping jokes he makes which no-one else gets or thinks are as funny as he does. He reports his best friends, Gowing and Cummings, as casually putting him down about his sense of humour. In a hundred and one ways the diary cleverly reveals the discrepancy between how we see ourselves, how we experience our own lives and thoughts and ideas – and how other people perceive us, which, we can be confident, is with a lot less sympathy and understanding than we perceive ourselves. In fact, most of the time, it is with complete indifference occasionally interspersed with casual mockery.

Thus although all the book’s many incidents are funny to read about, it’s hard to avoid the underlying sadness of the thing. The comedy is mixed with poignancy at Charles’s entrapment within his own narrow life, values and hopes. The thoughtful reader might reflect that this is true of all of us; we think our hard work is acknowledged, we have a fine reputation, our friends talk about us with respect, and our jokes set the table on a roar. But what if none of these things are true? What if we have a reputation at work for being slow and getting things wrong; if our friends laugh at us behind our back; if our sense of humour is notorious for being laboured and obvious?

Charles thinks he is standing on his dignity when his name is omitted from the comprehensive list of all the guests who attended the Mansion House Ball which is given in the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News. But when he writes to complain, he is mortified to have his name included but mispelt in the addendum, as Mrs and Mrs Porter. When he writes for a third time, the journalists begin to take the mickey of this self-important little man.

May 16.—Absolutely disgusted on opening the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News of to-day, to find the following paragraph: ‘We have received two letters from Mr. and Mrs. Charles Pewter, requesting us to announce the important fact that they were at the Mansion House Ball.’ I tore up the paper and threw it in the waste-paper basket. My time is far too valuable to bother about such trifles.

It is not only his mortification, but his immediate justification to himself that he is ‘above’ such trifles, when it is he himself who has insisted on the importance of such trifles. The text constantly hovers on this borderline, laughing with Charles, then at him, then with him again.

May 25.—Carrie brought down some of my shirts and advised me to take them to Trillip’s round the corner. She said: ‘The fronts and cuffs are much frayed.’ I said without a moment’s hesitation: ‘I’m ’frayed they are.’ Lor! how we roared. I thought we should never stop laughing. As I happened to be sitting next the driver going to town on the ’bus, I told him my joke about the ‘frayed’ shirts. I thought he would have rolled off his seat. They laughed at the office a good bit too over it.

May 26.—Left the shirts to be repaired at Trillip’s. I said to him: ‘I’m ’fraid they are frayed.’ He said, without a smile: ‘They’re bound to do that, sir.’ Some people seem to be quite destitute of a sense of humour.

It’s a little like the comedy of the TV series The Office. The protagonist is painfully assured of his own point of view, his own wisdom, wit and good sense; while almost everything he says and does, and the responses of pretty much everyone else in the narrative, undermine this perspective. The humour is mixed with sympathy and poignancy and something occasionally like pity.

Charles is the butt of jokes between even his supposed ‘best friends’ Cummings and Gowing, none of the tradesmen he deals with take him seriously or show him any respect, the junior clerks at his workplace mutter nicknames as he walks past, his attempts at dignity are continually being undercut.

Charles and Carrie’s annual holiday goes predictably wrong when the landlady of the boarding house in Broadstairs which they always go to, initially confirms their places but then at the last minute announces she is fully booked. It is funny but also sad when he reveals that the rooms they eventually have to take with another landlady are near the station, which is fine, just fine, perfectly fine, because rooms on the cliffs would have been so much more expensive, anyway. Charles is continually justifying and looking on the bright side of the penny-pinching, scraping by, making do and mend that his limited income forces him to.

August 13.—Hurrah! at Broadstairs. Very nice apartments near the station. On the cliffs they would have been double the price. The landlady had a nice five o’clock dinner and tea ready, which we all enjoyed, though Lupin seemed fastidious because there happened to be a fly in the butter. It was very wet in the evening, for which I was thankful, as it was a good excuse for going to bed early.

The cheap rooms, the fly in the butter, the heavy rain on his holiday: he tries to rise above all the petty vexations of his little life. In fact it rains throughout their holiday week but Charles is determined to look on the bright side, despite his own son refusing to be seen with him wearing the ridiculous new straw hat he had made specially for the holiday.

‘August 16.—Lupin positively refused to walk down the Parade with me because I was wearing my new straw helmet with my frock-coat. I don’t know what the boy is coming to.’

His greatest humiliation is when he attends the Lord Mayor’s ball and tries to please Carrie by whisking her out onto the dancefloor but, because he is wearing new shoes, slips on the polished floor and falls heavily, banging his head nastily, pulling Carrie down with him, in front of everyone. Hard to live that one down.

But there are plenty of other humiliations, large and small. After church one Sunday he is flattered to be approached by ‘Mrs. Fernlosse, who is quite a grand lady, living in one of those large houses in the Camden Road’ and she is just about to start talking to him when a gust of wind blows his hat off and into the middle of the road, where he has to scamper about like an idiot to retrieve it only to turn and discover…. Mrs Fernlosse has moved on to chat to some of her swell friends.

It was a very shrewd move to introduce Charles and Carrie’s son in chapter 6 while Charles and his tribulations were still fresh i.e. before we’d got bored with his little escapades. The pacing bespeaks two authors who between them had written countless sketches and stage shows. Before Charles and Carrie’s little world has a chance to flag, the arrival of Pooter Junior introduces a whole new realm of comic possibilities for he is a son who blithely ignores all Charles’s advice, orders and attempts to stand on his dignity, as casually as his friends and tradesmen have been shown to.

The son has been christened William but much prefers his larky middle name, Lupin. He is 20 years old and had been working at a bank in Oldham but ‘got the chuck’ and has come back to live with his parents. Right from the start he demonstrates a breezy indifference to Charles’s well-meaning but stuffy rules and advice, stays out late with his mates, gets drunk, only gets up after lunch, is reluctant to get another job. Charles conscientiously writes a succession of letters to prospective employers and the steady stream of rejections becomes a comic leitmotiv of the second quarter of the book.

Things move on apace when Chapter 8 introduces us to the fact that Lupin has fallen in love and proposed to a young woman named Daisy Mutlar. Inevitably, when they finally meet the young lady, both Charles and Carrie think she is not quite right for Lupin:

We asked them in for a few minutes, and I had a good look at my future daughter-in-law. My heart quite sank. She is a big young woman, and I should think at least eight years older than Lupin. I did not even think her good-looking.

But, just as inevitably, Charles tries to put a brave face on it.

NOVEMBER 3. Lupin said: ‘I’m engaged to be married!’

From my description you might have thought Charles and Carrie’s lives would be dull and boring but in fact they have a surprising number of parties and get-togethers, albeit in a rather straitened, Victorian way.

Because Charles is always standing on his dignity, these ‘do’s’ involve no end of complications, resentments and bad feeling. Like when Lupin brings home his friend from the local amateur dramatic society he has joined, the Holloway Comedians, one Mr Burwin-Fosselton, who does a storming impersonation of the famous late Victorian actor, Mr Henry Irving. The evening is somewhat spoiled by the fact that Charles’s friend Gowing invites along a fat man named Padge, who insists on sitting in the best armchair all evening, and smoking a gross pipe.

‘NOVEMBER 23. The man Padge, who had got the best arm-chair, and was puffing away at a foul pipe into the fireplace.’

Or the extravagant engagement party Charles and Carrie hold for Lupin and Daisy where the guests scoff all the food and swill all the champagne so that when Charles’s boss arrives, coming late in the evening from another engagement, Charles is mortified not to be able to offer him anything, not even any soda water.

Charles is very clumsy. Take, for example, the time he visits Smirksons’, the drapers, in the Strand, who had created impressive displays of Christmas cards. He takes it upon himself to tell one of the shop assistants how careless the other customers were, when:

DECEMBER 20. The observation was scarcely out of my mouth, when my thick coat-sleeve caught against a large pile of expensive cards in boxes one on top of the other, and threw them down. The manager came forward, looking very much annoyed, and picking up several cards from the ground, said to one of the assistants, with a palpable side-glance at me: ‘Put these amongst the sixpenny goods; they can’t be sold for a shilling now.’ The result was, I felt it my duty to buy some of these damaged cards.

Or:

FEBRUARY 18. I was this morning trying to look at [my hair] by the aid of a small hand-glass, when somehow my elbow caught against the edge of the chest of drawers and knocked the glass out of my hand and smashed it. Carrie was in an awful way about it, as she is rather absurdly superstitious.

Or:

JULY 3, Sunday. In the afternoon, as I was looking out of the parlour window, which was open, a grand trap, driven by a lady, with a gentleman seated by the side of her, stopped at our door. Not wishing to be seen, I withdrew my head very quickly, knocking the back of it violently against the sharp edge of the window-sash. I was nearly stunned.

Clumsiness is connected to bathos, which is itself a kind of textual falling over, a stumble from the dignified to the comically clumsy. (Bathos is defined as a literary ‘effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.’) Take the moment when (December 21) Charles tells Lupin not to take Daisy breaking up with him to heart, at which Lupin loses his temper with his interfering father:

He jumped up and said: ‘I won’t allow one word to be uttered against her. She’s worth the whole bunch of your friends put together, that inflated, sloping-head of a Perkupp included.’ I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.

Or (March 21) after his boss, Mr Perkupp, has movingly paid tribute to Charles’s loyal, dogged character, on the bus home Charles feels like crying:

It was as much as I could do to prevent myself from crying in the ’bus; in fact, I should have done so, had my thoughts not been interrupted by Lupin, who was having a quarrel with a fat man in the ’bus, whom he accused of taking up too much room.

It is emblematic of the way Charles’s continual quest to have finer, more dignified feelings is continually undermined by the insensitive boorishness of the cut-price world around him.

Characters

Diary of a Nobody is generally taken as mocking the narrow, boring world of suburbia, which on one level it obviously is. But this doesn’t mean the narrative is restricted to a small number of people; quite the opposite. When you stop and count them there are far more characters in the book than you think:

  • Charles Pooter
  • Caroline ‘Carrie’ Pooter
  • William ‘Lupin’ Pooter
  • Sarah the servant
  • Mrs. Birrell the charwoman
  • Gowing, friend
  • Cummings, friend
  • Farmerson, the ironmonger
  • Horwin ‘a civil butcher with a nice clean shop’
  • Borset the butterman
  • the grocer’s boy
  • Mr. Putley, a painter and decorator
  • woman hired to make some chintz covers for our drawing-room chairs and sofa
  • ‘the little tailor’s round the corner’, presumably the same as Trillip’s round the corner which Carrie recommends to repair Charles’s shirts
  • Lockwood’s, a local store which sells ‘the Unsweetened’, some kind of spirit
  • the curate of the local church
  • Perkupp, Charles’s boss
  • Buckling, one of the senior clerks at Perkupp’s
  • Pitt, an impertinent junior clerk at Perkupp’s, aged just 17
  • Shoemach, friend of Gowing
  • Stillbrook, friend of Gowing and Cummings, accompanies them on the ill-fated walk to Hampstead, when Charles is refused admission to a pub which the others swan into
  • Merton, friend of Cummings, who is in the wine trade and promises to get him free tickets to the theatre which turn out to be anything but
  • Mr and Mrs James from Sutton, the wife being an old schoolfriend of Carrie’s
  • Mr. Willowly, manager of the Tank Theatre, Islington
  • Brickwell, friend of Charles’s who recommends the new Pinkford’s enamel paint
  • the Lord and Lady Mayoress
  • Franching, from Peckham, who Charles thinks he sees at the ball, then later invites round for tea, ‘a great swell in his way’
  • one of the sheriffs, in full Court costume
  • Darwitts, the gentleman who helps Carrie to a chair after she slips over at the Mayor’s ball
  • Brownish, the chemist
  • Miss Jibbons, makes Carrie’s dresses
  • Mrs. Beck, landlady of holiday apartments at Harbour View Terrace, Broadstairs
  • Edwards’s, men’s tailors
  • Mr. Higgsworth, friend who owns a telescope, ‘which he always lends me, knowing I know how to take care of it’
  • Mrs. Womming, another landlady in Broadstairs, who offers them rooms after Mrs Beck lets them down
  • the caddish new next door neighbours who throw a brick in his bed of geraniums
  • Mrs. Burtsett, an old friend of Carrie’s cousins, the Pommertons, late of Dalston
  • Daisy Mutlar, Lupin’s beloved
  • Black’s, the stationers
  • Harry Mutlar, Daisy’s brother, ‘rather a gawky youth’
  • Frank Mutlar, another brother
  • Mr Mutlar, Daisy’s father
  • Mr. Peters, the waiter at Lupin and Daisy’s big engagement party
  • Mr. Burwin-Fosselton, one of the ‘Holloway Comedians’, who gives gives his wild impersonation of Henry Irving to Charles, Carrie and guests
  • Mr Padge, a ‘very vulgar-looking man… who appeared to be all moustache’
  • the local laundress
  • Mrs. Fernlosse, ‘quite a grand lady, living in one of those large houses in the Camden Road’
  • Smirksons’, the drapers, in the Strand
  • Carrie’s mother who they visit for Christmas
  • ‘the dear old Reverend John Panzy Smith, who married us’
  • ‘a young fellow named Moss’ who shocks Charles at the Christmas lunch by grabbing a sprig of mistletoe and kissing all the ladies including Carrie
  • the unnamed rude man who opens the door to Gowing’s house when he is away
  • ‘Mr. Murray Posh was a tall, fat young man’ and rival for Daisy Mutlar’s hand
  • Job Cleanands, owner of Job Cleanands and Co., Stock and Share Brokers, who turns out to be a crook
  • Mr. and Mrs. Treane, members of their congregation
  • the rude and impertinent young Griffin boys next door
  • Mr Griffin, their rude father
  • Captain Welcut of the East Acton Volunteers
  • Mrs Lupkin, kind to Carrie at the Volunteers Ball
  • Putley the plumber
  • Teddy Finsworth, an old school friend of Charles’s
  • Mr. Edgar Paul Finsworth (of Finsworth and Pultwell), owner of a nice house, Watney Lodge, ‘only a few minutes’ walk from Muswell Hill Station’
  • Mrs Finsworth, defender of her rather aggressive dogs
  • Mr Short, luncheon guest at Mr Finsworth’s
  • Mr. Hardfur Huttle, ‘a very clever writer for the American papers’
  • Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Hillbutter, Mrs. Field, Mr. and Mrs. Purdick, Mr. Pratt, Mr. R. Kent – guests at Mr Franching’s dinner party in Peckham
  • Mr. Gilbert E. Gillam O. Crowbillon of Crowbillon Hall, the most valued customer of the firm Charles works for
  • Mr. Mezzini, Mr. Birks Spooner – guests at a meat-tea given by the James’s of Sutton
  • ‘Lillie Girl’, nickname of Mr and Mrs Posh’s daughter, ‘very tall, rather plain, and I thought she was a little painted round the eyes’, who, right at the end of the text, we discover is engaged to Lupin

My point being that it’s quite an extended world, isn’t it. Certainly most of the characters are from the lower middle and tradesmen classes the book is intended to portray, but there are also quite wealthy people like the Poshes and the Finsworths, not to mention the egregious American, Mr Hardfur Huttle who dominates the book’s ending. There are at least 70 characters in all.

In other words the book is a good deal more panoramic than people give it credit for, and the sheer number of people Charles interacts with helps to give the book, although it is ostensibly just about Charles and Carrie and Lupin, a surprising sense of capaciousness.

Making do and mending

I could not help thinking (as I told her) that half the pleasures of life were derived from the little struggles and small privations that one had to endure at the beginning of one’s married life.

Their world of little means and scraping by and making do and always counting the pennies is continually present. When Charles tells Carrie the big news that he’s been promoted and had a significant pay rise:

I need not say how dear Carrie received this joyful news. With perfect simplicity she said: ‘At last we shall be able to have a chimney-glass for the back drawing-room, which we always wanted.’ I added: ‘Yes, and at last you shall have that little costume which you saw at Peter Robinson’s so cheap.’

It is funny and pitiful at the same time. They are not poor, Charles can buy whiskey and champagne when he wants to. But only the cheap brands, and he smokes cheap cigars and has to fight with tradesmen about the costs of everything. He doesn’t buy an address book when he needs a new one, he buys ‘a cheap address book’.

It is a tiny detail but poignantly telling that they turn down an invitation to Miss Bird’s wedding, not so much because they’ve only met her a few times but because ‘it means a present’. I.e. they can’t really afford one. What a world of careful self-denial in that short, clipped phrase.

Charles has been steadily employed at Perkupp’s for 20 years and is used to getting a £10-a-year pay raise and they can afford an annual holiday. But only at ‘good old Broadstairs’ and, as mentioned above, happily put up with a boarding house near the station because, after all, one on the cliffs with a view would be a bit too expensive.

So it is in no way a tragically confined life, as the pitiful existence of the truly poverty stricken is in A Child of the Jago (1896) or Liza of Lambeth (1897). There is cheap champagne and card parties and evenings of dominoes or music. There is fun and life. But no avoiding the continual sense that overall their existence is narrow and scrimped.

Concision

Something else which has made the Diary a classic is its pithiness. Usually the Victorians, and their descendants, the Edwardians, wrote at lugubrious length in their fiction, whereas one of the book’s qualities is its crispness and clarity. Obviously this comes with the diary format, and the sense the author is writing brief notes for his own use. The best of these entries are masterpieces of charged brevity.

MAY 4. Carrie’s mother returned the Lord Mayor’s invitation, which was sent to her to look at, with apologies for having upset a glass of port over it. I was too angry to say anything.

Those two sentences say a huge amount. The fact they sent Carrie’s mother the invitation in the first place, to show off and share their pride in the invitation, and the rather claustrophobic presence of the mother-in-law; the rather inevitable fact that the mother spoils it, and the precise detail that it is a glass of port wine she spills; Charles’s characteristic seething rage at this petty accident and the characteristic way he cannot express it. ‘I was too angry to say anything’ sums up countless incidents throughout the book. Charles is a man of boundless silent seething. So these two short sentences are a perfect example of the aphoristic power of ‘the diary entry’ as a genre.

Part of the appeal is the way the mundaneness of his life, with its little psychological inflections, can be captured in the briefest of entries. After Gowing tells Charles he has ruined his favourite walking stick by painting it a shiny new black colour, Charles is (as so often) mortified and does his best to make amends. Hence:

MAY 22. Purchased a new stick mounted with silver, which cost seven-and-sixpence (shall tell Carrie five shillings), and sent it round with nice note to Gowing.

‘Shall tell Carrie five shillings’ says everything about the little velleities and grace notes of married life, manages to be sweet and funny at the same time.

It’s true that some of the set-piece scenes are much, much longer, go on for pages and can be very funny too. But a lot of the pleasure comes from these quick little hits, these bite-size bursts of insight into the protagonist’s everyday life and little fusses.

Charles Pooter’s jokes

Another part of the book’s complicated mixture of humour and pathos derives from Charles’s recounting of the many awful jokes he and those around him make. He is continually making terrible puns which crack his wife and friends up, but not his savvy disrespectful son and certainly not the numerous tradesmen and other ‘outsiders’ who never seem to show Charles the respect he feels he deserves.

APRIL 12. Gowing began his usual sniffing, so, anticipating him, I said: ‘You’re not going to complain of the smell of paint again?’ He said: ‘No, not this time; but I’ll tell you what, I distinctly smell dry rot.’ I don’t often make jokes, but I replied: ‘You’re talking a lot of dry rot yourself.’ I could not help roaring at this, and Carrie said her sides quite ached with laughter. I never was so immensely tickled by anything I have ever said before. I actually woke up twice during the night, and laughed till the bed shook.

MAY 25. Carrie brought down some of my shirts and advised me to take them to Trillip’s round the corner. She said: ‘The fronts and cuffs are much frayed.’ I said without a moment’s hesitation: ‘I’m ’frayed they are.’ Lor! how we roared. I thought we should never stop laughing.

NOVEMBER 16. I was starting for the office, when Lupin appeared, with a yellow complexion, and said: ‘Hulloh! Guv, what priced head have you this morning?’ I told him he might just as well speak to me in Dutch. He added: ‘When I woke this morning, my head was as big as Baldwin’s balloon.’ On the spur of the moment I said the cleverest thing I think I have ever said; viz: ‘Perhaps that accounts for the parashooting pains.’ We roared.

JANUARY 3. ‘Do you know anything about chalk pits, Guv?’ I said: ‘No, my boy, not that I’m aware of.’ Lupin said: ‘Well, I give you the tip; chalk pits are as safe as Consols, and pay six per cent at par.’ I said a rather neat thing, viz.: ‘They may be six per cent. at par, but your pa has no money to invest.’ Carrie and I both roared with laughter.

FEBRUARY 11. Gowing dropped in just in time, bringing with him a large sheet, with a print of a tailless donkey, which he fastened against the wall. He then produced several separate tails, and we spent the remainder of the evening trying blindfolded to pin a tail on in the proper place. My sides positively ached with laughter when I went to bed.

But even when they’re terrible, the reader is encouraged to laugh along with these jokes because they embody the humour of the character himself; their very badness is testament to the unchanging nature of the character himself, who we’ve come to sympathise with, as in all the best sitcoms. In a way, the badness of the jokes is what makes them funny, because we are not laughing at the joke itself but at the way the sweet and dim characters find it funny, and that is endearing.

Englishness

Many critics and later writers have praised the book for its essential Englishness. I would say theis ‘Englishness’ consists in the Diary‘s sense of constant embarrassment and humiliation.

This is exemplified in chapter 18 when Charles and Carrie accept a kind invitation to a dance given by the East Acton Volunteers, arrive late at the dance hall, help themselves to a delicious dinner, with plenty of champagne and ices and a cigar only to discover that… this wasn’t free provision and part of the invitation – it has to be paid for! As the waiter patiently explains:

‘Your party’s had four suppers at 5s. a head, five ices at 1s., three bottles of champagne at 11s. 6d., a glass of claret, and a sixpenny cigar for the stout gentleman—in all £3 0s. 6d!’ I don’t think I was ever so surprised in my life.

Never so surprised nor humiliated, Charles manages to scrape together almost all the money, lacking a few shillings which he promises to pay later. But this means that, when he and Carrie, at the end of the evening, take a cab back to North London, or at least to the Angel Islington which is far as the cabbie will take them, it’s only when they disembark that Charles realises he has no cash on him. The cab driver calls him every name under the sun and violently pulls his beard, all within view of a policeman who, when he learns Charles and Carrie have taken a long cab journey but cannot pay the driver, has no sympathy for them. They then have to walk the last two miles to Holloway, late at night, in the pouring rain, seething with humiliation and embarrassment.

The entire scene is a kind of apotheosis of English shame and embarrassment but the book is packed with plenty of other examples. Take the passage towards the end when Charles is being shown round Mr. Edgar Paul Finsworth’s drawing room full of fine pictures and Charles remarks of one of the portraits that ‘there was something about the expression of the face that was not quite pleasing. It looked pinched.’

Mr. Finsworth sorrowfully replied: ‘Yes, the face was done after death—my wife’s sister.’ I felt terribly awkward and bowed apologetically, and in a whisper said I hoped I had not hurt his feelings.

‘I felt terribly awkward.’ That could be Charles Pooter’s motto and also stand as the core essence of  a certain type of Englishness.

The final chapters

Possibly I’m influenced by reading in the introduction to the OUP edition, and in Wikipedia, that the last four chapters were added after the magazine serialisation was complete, and were written specially for the book edition – but they felt significantly different from everything else that had preceded.

Previously it had been a dawdling, enjoyably aimless diary of a suburban nobody’s quiet life and footling concerns but in the added chapters the narrative suddenly felt like the authors had decided it was A Novel and so needed to have a sense of a plot and of a climactic ending.

Hence the introduction of an unusually elaborate storyline wherein Lupin advises Perkupps’ oldest client, Gilbert E. Gillam O. Crowbillon, to leave the firm and use a rival. This ‘betrayal’ of the old firm mortified Charles and Mr Perkupp asks him to write a letter of apology to Crowbillon, explaining that his son is new at the firm and inexperienced in the ways of the City in the hope of winning him back. So far, so consistent with the mode of embarrassment and humiliation which characterises the earlier parts.

But then comes a Fairy Tale Ending. Crowbillon not only sends Lupin a check as thanks for giving him such good advice, but the firm Lupin recommended him to, Gylterson and Sons, hires Lupin and at the princely salary of £200 a year, which it is hinted is comparable to Charles’s pay (I don’t think we ever learn Charles’s precise salary).

As a result Lupin hires rooms in the far more fashionable district of Bayswater and announces he is engaged to the daughter of the well-off Posh family, who sell hats across the North of England and are opening ‘branch establishments at New York, Sydney, and Melbourne, and [are] negotiating for Kimberley and Johannesburg.’ Suddenly, Lupin is rich!

And although Charles’s letter fails to win back Crowbillon, in the very last pages we meet again a rather loud-mouthed opinionated American Hardfur Huttle, who had made his first appearance at a dinner party which he dominates with his none-too-subtle opinions.

Right at the very end of the book, and out of the blue, this American summons Charles to his hotel to tell him he’s been impressed by him and his firm and so will be directing an important American friend to give Perkupp his business! With the result that, right at the very end of the novel, Mr Perkupp grandly rewards Charles for bringing in the new American client by buying and giving Charles the freehold to ‘The Laurels’, an act of stunning generosity which leaves Carrie crying with joy and Charles sending out for champagne to celebrate with his old muckers, Gowing and Cummings.

My point being: chapters 18 to 24, although they continue with the same characters and include many of the same kinds of social embarrassments, nonetheless feel significantly different from their predecessors, because they suddenly feel like they have a direction and a plot, and because that plot acquires an increasingly fairy tale quality of happiness and (cheap) champagne all round.

The meandering, silly and inconsequential charm of the opening chapters which didn’t appear to have any direction or purpose feel long gone and something of the book’s initial charm and innocence is lost as a result


Related links

The Square Egg and Other Sketches by Saki (1924)

Eight amusing short pieces by Hector Hugh Munro (pen name Saki) who was shot dead by a sniper while serving on the Western Front during the First World War. These last few pieces were collected and published posthumously in 1924.

The Square Egg: a badger’s eye view of the mud war in the trenches

The first few pages are a humorous description of life in the First World War trenches, whose main points can be summarised as:

  • snuffling around in the mud is like being a badger
  • though engaged in a titanic struggle against one of the greatest armies in the world, the average soldier thinks about the enemy relatively little
  • the subject which does consume the soldier’s every waking minute is the mud and how to avoid it; now the narrator knows what it’s like to be one of those animals you see at the zoo wallowing in muddy enclosures
  • he describes the nature of the many estaminets just behind the front lines, a cross between coffee houses and bars, and the way they always manage to have small children running round and getting in the way

At which point the text morphs into an anecdote about a chap he met in such an estaminet, a shifty French bloke who talked to him about eggs, specifically the way he’s noticed one of the many hens kept by his aunt lays eggs with the hint of angles. Consider how, through a programme of selective breeding, one could eventually create hens which produce only square eggs! Well, this guy claims to have done just that!! (Saki’s narrator makes wry, sardonic references under his breath).

The shifty Frenchie then explains how he had set up a thriving square-egg business but then came the war, he has been sent to the Front and his aunt is now selling his square eggs without any special consideration about keeping the breeding line secure and keeping the money she owes him. Therefore he has decided to take her to court to stop her, but the law is so expensive, monsieur. So, could Saki please lend him a small sum towards his legal fees, 80 francs should do it! The whole thing is, in other words, a scam.

This was a mildly amusing story which confirmed my sense of how many Saki’ stories are set on farms or involve farmyard animals.

Birds of the Western Front

These texts written at the Front highlight, almost exaggerate, Saki’s characteristic upper class nonchalance; everything is cast into an ironical manner which, for example, amuses itself by making elaborate and ironic comparisons. Thus, since the war began:

Rats and mice have mobilized and swarmed into the fighting line, and there has been a partial mobilization of owls, particularly barn owls, following in the wake of the mice, and making laudable efforts to thin out their numbers. What success attends their hunting one cannot estimate; there are always sufficient mice left over to populate one’s dug-out and make a parade-ground and race-course of one’s face at night.

Crows and rooks have become habituated to shellfire and machine guns. Drolly, Saki describes observing a pair of crows fighting a pair of sparrowhawks while above them the same number of English and German airplanes were fighting. Nature red in tooth and claw. He observes that magpies have been bereft of the poplar trees they used to love to nest in, and so on with further observations about buzzards, kestrels, larks and a hen-chaffinch which he noticed unaccountably hanging around a wrecked woodland, even during the most intense bombardment.

He ends with the sardonic observation that English gamekeepers as a breed believe their precious gamebirds and pheasants and whatnot must be protected from the slightest disturbance. They should come to the Western Front and learn how hardy birds are in face of even the most ruinous disruption.

The Gala Programme: an unrecorded episode in Roman history

The scene shifts abruptly from the present war, jumping back in time 2,000 years to ancient Rome.

It is the birthday of the Roman Emperor Placidus Superbus who has arrived at the Circus Maximus to enjoy the games, but just as the first entertainment is about to begin – a thrilling chariot race – hundreds of shouting women are lowered by ropes into the track and completely prevent the race taking place.

‘Who are these furies?’ the emperor demands. ‘The dreaded Suffragetae,’ his miserable Master of Ceremonies explains. The emperor has a brainwave. ‘Skip the chariot race,’ he tells the MC, ‘let’s go straight to part two, the combat of wild animals.’ And so a horde of beasts are let loose among the protesting women, to really very entertaining effect :).

Takes its place with the other 3 or 4 Saki stories entirely dedicated to commenting on / ridiculing the suffragettes.

The Infernal Parliament

Bavton Bidderdale (a typically Sakian preposterous name) dies, but the medical authorities contest the exact cause of death etc and so, although his soul has gone down to hell, the officials there keep it in a kind of limbo until the paperwork is sorted out.

While he’s waiting, the officials offer to show him round and suggest taking a tour of the infernal Parliament, a relatively new innovation. As he arrives the infernal Parliament is having a debate to lodge a formal complaint with the human race for describing events or activities as ‘devilish’ or ‘fiendish’ when they are, in fact, nothing of the sort, but entirely human.

Other details obviously mock contemporary parliamentary debates (and, in the final passage, mock a living playwright, possibly George Bernard Shaw) but these references are lost without some kind of annotation. You can see the comic intention but it would have more bite if included in my dream idea of an ‘Annotated Saki’.

The Achievement of the Cat

A wonderfully suave and ironical tribute to the qualities of the domestic cat:

It is, indeed, no small triumph to have combined the untrammelled liberty of primeval savagery with the luxury which only a highly developed civilization can command; to be lapped in the soft stuffs that commerce has gathered from the far ends of the world; to bask in the warmth that labour and industry have dragged from the bowels of the earth; to banquet on the dainties that wealth has bespoken for its table, and withal to be a free son of nature, a mighty hunter, a spiller of life-blood. This is the victory of the cat.

The Old Town of Pskoff

Not a story at all, but a straightforward description of how this city in west Russia, now referred to as Pskov, represents a kinder, quainter, more colourful and older Russia than the unpleasantly nouveau riche style of Petersburg. Sounds like it’s based on a real visit and the real views of Hector Munro who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, wrote a history of it.

Clovis on the Alleged Romance of Business

The last appearance of Clovis Sangrail, the witty, ironic, ‘languidly malicious’ young man who embodies key aspects of Saki’s droll, langorous, ironic humour.

This one is a short squib, a return to the format of his early Reginald ‘stories’, and amounts simply to a 2-page speech by Clovis, declaiming, fairly predictably, against the so-called Romance of business. In his view, business is deadly dull, which is why all the best adventures have been written about the young men who ran away from it:

The romance has all been the other way, with the idle apprentice, the truant, the runaway, the individual who couldn’t be bothered with figures and book-keeping and left business to look after itself.

The Comments of Moung Ka

Moung Ka is a wise man who lives by the banks of the River Irrawaddy (whichm, upon looking it up, I discover is the longest river in modern Burma).

The opening description of the landscape and birds where Moung Ka lives is a final reminder that, although people routinely describe Saki as a deliciously malicious critic of Edwardian upper class society, he was also obsessed with animals, and wrote a lot of vivid descriptions of landscapes and the wild animals living in them. A collection of excerpts titled ‘Saki’s nature and animal writing’ would be surprisingly extensive.

In the tall reed growth by the riverside grazing buffaloes showed in patches of dark slaty blue, like plums fallen amid long grass, and in the tamarind trees that shaded Moung Ka’s house the crows, restless, raucous-throated, and much-too-many, kept up their incessant afternoon din, saying over and over again all the things that crows have said since there were crows to say them.

Anyway, the story, such as it is, is another political satire. Old Moung Ka reads the paper which is brought up the river and then interprets its contents for his village followers. He comments on two related pieces of news. The recently announced division of Bengal by the (British-run) government of India has been cancelled. In 1905 Lord Curzon divided Bengal along sectarian lines, into a Hindu and Muslim province. The policy was a disaster, leading to an outburst of terrorism and sectarian violence and so was reversed in 1911. This is the news Moung Ka reads out to his followers.

And contrasts with the fact that the newspaper tells him that the United Kingdom itself is about to be partitioned. It isn’t explained what he means so it took me a moment to realise he must have been referring to the granting to Ireland of home rule, which led to vehement protests from Protestant Ulster and a serious crisis which dominated Edwardian politics from 1911 up to the outbreak of the Great War.

The very last joke in this, Saki’s very last published story, is a satirical and political one. Earlier Moung Ka had explained to his followers that Britain is what is called a Democracy. One of the followers doesn’t understand how come, if Britain is a Democracy, it can enact such a big and impactful decision  (the partitioning of Ireland) without consulting its people.

Moung Ka clarifies – and this, one imagines, is the point of the whole ‘story’ – that he didn’t say Britain was a democracy; he said Britain is what is called a democracy. The implication being that its alleged democracy is in fact a sham. The implication being that Saki is a Unionist and considers the prolonged political haggling about granting Ireland independence to be squalid and destructive.

There’s plenty of meat in this short text to chew over, it confirmed my sense of Saki as an unrepentant Unionist and conservative and anti-suffragette reactionary, and review in my mind the reactionary views which crop up periodically through the short stories and underpin the entire novel When William Came.

Then again, the world is more full than ever before of division, dispute and angry argument. For my part, I like to take leave of this long journey through Saki’s complete works by remembering the grazing water buffalo like plums fallen amid long grass, and the eternal crows in the tamarind trees.


Saki’s works

The Toys of Peace by Saki (1919)

Beryl, Mrs. Gaspilton, had always looked indulgently on the country as a place where people of irreproachable income and hospitable instincts cultivated tennis-lawns and rose-gardens and Jacobean pleasaunces, wherein selected gatherings of interested week-end guests might disport themselves.
(For the Duration of the War)

‘I’m afraid there is nowhere for you to sit,’ I said coldly; ‘the verandah is full of goats.’
(The Guests)

Biographical sketch

Saki, or to give him his proper name, Hector Hugh Munro, volunteered for the army as soon as the Great War broke out in August 1914. Born in December 1870, he was 43 at the time and so, officially, over-age to enlist. It took a lot of effort and pulling strings before he managed to secure a place in the Second King Edward’s Horse. Finding a cavalry regiment too demanding for his age, Hector later transferred to an infantry regiment, the the 22nd Royal Fusiliers, and finally made his way to the Western Front in 1916.

The most striking fact about Saki’s war service was that although, because of his class and education, he was repeatedly offered the chance of a commission or a cushy job at the rear, he turned all these offers down and preferred serving as a common private, and then lance sergeant, among the men he grew to love. He was shot through the head at Beaumont-Hamel on the morning of 14 November 1916.

All this and more is detailed in a biographical note by Rothay Reynolds which stands at the head of this collection of 31 of Saki’s short stories which was published posthumously in 1919. And it adds considerable bite to the first story in the set, which gives its name to the entire volume and is about the pointlessness of denying men and boys’ natural instinct for war.


The stories

For each of the stories I give the briefest possible summary and sometimes add a quote which exemplifies Saki’s dry and macabre humour, often, especially when casually dealing with exotic animals, bordering on the surreal.

The Toys of Peace

The title is quite literal. Eleanor Bope complains to her brother, Harvey, that her sons (‘Eric, not eleven yet, and Bertie, only nine-and-a-half’) only ever play at war, with soldier toys. Next time he visits can he please bring some toys which emphasise the virtues of peace? So, in a comic scene, on his next visit, Harvey unveils to the two boys such delights as models of the Manchester branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, of a school of art and a public library, and little figures of John Stuart Mill, Robert Raikes (the founder of Sunday schools), a sanitary inspector, a district councillor and an official of the Local Government Board. He leaves the boys with their perplexing toys of peace, to take a break in the library. Half an hour later Harvey returns to find the boys have converted the models into forts and castles, repainted the figures as soldiers with lashings of red paint for blood, and are acting out gruesome battle scenes.

Louise (Clovis)

Jane Thropplestance is the most forgetful woman in the world. When she returns from a shopping expedition her sister, the elderly Dowager Lady Beanford, asks her what she has done with her niece, Louise. ‘Good gracious,’ Miss Thropplestance replies, ‘I must have mislaid her!’ and then proceeds to review all the shops and social calls she made during the afternoon, where she might, possibly, have mislaid, poor inoffensive Louise.

It’s an inadvertently hilarious list, bringing out Jane’s flaky superficiality, with plenty of humorous phrases where mislaying a niece is placed on the same level as losing your keys.

The comic punchline comes when the butler informs the two ladies that Louise, in fact, never went out with Miss Thropplestance in the first place and has spent the afternoon reading an improving book to a sick servant upstairs. Silly billies.

Tea

James Cushat-Prinkly is a dim 34-year-old and his extended family of females think it really is time he settled down and proposed to someone. His female family and friends settle on Joan Sebastable as being the perfect match. So one afternoon he sets off to walk across Hyde Park to the Mayfair residence of Miss Sebastaple to propose.

But when he glances at his watch he notices it is 4.30 which means the dreaded hour of afternoon tea is approaching. James hates afternoon tea with its rituals of tinkling tea glasses and endless stupid questions about whether you’d prefer milk or cream and how many lumps and so on. In order to avoid confronting his beloved crouching behind the wretched tea things, he drops in on an acquaintance who happens to live en route, ‘Rhoda Ellam, a sort of remote cousin, who made a living by creating hats out of costly materials.’ Rhoda is serving up tea (this is England, after all) but is much more relaxed about the whole thing, asking James to grab a mug if he can see one and quickly knocking up some bread and butter.

Result: James strolls home and informs his astonished womenfolk that the proposal went well and now he is engaged to be married to…Rhoda Ellam! In fact that isn’t the end of the story. The very end comes when, after getting married and going on honeymoon etc, the couple return to London and at their first tiffin, James discovers to his dismay, that Rhoda has arranged best quality tea things in exactly the way all other women do, has become completely conventional. You can’t beat tiffin!

The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh

Two English chaps, a Journalist and a Wine Merchant, are in a train heading from Hohenzollern into Hapsburg territory i.e. from Germany into Hungary. News of a picture being stolen from the Louvre leads the Wine Merchant to tell the story of the mysterious disappearance of his fearsome aunt, Mrs Crispina Umberleigh, ‘born to legislate, codify, administrate, censor, license, ban, execute, and sit in judgement generally.’

‘As a nephew on a footing of only occasional visits she affected me merely as an epidemic, disagreeable while it lasted, but without any permanent effect.’

Her unexplained disappearance leaves a large hole in family life. After a while a ransom demand appears stating that the aunt has been kidnapped and is being held in Norway and will be returned unless a ransom payment of £2,000 is made, this, of course, being a comic inversion of the usual definition of a ransom which is where you pay to have someone returned. The uncle coughs up and this goes on for eight years.

Then one day the aunt reappears. Turns out she had never been kidnapped at all but suffered a complete loss of memory, wandered for a while and ended up working in domestic service in Birmingham. Then one day, eight years later, her memory returned and she came storming back into the lives of her astonished husband and family.

And the ransom demands? Had been made by an enterprising servant of the family :).

The Wolves of Cernogratz

All the starved, cold misery of a frozen world, all the relentless hunger-fury of the wild, blended with other forlorn and haunting melodies to which one could give no name, seemed concentrated in that wailing cry.

A quietly moving and/or vitriolic story. Nouveau riche Baroness Gruebel and her husband have bought and live in the ancient castle somewhere in central Europe. She is telling her brother Conrad, a banker from Hamburg, about some of the romantic old stories attached to the castle, for example how the local wolves are supposed to start howling when anyone dies in the castle, when she is unexpectedly interrupted by the governess, Fraulein Schmidt, who reveals the real legend is that the wolves howl only when a member of the Cernogratz family is dying.

She then astonishes everyone by revealing that she is herself a member of the Cernogratz family. The family fell on hard times, was forced to sell the castle, she went into domestic service and ended up with the Gruebel family. It is a cruel irony which has brought her back here to the home of her ancestors.

That night, while the Baroness’s over-dressed, flashy rich guests are enjoying dinner, they are disturbed by the howling of wolves. They go to the governess’s bedroom and find the window flung open even though it is the depths of winter. The governess knows she is dying but wants to hear ‘the death-music of my family’.

Despite its society satire surface this is a strangely powerful story, like a fairytale. It is clearly linked to The Interlopers (see below) by being a) set in Eastern Europe b) featuring wolves c) being about authenticity and identity, contrasting the shallowness of human concerns with something deeper and more primeval.

Louis

Lena Strudwarden refuses to go abroad on holiday with her husband this year, insisting they go (yet again) to Brighton or Worthing. Her real reason is that their circle of acquaintances in Brighton and Worthing, though boring, show an admirable instinct to fawn on Mrs Strudwarden. In these sorts of arguments Lena always relies on excuses concerning her little dog, Louis, ‘the diminutive brown Pomeranian that lay, snug and irresponsive, beneath a shawl on her lap’, Louis couldn’t possibly go abroad, he couldn’t possibly be quarantined, he couldn’t survive without me, etc etc.

When Strudwarden complains to his sister, she, with unladylike brutality, suggests they just kill Louis. (The text acknowledges this fact: ‘“Novels have been written about women like you,” said Strudwarden; “you have a perfectly criminal mind.”)

So the next time Lena is out of the house, Strudwarden and her brother place the dog in a box and fix the only hole in it over the gas bracket. In other words, they set out to gas the dog to death. But in doing so they make an ironic discovery: Louis isn’t a real dog at all, he is a mechanical toy. All this time Lena has been using the little toy as an emotional lever to get her way with her husband.

The Guests

Annabel thinks the view from the room she’s sharing with her sister, Matilda, is English and pastoral but rather boring. Matilda has recently returned from India and tells her sister she loves boring, it’s a great relief from extravagant adventures abroad. Take the time when she was living in remote India and the Bishop of Bequar paid a surprise visit just as the river Gwadlipichee overflowed its banks, forcing the servants and all the livestock into the main house. It was chaos and socially embarrassing.

‘I’m afraid there is nowhere for you to sit,’ I said coldly; ‘the verandah is full of goats.’

The Penance

Octavian Ruttle thinks his neighbours’ cat is stealing his chickens, so he nerves himself to do away with it. Unfortunately, the neighbours’ three young children, lined up along the wall, witness the act, and in unison call him ‘Beast!’ They send, via servants, a sheet with BEAST childishly scrawled on it. This pricks Octavian’s already guilty conscience and he sets out to appease them by buying luxury chocolates, sends them next door, but later in the day finds them scornfully thrown back over the wall.

One day when Octavian is meant to be minding his two-year-old daughter, Olivia, the three children kidnap her. He sees them trundling her pushcart at top speed across a meadow and gives chase. He catches up just as they deposit the toddler into the muck of a massive pigsty and she starts sinking. Octavian can’t make it over to her in time and so begs the children to save her, he’ll do anything.

So they order him to do penance: to stand by the grave of their dead cat dressed only in a white sheet  holding a candle and repeating: ‘I’m a miserable Beast’. Only when he actually does this, do the three children pin another piece of paper up with the message ‘Un-Beast.’

The Phantom Luncheon

Member of Parliament Sir James Drakmanton informs his wife that she must take for lunch the rather beastly Smithly-Dubbs whose family come in handy at election times. Exasperated at this tedious chore, Lady Drakmanton decides to pull a practical joke. She contacts the three Smithly-Dubbs ladies to invite them for lunch,  then does her hair in an unusual style and dresses in not her usual manner before going to meet them in their hotel foyer and whisking them off to the Carlton where she encourages them to choose all the most expensive dishes on the menu.

Then she drops a bombshell by claiming not to be Lady Drakmanton at all, but another woman altogether who keeps having fits of memory loss, then it comes to her: she is in fact Ellen Niggle, of the Ladies’ Brasspolishing Guild.

At that precise moment (as she had arranged) another woman enters the Carlton dining room who looks and is dressed exactly like Lady Drakmanton, who she points out to the three appalled young women as the real Lady Drakmanton, thus confirming her story.

And before they can recover their composure, Lady D thanks them for a lovely meal and sweeps out, leaving the discombobulated Smithly-Dubbs to pay the (very large) bill.

A Bread and Butter Miss

A story about horse-racing. The guests at a country-house party are eagerly discussing the upcoming Derby when it is discovered that one of them, young Lola, has dreams which come true and last night dreamed of a horse race and dreamed that the crowd cheered when ‘Bread and Butter’ wins.

There is no horse named Bread and Butter in this year’s Derby so a furious debate ensues about which actual horse she could be referring to. They desperately want her to fall asleep and dream a bit of clarification but, it turns out, with comic frustration, when she’s not dreaming dreams which come true, Lola has bad insomnia and, sure enough, despite the comical welter of suggestions to help her get off to sleep, she passes a sleepless night and morning.

Next day, as the race is underway, she lets slip one more vital detail in her dream which helps the guests guess correctly the name of the winning horse which does, indeed, win, but by then it is too late for any of them to place a bet.

Bertie’s Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve in the household of Luke Steffink, Esq. complete with posh guests. When a couple frivolously recall the Eastern tradition that on Christmas Eve, animals in their stalls can talk, the guests all troop down to the cow house to see if it’s true.

However, Luke’s disgruntled nephew (‘Bertie Steffink had early in life adopted the profession of ne’er-do-well’) is angry at everyone because the family has decided it is going to pack him off to Africa in an effort to find him gainful employment. So, out of spite, Bertie locks them all in the cow house, and invites some passing revellers into Luke’s house to drink all his champagne and raucously sing out of tune Christmas carols. It’s a kind of sketch or scene rather than an actual story.

For someone interested in social history, the most interesting part comes at the beginning where Bertie’s loser status is established by describing the family’s attempts to set him up with jobs in various colonies, a passage which vividly conveys the way the Commonwealth and Empire were conceived as a sort of dumping ground for the useless upper-middle-classes.

At the age of eighteen Bertie had commenced that round of visits to our Colonial possessions, so seemly and desirable in the case of a Prince of the Blood, so suggestive of insincerity in a young man of the middle-class. He had gone to grow tea in Ceylon and fruit in British Columbia, and to help sheep to grow wool in Australia. At the age of twenty he had just returned from some similar errand in Canada, from which it may be gathered that the trial he gave to these various experiments was of the summary drum-head nature. Luke Steffink, who fulfilled the troubled role of guardian and deputy-parent to Bertie, deplored the persistent manifestation of the homing instinct on his nephew’s part, and his solemn thanks earlier in the day for the blessing of reporting a united family had no reference to Bertie’s return. Arrangements had been promptly made for packing the youth off to a distant corner of Rhodesia, whence return would be a difficult matter…

Forewarned

Alethia Debchance has spent her entire 28 years at the remote rural house of her aunt near Webblehinton. She is as naive and unworldly as it is possible to be. Thus when she goes to visit a distant relation, Robert Bludward, who is standing for election, she is astonished at the extreme criticism directed at him by two gentlemen she overhears in a train and by an article she reads in the paper. She makes up her mind to tell his opponent, Sir John Chobham. But as she sets out to do so, she hears the same kinds of comments made, and reads an equally damning article, about him, too.

Bewildered and appalled at the terrible men abroad in the world, she retreats back to her aunt’s rural hideaway and immerses herself in the breathless women’s novels that she consumes like smarties.

It is both a satire on a certain kind of unworldly English spinster, but also on the casually vituperative discourse surrounding English politics, a subject Saki was an expert on after years of being a parliamentary correspondent for the newspapers.

The Interlopers

Somewhere on the eastern spurs of the Karpathians, a patch of forest land has been disputed between three successive generations of two families of neighbouring landowners. The current rivals are Ulrich von Gradwitz and Georg Znaeym.

One day they both happen to be out with parties of their own men, wander away from them, and encounter each other in the depths of the forest. As they go to raise their rifles to shoot each other there is a loud crack and half a beech tree plummets down, pinning them both helplessly to the ground.

Over the next hour or so, as they come to acknowledge their plight, both injured and cold and pinned by the fallen tree to the ground with various broken bones, they slowly come to reassess the stupid rivalry which has dominated their lives. Eventually Ulrich offers his wine flask to Znaeym which the other grudgingly accepts and they decide to put the feud behind them and become friends. They agree to shout for help from their respective men, but the calling only attracts… a pack of wolves!

A gruesome parable about…what? The stupid pettiness of human concerns, petty rivalries and feuds which don’t, placed in the larger perspective of the human condition, matter a damn. Or the vanity of human presumption, showing that both men’s claims to ‘own’ the woods are ridiculous. The true owners of the forest are the wolves; both humans are merely the ‘interlopers’ of the title.

Quail Seed

Mr Scarrick rents out the rooms over his suburban grocery store to an artist and his sister. He complains that business has fallen off woefully because shoppers are attracted by the sales gimmicks of big stores in town, which include music played on gramophones and tickertape news about sports.

So the artist comes up with the idea of staging what would nowadays be called performance art, namely he, his sister and a local boy they hire will play the parts of strange and exotic figures, mysterious strangers who seem to be leaving codes messages for each other, about grand plans and feverish rivalries. Intrigue and gossip. Maybe spies!

It works a treat. Word spreads and soon Mr Scarrick’s shop is full of local housewives waiting to witness the next bizarre episode in the fictional drama.

Canossa

A nonsensical satire on the trivial silliness of political life, indicated by the initial setup which is that Demosthenes Platterbaff, the eminent Unrest Inducer, is on trial for blowing up the Albert Hall on the eve of the great Liberal Federation Tango Tea, the occasion on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer was expected to propound his new theory: ‘Do partridges spread infectious diseases?’

The point is that there is a by-election set for the constituency of Nemesis-on-Hand the day after the jury are scheduled to deliver their verdict and the view is that a guilty verdict will lead to the government losing the seat in a protest vote by working men supporters of Platterbaff. Therefore the story is about the contortions the government ties itself up in, in order to find him guilty but not let him go to gaol.

More precisely, he is allowed to go to gaol for precisely one night after the guilty verdict is brought in but then (the Prime Minister and Home Secretary feverishly decide) will be released early enough the next morning for his release to be telegraphed to the by-election constituency and broadcast to his supporters who will then, hopefully, support the government.

This already ridiculous story turns into farce when Platterbaff announces that he will not physically leave the prison unless there’s a brass band to play him out. He always has a brass band.

We are then witness to the comic panic of the Prime Minister and senior cabinet members as they try to arrange this at very short notice, hampered by the fact that there is a musicians’ strike on (strikes were a surprisingly ubiquitous element of Edwardian life which Saki is here satirising).

In the farcical climax of the story, the Prime Minister and colleagues are forced to borrow knackered old instruments from the prison recreation room and themselves batter out an out-of-tune rendering of the pop hit of the moment ‘I didn’t want to do it’ (which, incidentally, dates this story to the second half of 1913).

And the comic punchline of the entire story? The government loses the by-election anyway, because the trade unions ordered their members to vote against the cabinet for acting as strike-breakers (for playing musical instruments during a musicians’ strike).

So it is a satire on the extreme contortions to which modern politicians are forced to go in the name of democracy, of bending over backwards to accommodate even terrorists in order to win their supporters’ votes, but how even the most humiliating obeisance won’t be enough to satisfy the sky-high demands of the new militant working class electorate.

As to the title, Canossa is the site where the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV did penance in 1077, standing three days bare-headed in the snow, in order to reverse his excommunication by Pope Gregory VII. It’s the kind of factual element which would benefit from a note of explanation.

The Threat

One of Saki’s anti-suffragette satires. Sir Lulworth Quayne (a recurring character in these stories), sat in the lounge of his favourite restaurant, the Gallus Bankiva, describes to his nephew, recently returned from abroad, an evermore absurd list of (fictional) strategies adopted by the suffragettes (for example, enlivening the state opening of Parliament by releasing thousands of parrots, which had been carefully trained to scream ‘Votes for women’).

The joke in the story is that the leading suffragettes come up with a plan which outdoes all the others, converting their hitherto negative strategies into a positive one. They threaten to erect exact replicas of the Victoria Memorial at key locations all around the capital. ‘No, no, anything but that!’ The government gives in to their demands.

Excepting Mrs. Pentherby

Reggie Bruttle has inherited a big but not particularly practical mansion named ‘The Limes’. He has the brainwave of converting it into the venue for a kind of continuous, rolling country-house party. However, Major Dagworth points out that the womenfolk will give trouble, within days they’ll be bitching and arguing.

On the whole, the major is proven wrong, except for Mrs Pentherby. Within days all the other women have come to loathe her casual condescension and come to Reggie with their complaints.

Reggie listened with the attenuated regret that one bestows on an earthquake disaster in Bolivia or a crop failure in Eastern Turkestan.

But then the comic reveal: It turns out Reggie has invited Mrs Pentherby precisely to be the official quarreler, to act as a lightning rod, attracting to herself all the bitching energy of the other women, in order to unify the others in their dislike and make them pleasant to everyone else. Cue feminist outrage.

Mark

Augustus Mellowkent is an up-and-coming novelist. His agent suggests he changes his name to ‘Mark’ which sounds more manly.

But the story itself concerns the visit, one morning in December, of a tiresome encyclopedia salesman, one Caiaphas Dwelf. At first Mark puts up with Dwelf’s tiresome sales pitch, but then has a brainwave. He takes down one of his own novels and starts reading an excerpt to the salesman, telling him what an excellent resource a Mark Mellowkent novel is if one is trapped at a boring country-house party. The salesman replies with a dithyramb on the useful geographical knowledge contained in his encyclopedia. Mark replies with the opening of his classic work, The Cageless Linnet and so it goes on, a duel of bores.

Eventually the salesman is forced to abandon his spiel, closes his sample volume and leaves Mark’s house, and ‘a look of respectful hatred flickered in the cold grey eyes.’

The Hedgehog

Every year a mixed doubles tennis match is held at the rectory garden party hosted by Mrs Norbury and every year a quartet of old ladies sit in judgement on the players, not least the bitchy Mrs. Dole and Mrs. Hatch-Mallard. They argue and contradict each other about everything.

When it is announced that a young lady, Ada Bleek, who happens to be a clairvoyante, is coming down to the house party, they even argue about whose ghost she will see, Mrs Dole insisting she will see the ghost of Lady Cullompton, murdered by one of her ancestors, Mrs Hatch-Mallard insisting she will see the ghost of her uncle, who committed suicide in the house in the most tragical of circumstances.

In the event Miss Bleek does see a ghost but not one belonging to either of the rivals, instead a giant white hedgehog which slithers across her bedroom floor! Social satire gives way to the genuinely weird.

The Mappined Life

The Mappin Terraces at London Zoo were opened in 1914, so they were very recent when Saki made them the subject of a story. Mrs. James Gurtleberry and her niece start off by discussing whether the animals penned in this slightly larger caged area have any illusory sense of freedom. But the story evolves into an impassioned and deeply depressing diatribe from the niece about how we are, all of us, trapped in the Mappin Terraces of our own narrow, blinkered and utterly unfree little lives.

Of course there ought to be jungle-cats and birds of prey and other agencies of sudden death to add to the illusion of liberty…

Surprisingly serious and surprisingly pessimistic.

Fate (Clovis Sangrail)

Rex Dillot is nearly twenty-four and almost continually penniless. He scrapes a living by betting shrewdly on the little sporting competitions at the country-house parties he frequents, but he is ambitious to make one really big killing wager.

His opportunity comes when cadaverous old Major Latton is scheduled to spend an evening playing billiards against cocky young Mr. Strinnit. Dillot bets more than he actually has on the major to win but the game goes against expectations and Strinnit is advancing his score in leaps and bounds.

Too distraught to watch the climax of the game and his own ruination, Dillon wanders off upstairs to the guest bedrooms. Here he overhears the snores of Mrs Thundleford who had retired to her room in a huff when all the other houseguests declared themselves more interested in watching two men knock about ivory balls than listen to her simply fascinating slideshow and lecture about the architecture of Venice.

Dillot opens her bedroom door. Sure enough Mrs. Thundleford has nodded off sitting very close to the reading lamp. If only a kind fate had had her nudge or knock it over, thus starting a fire, thus causing an outcry, thus interrupting the game, thus saving Dillon from ruinous losses. Well… sometimes one has to make one’s own fate…

And thus it is that a few moments later Dillot comes thundering into the games room carrying a startled Mrs. Thundleford whose dress is (slightly) on fire, dumps her on the billiard table and announces the house is on fire, leading to screams and shouts and the dousing of the flames with soda water and rugs and cushions. And the game? Oh called off, of course. Oh dear, what a shame!

But then, as Clovis remarked, when one is rushing about with a blazing woman in one’s arms one can’t stop to think out exactly where one is going to put her.

The Bull

Tom Yorkfield is a small farmer with a small herd of cows serviced by his pride and joy, a bull named Clover Fairy. The bull is probably worth £80 though Tom tells himself he’d hold out for at least £100.

Tom has never gotten on with his half-brother, Laurence. When the latter pays a visit he is tactless enough to be a) underwhelmed when Tom takes him to see his pride and joy, b) and then to boast about a painting of a bull which he recently sold for £400. And, he assures his angry brother, will continue to climb in value while Clover Fairy slowly loses all value till she’s sold for the price of his pelt and hooves.

Tom snaps, loses his temper, makes to hit Laurence who backs then runs away, and all this commotion excites the bull who promptly tosses Laurence then goes to trample him. Luckily Tom pulls him off and spends the next few weeks tending him back to health among many apologies.

A recovered Laurence duly returns to work as an artist and grows in popularity of a painter of animals ‘but his subjects are always kittens or fawns or lambkins—never bulls’.

Morlvera

Two impoverished cockney kids, Emmeline, aged ten, and Bert, aged seven, stop in front of a posh toy emporium and are attracted by an overdressed doll (an ’embodiment of overdressed depravity’) which they immediately start attributing all kinds of bloodthirsty crimes to. The children’s malevolent imaginations and cockney accents are very enjoyable.

Then along comes a chauffeur-driven car out of which emerge spoiled little Victor in his sailor suit and his commanding mother. Our two backstreet kids overhear their conversation. The mother is nagging Victor that they need to buy something for his friend, Bertha, as she bought him a beautiful box of soldiers on his birthday.

Once inside the shop, with infinite reluctance Victor allows himself to be persuaded by the sales assistant into selecting the malevolent-looking doll Emmeline and Bert had been surveying. The cockney kids watch as Victor emerges clutching the thing, gets into his car with his mother, and very carefully throws the doll out the back window just as the vehicle is reversing. The car’s back wheel gently crushes the doll to smithereens. Emmeline and Bert are thrilled and delighted.

A delicious story about children’s utter lack of innocence, their wild violent imaginations, but which also captures the class divisions of Saki’s day.

Shock Tactics (Clovis Sangrail)

‘People yield more consideration to a mutilated mealtime or a broken night’s rest, than ever they would to a broken heart.’

A Clovis story. The mother of Clovis’s friend Bertie, 19 years old, insists on opening all his letters and reading them, much to his chagrin. Clovis conceives a hilarious prank. He gets delivered to Bertie’s house a series of letters in which he poses as an utterly fictitious young lady named Clotilde and hints that she and Bertie are involved in unspeakable goings-on which involve the suicide of a serving girl and some jewels.

Astounded and enraged, Bertie’s mother rushes upstairs, banging on Bertie’s (locked) bedroom door and insisting he explain each of the successively more scandalous revelations until… a final letter arrives from Clovis explaining that, since Bertie told him that someone nosy in the household was opening his letters, Clovis has conceived the idea of sending deliberately fake letters in order to sniff the shameful culprit out.

Bertie’s mother is mortified and humiliated and from that moment onwards never opens another of Bertie’s letter.

The Seven Cream Jugs

Anything that was smaller and more portable than a sideboard, and above the value of ninepence, had an irresistible attraction for him, provided that it fulfilled the necessary condition of belonging to someone else.

Mr and Mrs Peter Pigeoncote are paid a visit by their relative Wilfred. Wilfred is a common name in their extended family and so they imagine this Wilfred is the one known widely in the family as ‘Wilfred the Snatcher’ because he is a kleptomaniac.

This stresses the couple because it just so happens to be the date of their silver wedding anniversary and friends and family far and near have bombarded them with silver gifts. Reluctantly, they show ‘Wilfred the Snatcher’ their gifts, including no fewer than seven silver cream jugs.

Wilfred is polite and complimentary, then it is time for bed. After he’s gone upstairs, Mrs and Mrs count up all the silver presents and become convinced that one of the cream jugs is missing and convinced that Wilfred must have stolen it. Next morning when he’s in the bathroom, they sneak into his bedroom and rifle through his suitcase and find… the missing silver cream jug! They take it back but decide to say nothing about it.

Half an hour later, when he comes down for breakfast, Wilfred immediately announces that one of the servants must be a thief because someone has stolen the silver cream jug from his suitcase. He goes on to explain that he and his mother had carefully selected the silver jug as a silver wedding anniversary for the pair but he forgot to give it earlier in the evening and when the couple showed him the presents they’d received to date and laughed at the fact that they’d already received seven cream jugs, he felt too embarrassed to proceed.

During this explanation several facts tumbled out which made the horrified couple realise that this Wilfred Pigeoncote is not the famous Wilfred the Snatcher but a much more remote relative, a Wilfred who is very high up in the Foreign Office! My God! They’ve made a disastrous mistake! Mrs Pigeoncote feels faint and dispatches husband Peter to fetch her smelling salts.

The situation is retrieved when, while her husband is out of the room, Mrs P confides in a low tone that the culprit is none other than her husband! ‘My God,’ says Wilfred the Foreign Office; ‘What, you mean like Wilfred the Snatcher!? My God, it must run in the family.’ ‘Yes,’ says the wife, ‘It is most tragic,’ handing him back the stolen cream jug, ‘and we’d be most grateful if you could keep it to yourself!’

The Occasional Garden

Elinor Rapsley is moaning that her back garden is too big to be ignored but not big enough to make a statement and she’s stressed because Gwenda Pottingdon has invited herself to lunch, and is ‘only coming to gloat over my bedraggled and flowerless borders and to sing the praises of her own detestably over-cultivated garden.’

The Baroness (a recurring character we’ve met in previous stories) advises her to subscribe to the OOSA, the Occasional-Oasis Supply Association. If you’re having a social event and have a scrappy back space, the OOSA will supply the garden of your dreams for the day, and tailor it to your guests, as well. Or you can pay extra and get the EON or Envy of the Neighbourhood service.

So Elinor pays for a de luxe garden to be installed ahead of Gwenda Pottingdon’s lunch visit and the latter is suitably overawed and silenced. Unfortunately, a few days later, when the OOSA has been back to remove the temporarily hired garden, Gwenda Pottingdon pays a surprise visit, barges her way into the living room and is immediately startled to see the previously luxurious garden completely absent. What happened?

‘Suffragettes,’ is Elinor’s brilliant, one-word reply, the one-word explanation for any kind of vandalism and hooliganism.

The Sheep

The Sheep is in fact the nickname of a very bad bridge player: ‘Being awfully and uselessly sorry formed a large part of his occupation in life.’ His bridge partner and prospective brother-in-law, Richard, thinks of him as one of the world’s many sheep, bumbling foolishly through life while all the time imagining himself a big, brave fellah. What makes it so galling is that, having lost his son, Robbie, fighting in India, Richard has no heir so, when the Sheep marries his sister, Kathleen, it’ll be only a matter of time before the inept bumbler inherits the family home and raises more ‘sheep’.

When the Sheep and Richard are on the way back from a day’s shooting during which he has pitifully failed to bag anything, the Sheep is suddenly confronted by a large bird lifting off the ground and flying slowly towards them and hits it with both barrels. Unfortunately, it is a very rare honey-buzzard which Richard’s family have been going to great lengths to protect for the last four years.

The local MP has died and Richard throws himself into a round of canvassing for votes which leads up to a packed meeting to be addressed by their candidate the night before the vote. Richard is due to give thanks to the Chairman but has a sore throat and (foolishly) asks the Sheep to do it. He makes the required customary sentence or two but then decides to give the meeting the benefit of his own opinions which turn out to be wildly destructive and unpopular. His remarks travel all round the constituency and lose the election.

Then Richard and Kathleen and the Sheep go for a winter holiday in the Alps. The Sheep insists on going too near to the thin ice on the lake which all the skaters have been amply warned against. No surprise when there’s a cry and he disappears into an ice hole. Richard immediately skates to the land where he’d seen a ladder which can be used to reach across the dodgy ice to save him. But as he reaches for it a huge guard dog leaps on him and keeps him pinned down during the vital moments when the Sheep might have been rescued, but in fact drowns.

As a result, Richard buys the guard dog and it becomes his loyal and much-loved companion :).

The Oversight (Clovis Sangrail)

Lady Prowche goes to enormous lengths to ensure that the guests to her prospective country-house party cannot possibly disagree about anything (after a run of parties which each ended in appalling rows). With her friend Lena Luddleford she goes carefully through a list of the many issues which divided Edwardian society, eliminating anyone who would be liable to fall out about any of them, and eventually whittles her list down to the only two possible men she can invite.

But first she tasks Lena with the all-important job of ascertaining the two men’s views align on the hot topic of the day, vivisection. A day or two later back comes the signal that they do agree on this issue and so Lady Prowche goes ahead and invites them.

With lamentable consequences. Despite all her efforts the two men do, in fact, fall out, and the party ends in a big row. Why? Because they support opposite sides in the recent Balkan Wars: ‘One of them was Pro-Greek and the other Pro-Bulgar.’ Damn! So close!

Hyacinth

Hyacinth is the name of an intelligently malicious boy. He is the son of Matilda who insists on taking him along for the election campaign of her husband who is up against the newly appointed Colonial Secretary (who has also brought his three little children along for the campaign) much against the advice of her good friend Mrs. Panstreppon who knows just what Hyacinth is like.

After the polls have closed, Hyacinth phones his mother to explain that he has kidnapped the three charming little children and locked them in a local pigsty with a very angry huge sow locked outside. If their father wins the poll, he will unlock the door and the big angry sow will devour the children. If his (Hyacinth’s) father wins, he’ll let the children go.

This results in the kids’ father, Jutterly the Colonial Secretary, rushing round to the town hall begging them to query and invalidate as many of his votes as possible in order to save his children’s lives. It works. He manages to lose, his defeat is communicated to Hyacinth, who lets down a ladder into the stye which allows the three terrified toddlers to climb to safety.

‘Told you so’, says Mrs. Panstreppon. Hyacinth wouldn’t be out of place in a modern Mexican election, she points out drolly; but maybe leave him at home for the next domestic one.

This story contains both animals and children, vectors of Saki’s satire on the absurd pretensions of the adult world, continual revealers of the spite and violence at the heart of nature.

The Purple of the Balkan Kings

The first of two ‘stories’ about the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

Luitpold Wolkenstein, financier and diplomat on a small, obtrusive, self-important scale, sat in his favoured cafe in the world-wise Habsburg capital, confronted with the Neue Freie Presse and the cup of cream-topped coffee and attendant glass of water that a sleek-headed piccolo had just brought him.

Austrian cafe expert, podgy inexperienced and smug, Wolkenstein is horrified at news of the Balkan War which heralds the rise of new nations on his border, new nations who’ll want to teach the old Great Powers a thing or two! The Ottoman Empire has lost almost all its possessions in Europe, while a significantly enlarged Serbia has begun agitating for a union of all the Slavs in south-east Europe.

As you can see, this is more of a character profile heavy with political interpretation i.e. condemnation of Austria’s smug bourgeoisie, than a ‘story’.

The Cupboard of the Yesterdays

The second of two ‘stories’ about the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 is a dialogue between the abstract figures of the Wanderer and the Merchant.

The Merchant holds the conventional liberal view that the Balkan Wars are a tragedy, all that death and waste etc. Whereas the Wanderer holds a completely different view: he thinks the tragedy is that, with the expulsion of the Ottomans from Europe and the establishment of modern nation-states with clearly defined borders, a lot of the old glamour and mystique of the murky Balkans will disappear.

‘The old atmosphere will have changed, the glamour will have gone; the dust of formality and bureaucratic neatness will slowly settle down over the time-honoured landmarks; the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, the Muersteg Agreement, the Komitadje bands, the Vilayet of Adrianople, all those familiar outlandish names and things and places, that we have known so long as part and parcel of the Balkan Question, will have passed away into the cupboard of yesterdays, as completely as the Hansa League and the wars of the Guises.’

He uses words like magic and charm:

  • ‘It seemed a magical region, with its mountain passes and frozen rivers and grim battlefields, its drifting snows, and prowling wolves; there was a great stretch of water that bore the sinister but engaging name of the Black Sea—nothing that I ever learned before or after in a geography lesson made the same impression on me as that strange-named inland sea, and I don’t think its magic has ever faded out of my imagination…’
  • ‘There is a charm about those countries that you find nowhere else in Europe, the charm of uncertainty and landslide…’

But now that many of these nations have gained nationhood, in fifteen years the whole region will be about as glamorous as Bexhill! As the Wanderer himself admits, his version of the Balkans exists primarily to ‘to thrill and enliven’ our humdrum existences, to fire our slothful imaginations.

So it’s not really a story at all, it’s more the exposition of a worldview, the late-Victorian worldview which found glamour and excitement in tales of derring-do in far-off, exotic places. In this respect, it’s not unlike the opening passage of Bertie’s Christmas which gave the impression that the entire British Empire and Commonwealth existed solely for the entertainment and gainful employment of the English upper middle-classes. Maybe it did.

For the Duration of the War

The Reverend Wilfrid Gaspilton finds himself removed from the fashionable parish of St. Luke’s Kensingate to the immoderately rural parish of St. Chuddocks, somewhere in Yondershire. His wife finds it dire and buries herself in translating an obscure French novel.

Wilfrid also finds it unbearably boring until he has an idea: to concoct a literary hoax. He makes up:

Ghurab, a hunter, or, according to other accounts, warden of the royal fishponds, who lived, in some unspecified century, in the neighbourhood of Karmanshah

and attributes to him fragments of poetry allegedly discovered by the Reverend’s own son, currently serving in Mesopotamia.

The reverend then sends these fictional fragments of Persian poetry to the Bi-Monthly Review in London which publishes them and they quickly become popular, taken up and quoted, and a Ghurab-of-Karmanshah Club is founded whose members refer to each other as Brother Ghurabians.

War brings many unintended consequences.


Themes

The role of animals in Saki’s short stories

The previous collection of short stories, Beasts and Super-Beasts, was aptly titled, since rogue animals play a key role in many of them, the more bizarre or encountered in bizarre circumstances, the more savage and violent, the better.

Like the werewolf in Gabriel-Ernest or the hyena which eats a gypsy child in Esmé or the polecat which kills Conradin’s aunt in Sredni Vishtar. Violent, beast-related and gruesome, it’s no accident that those three stories are among Saki’s most celebrated.

In this collection, there are some exotic beasts, but not so many:

  • The Wolves of Cernogratz
  • Louis centres on a mechanical lapdog
  • The Guests describes an overflow of goats and a leopard! during a flood in India
  • The Penance involves a domestic cat and a big pig
  • The Mappined Life contrasts the lives of zoo animals with humans
  • Bertie’s Christmas Eve involves farmyard cows
  • The Interlopers features the forest wolves at the end
  • The Hedgehog in which a young woman has a vision of a giant white hedgehog
  • The Bull is about a prize bull which tosses and tramples the artist
  • Hyacinth which features a potentially murderous sow

It is no accident that the two most haunting stories in the set, The Interlopers and The Wolves of Cernogratz, both feature animals at their most intense and symbolic, symbolic counterpoints to the superficialities of human wealth and culture.

The other stories mostly feature domestic or pretty plain farm animals (cat, cows, pig) in relatively humdrum settings but nonetheless, The Animal plays a role in Saki’s fiction as a kind of wild card, thrown into otherwise banal social settings to create an element which punctures the polite pretensions of human society and its timid conventions (satirised in the story about afternoon tea).

The role of ‘abroad’

Another thing about the two wolf stories is that they are not set in England.

It is a critical platitude about Saki that his stories mock the Edwardian English upper classes and, indeed, many of them are set in London drawing rooms or at country-house parties. But it’s arguable that the best of them (obviously the two wolf stories, but also the two at the end ‘about’ the Balkan wars, or the three animal stories from earlier collections) do not.

There is a consistent strand of Saki stories which are not set in England at all, and he has a penchant for Eastern Europe or Russia where he himself spent some years as a correspondent. The appeal of these, at the time, fairly remote destinations is made explicit in The Cupboards of Yesterday: they are remote and untamed, full of casual violence and risk which thrills the bourgeois imagination in a way life in Bexhill emphatically can’t.

The notion that animals speak on Christmas Eve in Bertie’s Christmas Eve derives from Russia, precisely the kind of peasant superstition you’d expect from what the Edwardian readers thought of as a charmingly backward peasant society.

The tension between the two – tame England and exotic abroad – comes out a little in the story Louis, where Mr Strudwarden wants to holiday in (exotic) Vienna while his wife insists on going, yet again, to Brighton, precisely because that is where she will find the dull, unimaginative people who find her interesting.

In this respect ‘abroad’ provides another dichotomy or pole against which to set ‘the normal’ existence of the Edwardian middle classes, to bring it into more vivid focus and to critique it, just as ‘animals’ do, and…

Children

…just as children do. In Saki’s world children are emphatically not the innocent angels of conventional thinking. For me the funniest story is Morlvera with its brilliantly funny depiction of the two backstreet London kids, their heads full of lurid, bloodthirsty imagining, but there are also:

  • the two boys in Toys of Peace who can turn even the blandest present into a vehicle for violence and blood
  • the three children in Penance who are prepared to let Octavian Ruttle’s 2-year-old daughter drown in pig poo
  • the ghastly Hyacinth, prepared to let other children be eaten alive

So animals, abroad, and children, are all perspectives or devices which Saki uses to highlight and mock the shallow, silly world of his contemporary society.

Not limited to Edwardian upper classes but told in an upper class tone of voice

Saki’s stories are not really set among the upper classes. I’ve just read Bull, which is about a farmer and his struggling artist brother. Not set in London and very much not among aristocrats. Or take Quail Seed, which concerns a shopkeeper and an impecunious artist he’s rented rooms to in some suburb or small town.

Maybe I’m making the simple point that Saki’s stories are more varied, in setting, class, character and subject matter, than is ordinarily accepted.

At which point, I realised a fairly obvious truth. The characters, settings and subject matter of the stories may not be narrowly upper class – but the tone is. The tone of the narrator, and the character it implies in pretty much all of the stories, is that of the exaggeratedly playful, carelessly privileged, upper class idler, a tone of calculated indifference, sophisticated insouciance, a lofty, mocking detachment from anything serious.

This tone is embodied from time to time in the recurring figure of the useless son or nephew who is failing to get a job or a career or a focus in life, such as Bertie Steffink (Bertie’s Last Christmas) or the useless young Bertie Heasant in Shock Tactics.

And from time to time crystallises in the character of the youthful, playful, witty prankster and bon mot artist, Clovis Sangrail (although Clovis appears in only four of these 31 stories). Clovis has the same playfully amoral wittiness of Oscar Wilde’s protagonists, and many of the snappy one-liners to match:

  • Susan Lady Beanford was a vigorous old woman who had coquetted with imaginary ill-health for the greater part of a lifetime; Clovis Sangrail irreverently declared that she had caught a chill at the Coronation of Queen Victoria and had never let it go again.
  • ‘When you wear a look of tragic gloom in a swimming-bath,’ said Clovis, ‘it’s especially noticeable from the fact that you’re wearing very little else.’
  • But then, as Clovis remarked, when one is rushing about with a blazing woman in one’s arms one can’t stop to think out exactly where one is going to put her.

So it’s not Clovis himself who predominates, it’s his tone, the tone of amused, ironic malice which pervades the stories at every level, no matter where their setting or what their subject matter:

As long as the garden produced asparagus and carnations at pleasingly frequent intervals Mrs. Gaspilton was content to approve of its expense and otherwise ignore its existence. She would fold herself up, so to speak, in an elegant, indolent little world of her own, enjoying the minor recreations of being gently rude to the doctor’s wife and continuing the leisurely production of her one literary effort, The Forbidden Horsepond.

‘Being gently rude to the doctor’s wife’. An understated tone which glosses over ironical comparisons and unexpected juxtapositions which are always amusing and sometimes very funny.

The Rev. Wilfrid found himself as bored and ill at ease in his new surroundings as Charles II would have been at a modern Wesleyan Conference… With the inhabitants of his parish he was no better off; to know them was merely to know their ailments, and the ailments were almost invariably rheumatism. Some, of course, had other bodily infirmities, but they always had rheumatism as well. The Rector had not yet grasped the fact that in rural cottage life, not to have rheumatism is as glaring an omission as not to have been presented at Court would be in more ambitious circles.

Political stories

The Edwardian period was one of surprising political stresses and crises and a number of the stories  directly invoke the world of politics. Except that, true to form, what interests Saki is not the issues themselves but the  way the issues, and the political process itself, can be mocked and ridiculed. To my daughter the feminist, the suffragettes are the subject of burning zeal. To Saki, they are the punchline of a joke.

It may be worth listing the stories which contain at least some politics:

  • The Disappearance: in the world of politics Edward Umberleigh is considered a strong man
  • The Phantom Lunch: MP Sir James Drakmanton insists that his wife lunches with the ghastly Smithly-Dubbs women because they and their uncle help him at election time
  • Forewarned is entirely about how the standard level of abuse and vitriol thrown about in a local election strikes an utterly innocent outsider
  • Canossa is a satire on Parliamentary politics
  • The Threat is an anti-suffragette satire pitched at the highest level where upper class suffragettes hobnob with the Prime Minister, leading up to the passage of an Act of Parliament
  • Hyacinth is another satire on the ridiculousness of local elections
  • The Sheep the final part of which is about the nuts and bolts of canvassing for a local election
  • Hyacinth is about a local Parliamentary election

The political stories confirm the impression derived from reading his polemical, alarmist novel, When William Came, that after 15 years as a political correspondent Saki was heartily sickened and disillusioned by British politics. Who isn’t? His disillusion comes from a solidly patrician, right-wing perspective. But his withering satire on the business of politics is just as destructive.

Suffragettes

Saki was clearly against the suffragettes who he associates with unreasonable demands and violent, vandalistic behaviour. Sometimes he mounts a direct attack, as in The Threat, which features a suffragette who comes up with a cunning new strategy. Other times it is a throwaway remark which, in its own way, is more revealing of the way the suffragettes were regarded by some in Edwardian England.

Thus when, in the comic story, The Occasional Garden, Gwenda Pottingdon pops in unexpectedly on her ‘friend’ Elinor Rapsley and is startled to discover that the sumptuous back garden she had displayed just four days earlier has vanished, Elinor has the presence of mind to explain with one word: Suffragettes, which says enough, and the way it says enough speaks volumes about its place in the respectable, middle-class discourse of the day.

In Louis the brother and sister conspiring to kill Lena’s insufferable dog for a moment consider making up a story that suffragettes had invaded the house and killed it by throwing a brick at it. No act of wanton violence was too outrageous not to be assigned to the violent suffragettes.

And in The Oversight one example of many guests who’ve got into frightful rows is Laura Henniseed, by implication one of the votes for women women. As remarks: ‘Of course the Suffragette question is a burning one, and lets loose the most dreadful ill-feeling.’ Maybe it was as divisive as Brexit has been in our own day.

Real alienation

The least humorous of the stories is the most bitter and may be, in some sense, the most psychologically ‘true’. In The Mappined Life, after they’ve visited London Zoo’s pathetic attempt to give its caged, constricted animals the illusion of wildness and freedom by building a pathetic little concrete area named the Mappin Gardens, her niece reduces Aunt Gurtleberry to tears by saying that they, too, are cabin’d, cribb’d and confined into narrow little lives of utter predictability and emptiness.

Its tone borders on suicidal despair and (this is pure speculation) makes you wonder whether, after fifteen years of chronicling the political scene and upper class life in Edwardian England, Saki, like so many others, welcomed the Great War as a chance to cleanse and redeem themselves from the sordid littleness and petty compromises of English life.

An annotated Saki

Probably the expense would never be justified, but it would be lovely to have an annotated edition of Saki’s stories because some of them contain a veritable blizzard of what are obviously references to contemporary events which it would be entertaining and informative to have properly explained.

For example, The Oversight is a story all about the subjects people find to argue about at country-house parties: religion (Church of England or non-conformist), politics (for or against Lloyd George), votes for women (for or against), vivisection, the Derby decision (‘the Stewards’ decision about Craganour’), the Falconer Report (into the Marconi scandal), and taking sides during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

I was able to look up Mappin Terraces at London Zoo, which were brand new when Saki wrote his story about them, but there are many more fleeting references to contemporary people or events which flash by with the mention of just a name or fleeting reference which you know is important but cannot identify. When, in The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh, he casually refers to ‘the feminine cycling craze’ it would be nice to learn more.

And it is a minor but interesting note that the troubled situation in Mexico (then experiencing the start of its long drawn-out revolution) is referred to in no fewer than three stories (The Threat, The Mappined Life and Hyacinth) so was obviously having an impact on educated opinion, but what impact, exactly?

Ignoring this steady stream of contemporary issues has the net effect of making Saki’s stories seem more timeless and ahistorical than they actually are. It’s true that half or more of the stories are set in the timeless world of upper-middle-class twits which to some extent anticipates P.G. Wodehouse’s. But even these sometimes contain sharp references to very recent, headline-making political and social events, which indicate the depth of Saki’s engagement and commitment.

Comic similes

He brought her a large yellow dahlia, which she grasped tightly in one hand and regarded with a stare of benevolent boredom, such as one might bestow on amateur classical dancing performed in aid of a deserving charity.

[The Salvation Army] used to go about then unkempt and dishevelled, in a sort of smiling rage with the world, and now they’re spruce and jaunty and flamboyantly decorative, like a geranium bed with religious convictions.


Related links

Saki’s works

Reginald in Russia, and other sketches by Saki (1910)

Hector Hugh Munro was born in Burma in 1870 to an official of the British Raj. Aged 23 he followed his father into the Burmese police, which he stuck at for two years before getting ill and chucking it in the 1890s. He returned to London to scrape a living by journalism and began writing comic sketches about an Oscar Wilde-style aesthete and provocateur, named Reginald, using the pen name ‘Saki’. These sketches were published in a short book titled Reginald in 1904. By this time Munro was working as a foreign correspondent for several London newspapers, a job which took him to the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia and Paris, before he returned to London to concentrate on being a writer.

The result was this, his second volume of short stories, Reginald In Russia, collected & published in 1910. Only the first story actually features Reginald – maybe the title was chosen to lure in fans of the first book – but it’s not just that: the whole feel of the stories is different. Whereas the original Reginald pieces were little more than comic monologues and all centred on the eponymous languid aesthete, the stories in RiR a) really are stories b) feature a wide cast of characters.

Above all, they mark the arrival of the macabre in Saki’s work. Some truly gruesome incidents take place, and the humour – or the effect – derives from the dead-pan, upper-class sang-froid with which they’re described.

Reginald in Russia

1. Reginald in Russia

Reginald in witty conversation with i.e. making sardonic remarks at the expense of, a Russian princess.

‘I always refused to learn Russian geography at school,’ observed Reginald; ‘I was certain some of the names must be wrong.’

2. The Reticence of Lady Anne

The timid Egbert tiptoes into the dining room at tea-time as the light is fading and makes numerous apologies to his wife for their argument at lunch-time. She sits frigid and silent, until, humiliated by her refusal to respond, he tiptoes out.

To get the worst of an argument with her was no new experience. To get the worst of a monologue was a humiliating novelty.

At which point the narrator reveals that Egbert’s wife is, in fact, dead. (Without a big deal being made of the fact, we realise that this is the first of Saki’s stories which does not feature the egregious Reginald. We are out and about in the wider world now, although, admittedly, still very much in the circumscribed world of the English upper classes.)

3. The Lost Sanjak

The prison chaplain hears the confession of a hanged man who swears it wasn’t him and tells his story. He is an educated man who made a pass at the chemist’s wife who spurned him and asked him to disappear from her life. On the way back from her house he came across the body of a Salvation Army officer who had been brutally murdered, and it occurred to him he could swap identities, dressing the corpse in his clothes, and thus ‘disappearing’ from his beloved’s life. He does so, changing into the Sally Army man’s outfit, only for it to become clear that the dead man was not, as he thought, the victim of a traffic accident, but had been brutally bludgeoned, smashing in his head.

What happens now is that, finding the corpse wearing his clothes they think that he, the narrator of the tale, has been murdered and witnesses report a shifty-looking Salvation Army officer leaving the scene of the crime. And so he, the narrator of the story, becomes accused of his own murder and the target of a nationwide murder hunt, finally being caught by bloodhounds and convicted of his own murder.

A well-educated man and something of an expert on the Balkans, he is asked at his trial, as a trst of his knowledge, to prove he really is who he claims he is, to specify the location of Novibazar and, in his fluster, says Baker Street. And so he was hanged – for a mistake in geography.

Although it has a few spasms of Reginaldesque wit:

With considerable difficulty I undressed the corpse, and clothed it anew in my own garments. Any one who has valeted a dead Salvation Army captain in an uncertain light will appreciate the difficulty.

… this story is clearly quite a departure from Reginald territory in that it is mostly fairly serious and at its heart is an act of gruesome violence.

4. The Sex that Doesn’t Shop

A Reginald-style frivolous essay about women’s peculiar dilatoriness when it comes to shopping, for example always managing to run out of household necessities at just the vital moment, refusing to shop at the nearest store but always fetishising the most distant ones. He tells the anecdote of a friend named Agatha who prevented him from buying perfectly good blotting paper at a nearby shop and insisted he accompany her to a place where ‘they know me’, that being the prime consideration, more than convenience or price.

5. The Blood-Feud of Toad-Water

So-so story about a country feud between Mrs Crick who keeps hens and Mrs Saunders who keeps a vegetable patch, after one of the Crick hens gets in among the onion seedlings. It is told in Saki’s characteristic sardonic and ironic style, but is a definite departure from metropolitan high society.

6. A Young-Turkish Catastrophe

The Turkish Minister For Fine Arts visits the Grand Vizier and persuades him to give women the vote. The progressive Young Turkish party will approve. Later, when the election is called, in one particular region the local candidate is ahead by 300 votes – until his rival, Ali the Blest, turns up with his 600 wives!

I think the point is meant to be that so-called progressive politicians will be undone by their own policies. It is the first of several jibes against the suffragettes in Saki’s oeuvre. And it is topical:

The Young Turks was a political reform movement in the early 20th century that favoured the replacement of the Ottoman Empire’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional government. They led a rebellion against the absolute rule of Sultan Abdulhamid II in the 1908 Young Turk Revolution. (Wikipedia)

7. Judkin of the Parcels

Not a story at all, a rather depressing portrait of a homely man who the narrator sees trudging down his local rural lanes, carrying parcels, and later digging up the roots of a tree. The narrator fantasises about his gilded youth, adventures in Imperial provinces under the stars but how life for old Judkin has now dwindled to rural tedium. It’s elegantly written but… well… sad.

8. Gabriel-Ernest

Cunningham remarks after a weekend stay with his friend Van Cheel that there is a beast in his woods. Next day, out walking, Van Cheele comes across a naked 16 year-old boy sunning himself by the waterfall. The boy is cheeky and slips into the water with an uncanny slinkiness. Next day Van Cheele finds the boy, again naked, in his morning room. His aunt wanders in and is much taken with the poor waif, and bathes and dresses him and whimsically names him Gabriel-Ernest.

The boy’s wildness, uncanny air and tasteless remarks about man-flesh disconcert Van Cheele so much he takes a train to visit Cunningham and ask him just what did his remark about a beast mean? Cunningham replies that he saw a boy lazing on a hillside at dusk and, just as the sun set, he transformed into a wolf! At this revelation, Van Cheele realises the boy is alone in his house with his aunt!!

Van Cheele runs out of the room, catches the next train home, rushes out the station and into a taxi, gets home to find… his aunt is perfectly alright, phew! But where is the boy? Walking one of the many local toddlers home, she replies. Without waiting, Van Cheele dashes back out the house and down the country lane but, as the sun sets, he hears a blood-curdling scream of terror.

Neither Gabriel-Ernest nor the toddler are ever found, though the former’s clothes are found in a pile by the mill stream. The locals assume the little toddler fell in the stream and Gabriel-Ernest stripped and jumped in to rescue him. Van Cheele knows better but tells no-one. The Saki note comes right at the very end:

Van Cheele gave way to his aunt in most things, but he flatly refused to subscribe to the Gabriel-Ernest memorial.

It is as if Oscar Wilde has been crossed with Bram Stoker. There is the genuinely macabre and horrific – but rounded off with the cheeky insouciance of Reginald.

9. The Saint and the Goblin

A kind of fable, slightly like Wilde’s fairy stories, of two neighbours in a medieval cathedral, a stone saint and a carved goblin. They have opposite philosophies: the saint thinks the world is bad and he ought to do something about it; the goblin thinks the world is bad and should be left to its own devices. Both of them use the church mice as an example. The church mice are poor and the saint thinks something should be done about them, whereas the goblin thinks it is their function to be poor in a world which can never be changed or improved.

When a jackdaw drops a silver thaler near the saint he tells the goblin he is going to send the verger’s wife a dream to instruct her to a) find the coin and b) spend it on corn to place on his altar which the mice can eat.

Part one of the dream works and the vergeress finds the silver coin, but all she does is tie it round the neck of the carved saint as an offering. Thus the carved saint’s noble aim of improving the lot of the poor mice is defeated. A Conservative fable?

10. The Soul of Laploshka

Laploshka is a famous miser who sponges off those richer than him. Meanly, the narrator has dinner with him but is then called away on an appointment and yells back for Laploshka to pay the bill. He does so with terrible grace but next day tracks down the narrator for the owed two francs, but the narrator cheerily says he’ll have to owe it since he has no ready cash and is going away for six months.

That night Laploshka dies of a heart attack. The narrator has the whimsical indifference of Reginald, but feels he still owes the 2 francs: should he give it to the poor? In church he drops it in the collection bag ‘for the poor’. But a few days later he is struck to see the ghost of Laploshka in a restaurant near him. From then on, for weeks, Laploshka’s ghost mournfully follows him.

Eventually the narrator realises he should have given the 2 francs to the deserving rich. In another church in Paris he comes across Baron R, one of the richest men in the city, pretends to be an American and asks naive questions about the place and, at the end of the tour, gratefully gives the rich man the 2 francs. Exiting, he sees Laploshka’s ghost tip his hat to him, and then disappear.

Saki’s humorous similes, the comic comparisons and insights which more or less made up the Reginald stories, are now much rarer and deployed with more restraint among the more mundane matter of the plot. It is the plot which acts out the sardonic mentality previously conveyed by dialogue alone. But there are still witty mots:

Laploshka said nothing, but his eyes bulged a little and his cheeks took on the mottled hues of an ethnographical map of the Balkan Peninsula.

Note the highly topical reference to the Balkans which were just about to undergo another spasm of wars.

11. The Bag

A Russian boy, Vladimir, aged 19, is staying with a posh landed family, the Hoopingtons, namely Mrs Hoopington and her niece Norah. The local Major is having the devil of a time keeping the local fox hunt going, what with foxes getting scarcer and people fencing off their property.

Vladimir comes home from a shoot with a full bag and, from his description of having bagged a reddish furry animal that hides among trees and eats vermin, Norah is horrified – Vladimir must have shot a fox, one of the ever-dwindling band of foxes which Major Pallaby is always complaining about !

They hear the Major and Mrs Hoopington coming into the dining room and chuck the bag onto the top of a dresser but the strap catches on an antler and the wretched bag hangs there, just above the alcove in which the foursome settle down for tea.

But then the Major’s dog starts barking and then leaping up to get the bag, the elders ask what the devil’s in it, Norah confesses it’s got one of the rare foxes in it, and the Major bursts into a fury, phones the head of the hunt and resigns, casts insults in every direction and storms out.

Vladimir is shamefacedly sent with his bag to the woods, where he buries – a polecat! Not a fox at all. Norah made a mistake, all the rest is comic over-reaction.

12. The Strategist

A party of children are invited to Mrs Jallatt’s. Rollo is outnumbered by his horrible cousins, the Wrotsleys, and so he tries to use strategy to avoid being beaten up by the bullies. And they really are little brutes: on their first visit to the library to confer on the word for charades the Wrotsleys hold him down and horsewhip him for a minute. The girls in the party call for another word and Rollo is taken back out and subjected to whipping with a whalebone riding switch. The other focus of the story is malicious, fat Agnes who will do anything to lay her hands on food, her personality described at repellent length.

All the time Mrs Jallatt is thinking her little charges are having a lovely time. In other words it is a story about what utter, untamed beasts and greedy sadists children are. Reminiscent of the deliberate sadism in Kipling’s stories about children, for example the entire Stalky and Co series.

13. Cross Currents

Quite a complex tale of the snobbish Vanessa Pennington who is married to a worthy but poor man, but worshipped by an adventurer, Clyde, much given to travelling the wastes of Asia.

When the husband dies and Clyde eventually hears about it in the wastes of Asia, he invites Vanessa to join him in the back of beyond, but she doesn’t take to it:

  • Vanessa was well enough educated to know that all dusky-skinned people take human life as unconcernedly as Bayswater folk take singing lessons.
  • It was one thing to go to the end of the world; it was quite another thing to make oneself at home there. Even respectability seemed to lose some of its virtue when one practised it in a tent.

It all turns out to be very boring for a girl and she ends up running off with another man, Dobrinton, who is actually half-Russian. Alas, they are captured and held to ransom by Kurdish bandits. Clyde not very enthusiastically follows on their trail and he too is captured.

Stuck in a hut and under guard they are not a happy trio, till Clyde escapes, the other two are ransomed by their governments, Dobrinto is bitten by a rabid dog and dies of fright, and Vanessa limps back to London very relieved to get a job in a hotel restaurant. Still, it’s in quite a fashionable address, so things have turned out alright, really.

Once again, the humour is in the plot more than the witticisms, though there are plenty of one-liners. More interesting, maybe, is the setting and the fact that the kidnapping requires the various governments to ransom their citizens i.e. the inclusion of diplomacy as a subject, something which Munro knew about because of his extended stays as a journalist in Russia and environs.

14. The Baker’s Dozen (A Playlet)

The Major and Mrs Carewe meet on an eastern steamer and declare that, their respective spouses being dead, they are free to pursue their love. Except that, when they stop to tot up their accumulated children they find they have 13 (!). It would be dreadfully unlucky to marry and have thirteen children! Maybe they can get rid of one.

Just then an acquaintance, Mrs Paly-Paget, comes by. She only has the one little girl so the Major tries to interest her in adopting a few others for her to play with. Mrs P-P is shocked and storms off. Is there no hope? But then the Major counts again and realises he only has four children. They are saved!

At one point they are discussing whether any of the boys, with a bit of luck, might turn out completely depraved so they can disown him and bring the numbers down:

Emily: There’s always a chance that one of them might turn out depraved and vicious, and then you could disown him. I’ve heard of that being done.
Major: But, good gracious, you’ve got to educate him first. You can’t expect a boy to be vicious till he’s been to a good school.

15. The Mouse

Theoderic Voler is nervous and shy and is returning by train from a visit to a country vicarage where he had the indignity of having to help harness the pony the trap himself, in a mouse-ridden stable, when he realises a stray mouse has got into his clothing.

He is in a railway carriage with no corridor and one other inhabitant, a young lady who is, mercifully, asleep. Nervously, Theoderic pins up a rug to the overhead baggage compartment and is halfway through stripping off to get at the mouse when the rug falls down with a bang and wakes the young lady.

Almost hysterical with embarrassment, Theoderic grabs the rug up to his neck and spends the next half hour in an agony of embarrassment at his predicament, which gets worse as they approach London and he realises a whole station full of onlookers will at some point see him en deshabillé. So he plucks up his guts to do the bravest thing in his life, drops the rug and hastily gets dressed in front of the young lady, stuttering and fumbling and red with embarrassment.

It is only as the train arrives at the station that the young lady says would he mind helping her; it always makes her feel so helpless at railway stations – being blind! So it’s a comedy, but with a bitter twist.

Commentary

By the last of these stories we have come a long, long way from Reginald’s sub-Wildean epigrams, into much more varied territory.

What had been carefully dealt out one-liners in the Reginald stories have now expanded to become actual plots. The irony and paradox which were once embodied in witty sentences has been expanded into ironic and paradoxical storylines.

Some are silly drawing room comedies such as A Baker’s Dozen. But the memorable ones tend to be those with a touch of the macabre, the one in which the husband talks to Lady Anne for half and hour then storms out without realising she’s dead. And of course Gabriel-Ernest sticks out, as the most shockingly gruesome.

The odd thing is the way Saki’s dryly, super-sophisticated, ironic tone allows you to accept anything: yes, the boy is a werewolf, yes, they were captured by Kurdish bandits, yes, the Edwardian couple are so upset by the thought of having 13 children that they start planning trying to get rid of one. You have entered a world of malicious fairy tales.

But not all of them. As a collection it’s a mixed bag, some harking back to the monologues of Reginald, such as the superficial essay about women shopping, some feel like experiments in trying out unusual subject matter, like Judkin and The Water-Feud and The Bag, not coincidentally all set in the country.

But rearing up among them is a new tone of voice, vivid experiments with shock and bewildered amusement – Gabriel-Ernest and The Mouse. These point towards the finished ‘Saki’ effect.

Witticisms

Reginald sat in a corner of the Princess’s salon and tried to forgive the furniture, which started out with an obvious intention of being Louis Quinze, but relapsed at frequent intervals into Wilhelm II.

The Princess always defended a friend’s complexion if it was really bad. With her, as with a great many of her sex, charity began at homeliness and did not generally progress much farther.

‘I hope you will come and see me again,’ she said, in a tone that prevented the hope from becoming too infectious…

He could sing ‘Yip-I-Addy’ and spoke of several duchesses as if he knew them – in his more inspired moments almost as if they knew him.


Related links

Saki’s works

Reginald by Saki (1904)

Hector

Hector Hugh Munro was born in 1870 in Burma, then still part of the British Empire. He was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, and Mary Frances Mercer, daughter of Rear Admiral Samuel Mercer. Her nephew, Cecil William Mercer, later became a famous novelist under the pen-name ‘Dornford Yates’. So a posh and bookish family.

His mother died when Hector was just two and he, along with his siblings, was sent to Devon to be raised by their grandmother and aunts in a strict and puritanical household. As a result, eccentric or mean aunts loom large in Saki’s fiction and often come to a sticky end.

Susan Mebberley was a charming woman, but she was also an aunt. (The Chronicles of Clovis)

Hector was tutored by governesses until sent to boarding school in Bedford. When his father retired from Burma, he returned to England and took Hector and his sister on tours of fashionable European spas and resorts, which also crop up in Saki’s stories.

In 1893 Hector followed his father into the Indian Imperial Police and was posted to Burma. Two years later, having contracted malaria, he resigned and returned to England.

Back in England Hector developed a new career as a journalist and began writing for newspapers like the Westminster Gazette, the Daily Express, the Morning Post, and magazines such as the Bystander and Outlook.

In 1900 he published a serious historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire. From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post in the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia (where he witnessed Bloody Sunday on 22 January 1905) and Paris. He then gave up foreign reporting and settled in London.

Saki

In 1904 Hector published a slender volume of stories and sketches under the pen name ‘Saki’. Nobody is certain where this comes from: it could be a reference to the cup-bearer in the popular Victorian poem, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. Or it might be a reference to the South American monkey of the same name. Or it might be that his stories are laced with dry sarcasm. Or maybe he just liked the sound of the word.

Reginald

Saki’s first volume, Reginald, is extremely short, comprising twenty short texts of barely two pages each, which had all been first published as snippets in the Westminster Gazette. They are not really stories: each one is more like a topic on which we hear the divine fop, dandy and man-about-town, Reginald, giving his langorous, witty opinions, sometimes to the unnamed narrator, sometimes in dialogue with ‘the Duchess’ or just ‘the Other’, sometimes in plain declamatory prose.

The only thing Reginald cares about is his appearance. He fusses about ties and buttonholes. Even the thought of holding extended conversations exhausts the poor dear. He delights in scandalising aunts and a recurrent character, The Duchess, with deliberately paradoxical and unconventional opinions.

After a few hours in the company of the camp and calculating frivolousness of young Reginald, it comes as no surprise to learn that Saki was gay. Reginald’s character, style and flow of witty epigrams is saturated in the persona and style of Oscar Wilde.

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

By far the best, the funniest, and the most complete sketch is The Woman Who Told The Truth which contains probably his most quoted line: ‘The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went.’

The brief pieces are titled:

1. Reginald

The unnamed narrator takes Reginald to an upper-class garden party where he scandalises everyone he comes in contact with, teaching the children how to make cocktails, mocking the Colonel’s story of how he introduced golf to India, discussing a scandalous French novel with the Archdeacon’s wife. By the time the narrator catches up with him:

I found everyone talking nervously and feverishly of the weather and the war in South Africa, except Reginald, who was reclining in a comfortable chair with the dreamy, far-away look that a volcano might wear just after it had desolated entire villages.

The narrator plays his trump card by telling Reginald a sea-mist is coming in. Reginald sits bolt upright and agrees to beat a hasty retreat to their carriage, for fear that the mist might undo the elaborate curl of hair over his right eyebrow.

2. Reginald on Christmas Presents

Why people are so lamentably bad at giving presents. Really, there ought to be special training in the art of gift-giving:

Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.

3. Reginald on the Academy

Meaning the Royal Academy of Art, for which Reginald affects a fashionable disdain, its sole purpose being to have something to talk about to the tedious country cousins when they come up to Town. As to the actual pictures:

‘The pictures are all right, in their way; after all, one can always look at them if one is bored with one’s surroundings, or wants to avoid an imminent acquaintance.’

In his continual effort to scandalise with unexpected paradox, Reginald reminds the reader of a slightly cut-price Oscar Wilde:

‘What were you talking about? Oh, pictures. Personally, I rather like them; they are so refreshingly real and probable, they take one away from the unrealities of life.’

4. Reginald at the Theatre

A dialogue between Reginald and the Duchess, in which she asks the questions and he supplies the punchlines:

‘Of course you are quite irreligious?’
‘Oh, by no means. The fashion just now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the mediæval picturesqueness of the one with the modern conveniences of the other.’

Which leads into the Duchess’s earnest defence of the British Empire and Reginald’s debonaire mockery of it.

5. Reginald’s Peace Poem

A mockery of poetry as Reginald explains how he’s setting about writing a poem for peace.

‘You must have angels in a Peace poem and I know dreadfully little about their habits.’

6. Reginald’s Choir Treat

The vicar’s grown-up daughter in the village where Reginald’s unworldly family still live, is encouraged to undertake his moral reformation. Obviously she fails when it comes to verbal exchanges and so shifts tack and asks him to help with the village children’s choir. Unfortunately, she then takes to her bed with a cold. With a glint in his eye, Reginald leads the children to a stream, gets them to strip off and bathe, then decorate each other with flowers, and process mostly naked through the village leading a goat, in a delightful homage to the pagan world. Nude Greek paganism.

7. Reginald on Worries

To my mind, education is an absurdly over-rated affair. At least, one never took it very seriously at school, where everything was done to bring it prominently under one’s notice. Anything that is worth knowing one practically teaches oneself, and the rest obtrudes itself sooner or later.

8. Reginald on House-Parties

One never gets to know one’s hosts and one’s hosts never get to know you and if they do then quite often, as in the unfortunate affair of the peacock, they take a decided turn against you.

So I got up the next morning at early dawn—I know it was dawn, because there were lark-noises in the sky, and the grass looked as if it had been left out all night…

9. Reginald at the Carlton

Discussing travel with the Duchess:

‘And, after all, they charge so much for excess luggage on some of those foreign lines that it’s really an economy to leave one’s reputation behind one occasionally.’

As usual, even in comedy, these old stories reveal that some social issues are with us forever.

‘And the youngest daughter, who was intended for the American marriage market, has developed political tendencies, and writes pamphlets about the housing of the poor. Of course it’s a most important question, and I devote a good deal of time to it myself in the mornings.’

10. Reginald on Besetting Sins (The Woman Who Told The Truth)

There was once (said Reginald) a woman who told the truth. Not all at once, of course, but the habit grew upon her gradually, like lichen on an apparently healthy tree. She had no children—otherwise it might have been different. It began with little things, for no particular reason except that her life was a rather empty one, and it is so easy to slip into the habit of telling the truth in little matters…

This ironical inversion of the usual values is conceived and delivered with style and aplomb. And talking of how some things never change, Southern trains were, apparently, as proverbial for their lateness in 1900 as they are in 2020.

The revenge of an elder sister may be long in coming, but, like a South-Eastern express, it arrives in its own good time.

11. Reginald’s Drama

Reginald plans a play which would open with the sound and scent of wolves wafted across the footlight such as to make nervous Lady Whortleberry scream, It would then become a tragedy such as that of the mismatched Mudge-Jervises, where he was always absent at sports and she was always absent doing Good Works for the Poor, and when they did finally meet up after 18 months of marriage, they discovered they had nothing in common. If and when the characters could think of nothing brilliant to say about marriage or the War Office, they could open a window and listen to the howling of the wolves. ‘But that would be very seldom.’

This harping on about wolves is one of the first appearances of the large wild animals which would become the signature note of his most effective stories.

12. Reginald on Tariffs

Talking about tariffs, the lift-boy, who reads extensively between the landings, says it won’t do to tax raw commodities. What, exactly, is a raw commodity? Mrs. Van Challaby says men are raw commodities till you marry them.

13. Reginald’s Christmas Revel

Reginald describes a perfectly beastly Christmas he spent as a house guest at the Babswolds’ once, where he took his revenge by playing a particularly corking practical joke.

I don’t like to play games of skill for milk-chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European Governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned on her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was giving, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later I violently exploded an air-filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could have been heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady’s door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour, as if she had been an historic battlefield.

14. Reginald’s Rubaiyat

Reginald outrages the Duchess with steadily more outlandish versions of verses he composes for her album.

15. The Innocence of Reginald

Reginald announces he is going to write ‘a book of personal reminiscences’ and leave nothing out, which prompts an absolute panic among his acquaintance. It prompts a prolonged argument with Miriam Klopstock all the way through a play at His Majesty’s Theatre.

She leaned back and snorted, ‘You’re not the boy I took you for,’ as though she were an eagle arriving at Olympus with the wrong Ganymede.

Bons mots

Reginald in his wildest lapses into veracity never admits to being more than twenty-two.

‘People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.’

‘To have reached thirty,’ said Reginald, ‘is to have failed in life.’

‘I agree with you.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve a sweet temper, but I can’t stand being agreed with.’

No really provident woman lunches regularly with her husband if she wishes to burst upon him as a revelation at dinner. He must have time to forget; an afternoon is not enough.

‘Lift-boys always have agèd mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.’

‘There are certain fixed rules that one observes for one’s own comfort. For instance, never be flippantly rude to any inoffensive grey-bearded stranger that you may meet in pine forests or hotel smoking-rooms on the Continent. It always turns out to be the King of Sweden.’

‘I always say beauty is only sin deep.’

‘You promised you would never mention it; don’t you ever keep a promise?’ When people had stopped glaring in our direction, I replied that I’d as soon think of keeping white mice.

‘Her frocks are built in Paris, but she wears them with a strong English accent. So public-spirited of
her. I think she must have been very strictly brought up, she’s so desperately anxious to do the wrong thing correctly.’

‘A woman who leaves her cook never wholly recovers her position in Society.’

‘I hate posterity — it’s so fond of having the last word.’

Saki and Kipling

A few years ago I read most of Kipling’s works and was interested to see him referenced a couple of times in these brief skits. As the son of an Imperial official, born in India and sent to prep school in Devon and forced to stay with uncongenial ‘carers’, Hector’s early life was eerily similar to Kipling’s and they were only five years apart in age (Kipling born 1865, Saki 1870).

And yet Saki was of a completely different temperament and instead of respecting the older writer, he enjoys satirising him and his earnest embodiment of Imperial values.

Kipling or someone has described somewhere the look a foundered camel gives when the caravan moves on and leaves it to its fate. The peptonised reproach in the good lady’s eyes brought the passage vividly to my mind.

In Reginald at the theatre the Duchess tries to provoke the sceptical Reginald into admitting that, despite his pose of elaborate cynicism, he at least believes in patriotism. What’s interesting is the way she expresses herself in Kiplingesque clichés and quotes.

‘But there are other things,’ she continued, ‘which I suppose are to a certain extent sacred even to you. Patriotism, for instance, and Empire, and Imperial responsibility, and blood-is-thicker-than-water, and all that sort of thing… Oh, well, “dominion over palm and pine,” you know,’ quoted
the Duchess hopefully; ‘of course we mustn’t forget that we’re all part of the great Anglo-Saxon Empire.’

In among her jumble of platitudes she is quoting Kipling’s most eminent poem, Recessional

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

It’s interesting evidence of the way Kipling’s phrases had penetrated the culture; the way in which a sub-Kipling Imperial worldview was just part of the respectable mindset of the day.

Elsewhere, Reginald jokes about a couple who lived very happily apart, him serving overseas, until they accidentally met one day and discovered they profoundly disagreed on ‘the Fiscal Question’ (a reference, I think, to Joseph Chamberlain’s campaign for tariff reform designed to bind the British Empire together into one trading bloc) and so are divorcing and trying to agree custody of the Persian cats. Reginald is considering turning the story into a drama mockingly titled ‘The Price They Paid For Empire’. In other words, part of the comedy derives from deliberately ridiculing and belittling everything Kipling held dear.

Elsewhere Saki elaborately guys Kipling’s genuinely creepy horror story, At The End of The Passage, when Reginald sneaks off from an after-dinner party game of charades to go and gamble with the servants, later giving his excuse that he was at the end of the passage. ‘I never did like Kipling,’ comments his hostess, Mrs Babwold, so it is assumed that not only the characters but the reader will recognise that phrase, the end of the passage, as the title of a Kipling story.

There are quite a few references to ‘the war’ – for example, the peace poem Reginald is composing relates to the ongoing conflict, and elsewhere he jokes:

‘And nowadays there are always the Johannesbourgeois, who bring a Cape-to-Cairo atmosphere with them — what may be called the Rand Manner, I suppose.’

In a play on ‘the Grand manner’. These are all references to the Boer War (1899 to 1902) and show that Saki’s stories are very aware of their times, are more full of topical and contemporary references than people think.

‘There’s lots more about the blessings of Peace, shall I go on reading it?’
‘If I must make a choice, I think I would rather they went on with the war.’

In its studied frivolity and its awareness of contemporary British politics and international affairs, Saki’s stories are a kind of antidote to everything earnest and manly about Kipling and his circle of Imperial visionaries.

Saki and Oscar Wilde

It’s easy to accuse Saki of being a poor man’s Oscar Wilde and it feels like Reginald owes more or less everything to the dandies of Wilde’s plays and Dorian Grey, except that most of his bon mots are not quite as polished and silvery as Wilde’s. Wilde is an incomparable prose stylist, Saki a lot less so.

Also Saki, despite appearance to the contrary, is firmly embedded in his times, as the references to the Boer War or Tariff Reform suggest, a topicality which becomes dominant in his invasion novel, When William Came. Completely different from Wilde who set his stories in an upper class fairyland. Saki’s stories always have this element of topicality about them.

But this was just the very start of his career. Soon it was to become clear that Saki’s real métier wasn’t wit alone, but the macabre and gruesome dressed as comedy. The Reginald strain remains, and some later stories still consist entirely of dandyish wit, but the best ones are known for the bizarre inclusion of wild animals and the black comedy of bullying aunts coming to grisly ends.


Related links

Saki’s works

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen (2020)

The purpling corpse of Uric Burns still hung from the bridge abutment. Photographers clambered around like coked-up marmosets.
(Squeeze Me, page 186)

I suspect that the outstanding feature of this novel was intended to be the extended mockery of President Donald Trump and the First Lady, Melania Trump, who both appear as speaking characters, the former blustering at press conferences or failing to get it up with his mistress, the latter relieving the boredom of her gilded cage by having an affair with her Secret Service bodyguard, on one memorable occasion emerging dripping naked from her bath and ordering her to **** her.

However, two things militate against the book being quite the excoriating sensation Hiaasen and his editors may have planned:

  1. Trump has finally gone, as of January 2021, and it’s surprising – but then again, maybe not – how quickly we’ve stopped giving a damn about him.
  2. Trump has been trumped by the small matter of a worldwide pandemic which has rocked every aspect of our societies, and shows no signs of going away.

Presumably Hiaasen was putting the finishing touches to this novel in spring 2020 when the pandemic first arrived. He’s been canny enough to slip references to it into the narrative but it doesn’t affect the plot at all, indeed, it would be difficult to see how you could have a comedy thriller set during a lockdown. But somehow even the fleeting references to COVID (pages 8, 29, 56, 105) are enough to drag the reader out of Hiaasen’s grotesque fantasy-land and into our all-too-real present.

Plot summary

As usual, as soon as you open a Hiaasen novel the reader is bombarded with a host of characters, each with their own complex backstories and history, who are brought together by a a premise, by one specific incident, the more garish and grotesque the better, whose ramifications rumble on and spread out and ensnare everyone in comic (and sometimes very violent) consequences for just shy of 400 pages.

Angie Armstrong

Angela ‘Angie’ Armstrong runs a wild animal control company ‘Discreet Captures’ i.e. if you’ve got a wild raccoon in your kitchen or a bear blunders into your garden, Angie’s the woman you call to sort it out. She’s five foot three tall and her Army father taught her to address all males as ‘sir’. She was married for a while to Dustin, 21 years older and a good-looking life coach (p.44). However, Dustin didn’t like critters at all, which put a strain on the marriage, then Angie caught him being unfaithful (as happens in most Hiaasen marriages), in this case with an equestrian named Alexandria, so they divorced. She still keeps in touch with Dustin’s son, grown-up, reasonable Joel, who comes to stay every other weekend. Angie’s latest boyfriend is a Merrill Lynch banker named Jesse, who gets casually dumped fairly early on (p.106).

Angie got a job as a wildlife officer with the state of Florida but blew this when out on patrol she saw a drunken slob deliberately run his airboat over a grazing deer. Angie motored straight over and arrested the ‘fuckstick’ (p.37) who continued to insult and abuse her so intensely that she fed his left arm into the maw of a tame alligator named Lola. Yes. Angie takes no nonsense.

The case went to court where she learned the fuckstick’s name was Pruitt. He was fined but Angie was sent to Gadsden prison for 14 months for use of excessive force and discharged from state service. Now, every day at 6pm, Pruitt phones up from a different payphone and breathes revolting threats and abuse down the phone. Angie gives sardonic replies and drives him mad by never losing her temper and referring to him as ‘sir’ throughout.

Angie is, in other words, the latest in a line of tough Hiaasen heroines such as Merry Mansfield in Razor Girl, Honey Santana in Nature Girl, Jolayne Lucks in Lucky You or Erin in Strip Tease.

The Burmese python

Late one night Angie gets a call from Tripp Teabull, manager of the Lipid Estate in Palm Beach. This is a huge mansion complete with ballroom, manicured grounds and ornamental lake where very up-scale parties, receptions and fund raisers are held. Costs quarter of a million to hire for the night without catering.

Teabull is calling because the head gardener, Mauricio, and his crew have discovered an eighteen-foot-long Burmese python lazing in the branches of one of the trees in the grounds with a big lump half way down it. As so often, Hiaasen pauses the narrative for a few pages to give a background explanation of an aspect of his novel, in this case the genuine proliferation of Burmese pythons in South Florida: they were originally bought as pets but managed to escape into the wild, whose tropical climate suits them perfectly.

The novel opens on the night of a big right-wing political fundraiser being given at the Lipid Estate and attended by the usual set of South Florida millionaires, their wives and widows. It opens just at the moment when one of a circle of rich widows, 72-year-old Katherine ‘Kiki’ Pew Fitzsimmons has gone missing, leaving only a cocktail glass and one shoe down by the lake.

Little old lady missing? Huge python with a suggestive bulge in its gut? You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to instantly suspect the two are connected.

So Angie is called out to the Estate and charged with getting rid of the python without using a gun or anything which might scare the super-rich guests up in the main house. After some faffing she decapitates the python with a razor sharp machete and gets some of the estate’s bigger guys to roll it up into a coil, stuff it into a box along with ice, put the head in a separate (smaller) box, and carry them to her pickup truck.

Then she drives it to the storage units (Safe’n’Sound) where she stores dead animals on ice before she’s got enough to make a full load and it’s worth driving a hundred miles west into the wilderness where she’s developed a secret burial ground for them. More respectful, and causes less questions, than just dumping them in the garbage.

Uric and the Prince

Job done, right? However, shortly afterwards Angie’s apartment is burglarised, the crims taking her checkbook and laptop. This, we discover, is at the behest of none other than Teabull, the Lipid Estate manager. Terrified that the python really ate the old millionairess Kiki, he wants to totally get rid of the evidence and so commissioned a couple of lowlifes, Uric Burns, and his assistant, ‘a dull-eyed fuckwit’ (p.48) who insists on being called Prince Paladin (real name is Keever Bracco, p.83) to find out where Angie stores her dead animals and to steal back the python corpse and safely dispose of it where cops will never find it.

These two dumb gimps stole Angie’s laptop in order to find out what storage depot Angie uses, in order to break into that and steal the python, but they are so immensely dim that after driving round all night, they report right back to the Lipid estate to ask Teabull where to take it. The latter is understandably  furious since the whole purpose of the heist was to remove the snake as far as humanly possible from the Lipid Estate and here they are, having brought it right back and risking maximum incrimination!

Teabull hurriedly gives the crooks details of a new construction site going up out west, which is still having the foundations laid, with big holes being filled with cement. Teabull pulls a favour with the site foreman, Jackson, buying his crew lunch at a local restaurant so that the site is empty at just the right time for Uric and the Prince to rock up and excavate a hole in the soggy cement. But when they open the boot to bury the snake they find it has thoroughly defrosted and not only that, it has kind of unzipped to reveal a little old lady folded up inside its gut. After they’ve stopped throwing up, the pair bury the lady in the hole in the concrete but there isn’t time to find a new bit of fresh cement and dig a hole in it, before the crew start arriving back from lunch so the two dimwits drive off at speed with a decomposing python in their boot.

However, there’s a detail. Uric is quicker to stop leaning away and throwing up when they first open the boot than his accomplice Prince Paladin and so spots that the decaying lady is wearing big diamond earrings and a necklace of conch pearls. He grabs them while the Prince is still puking. But in trying to get the pearl necklace off, Uric snaps it and a number of pearls roll free into the boot.

Second unfortunate thing is that, when the crims drive off at speed they, hit one of those railway lines crossing the road and embedded in it, which gives the car enough of a big bump to spring the boot open with the result that the snake corpse goes flying out along with some of the incriminating pearls…

Fay Riptoad

Back to Kiki’s rich friends. It is a minor riff but quite funny the way Hiaasen characterises the really rich whose circle old Kiki inhabited by showing that everyone belongs to this or that eminent family the source of whose wealth is humorously signposted along with their surname. Thus Kiki was the grand-daughter of Dallas Austin Pew ‘of the aerosol Pews’; her first husband was Huff Cornbright, ‘of the anti-freeze and real estate Cornbrights’; after Huff drowned while fishing, she remarried Mott Fitzsimmons ‘of the asbestos and textile Fitzsimmonses’; and she is good friends with Fay Alex Riptoad ‘of the compost and iron ore Riptoads’. (The same gag is repeated again on page 122).

This latter lady, Fay Alex, is head of the POTUS Pussies, shrill ageing cheerleaders for ‘the new, crude-spoken commander-in-chief’ (p.8). Being tremendously bossy, on the night Kiki goes missing, Fay takes it on herself to phone and summon the local Palm Beach chief of police, Jerry Crosby (backstory p.53) and insisting that he drop everything to search for her missing friend. Luckily Jerry has developed ample skills at handling the very rich without losing his temper.

Enter the First Lady

Now, I hear you ask, where does the president’s wife come into all this? Well, she is travelling in the usual ten-car motorcade from the president’s residence, the ironically named Casa Bellicosa, when it draws to a halt because the car in front has come across a decapitated python lying across the road. Yep, the First Lady’s motorcade has come across the very same snake corpse which flew out the boot as Uric and the Prince fled the building site where they’d buried Kiki only a few minutes earlier.

In other words, Tripp Teabull wanted the python disposed of as discreetly as possible but instead, due to Uric’s incompetence, it has come to the attention of the President’s wife and the US Secret Service.

The president’s wife’s bodyguards and secret agents swarm everywhere talking into their lapel radios like they do in the movies, before establishing it’s just a weird coincidence rather than some kind of terrorist threat. But one thing leads to another and the security forces identify Angie Armstrong as a leading animal wrangler in the locality. With the result that the Secret Service calls her in to deal with the snake corpse and she is, understandably puzzled, that she is dealing with the very snake corpse she had safely stashed in the storage depot a day earlier. At this point she tells the authorities all about how her apartment was burgled and then her storage area broken into and the snake being stolen, and they all ask themselves: Why?

So this is how Angie finds herself being interviewed by Special Agent Paul Ryskamp, who’s tasked by the Feds with following up on the weird incident which delayed the First Lady’s motorcade. He’s a nice guy. She’s a nice girl. Can you see where this is heading?

Diego Beltrán

So far, so macabre and gruesome and satirical. Things take a notably more serious turn when we discover that on the very same night that a drunk, stoned Kiki was eaten by a giant python, a small people smuggling boat hit the beach not far away, carrying illegal immigrants from Central America including one Diego Beltrán who is to become a dominant figure in the narrative.

As it happens, Diego has already been resident in the States where he had a visa to stay while he completed a degree, so he’s well educated and fluent in English and duly returned to his native Honduras. But life didn’t work out back home, so now here he is, having paid to be smuggled back into the States, along with 20 other illegals.

After they’re dumped on the beach, the passengers all split up. Diego is tramping along a highway when he discovers, at the place a rail line crosses it, something gleaming down in the groove of the track and picks up a shiny conch pearl, obviously one of the pearls from Kiki’s necklace. It is a fateful moment.

Diego goes on to get a low-paid manual job but a few days later is picked up in a sweep by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When he’s taken to the police station and turns out his pockets, everyone sees the conch pearl. It is listed and reported, and this triggers a match with missing person Kiki Fitzsimmons, who is reported as last seen wearing diamond earrings and a conch pearl necklace.

So before he knows it, Diego has been accused by the cops of murdering Kiki. Not only that but, because the python corpse held up the First Lady’s motorcade, the FBI get involved, too. Not only that, but the name of this suspect and the fact that he’s an illegal have been quickly gathered by the poisonous Fay Riptoad and passed on, via her close contacts, to the dim, racist, know-nothing, knee-jerk ‘commander in chief’ and, to the horror of all the good reasonable people in the book (namely Angie,  local police chief Jerry Crosby and Paul Ryskamp) the C-in-C delivers an ad lib speech from his golf course, where he singles out the murder of his ‘good friend’ Kiki Fitzsimmons by illegal immigrant Diego Beltrán as just the kind of dire threat from foreigners and criminals which America is facing. ‘That’s why we gotta build a wall, folks, to keep these murderers and rapists out of our beautiful country’ etc.

Within hours an angry mob of C-in-C supporters has assembled outside the Palm Beach County jailhouse where Diego is being held, egged on by right-wing talk-show radio hosts, demanding his immediate lynching or hanging. His name is quickly converted into a slogan chanted by the mob and repeated in the media: ‘No More Diegos!’

This barely needs any commentary. It is intended to be scalding satire on the stupidity and bigoted xenophobia of the moronic president and his base.

Uric and the Prince are identified

Angie, Jerry and Paul had each in their ways been quietly following up on identifying the crooks who burgled Angie and stole the python. They have got as far as identifying Uric and the Prince Paladin aka Keever Bracco from various photos and CCTV footage.

Now there is a further plot development because, when a reward is offered for any news about Kiki, not too bright Uric decides he’ll claim it, so he calls the anonymous crime hotline and reveals where the body of Kiki is buried in the recently laid concrete of a new housing development and also accuses the Prince of carrying out the crime.

When Kiki’s body is then found, it confirms Uric’s story, and closed circuit TV from the site confirms the make of car the crims used, and also shows it driving off at speed. A related camera at the railway crossing shows clear as day how this same car momentarily jumped into the air as it hit the rail bump, the boot flew open and a massive snake corpse flew out.

The good guys form a team

Angie is the link between Jerry the police chief and Paul the FBI agent and by about page 200 she invites them both to a bar for a meal where they meet and form a kind of team. By now they have pretty much all the evidence they need to piece together the sequence of events:

  • python swallows Kiki
  • Angie kills python and takes it to storage on ice
  • Teabull commissions Uric and the Prince to break into Angie’s apartment, find the name of the storage site, break into that and steal the python
  • they go to bury it at the building site but discover Kiki’s body inside the snake, bury that and run out of time to dig a separate body for the snake so drive off at speed
  • when they hit the rail line the boot flies open and the snake flies out but they carry on driving
  • minutes later the First Lady’s motorcade arrives and is halted while the Feds check out the weird dead snake, then eventually move on
  • Angie is called for a second time to dispose of the snake and is brought into contact with the authorities
  • that night Diego Beltrán is walking along the same road when he spots a conch pearl amid the rails
  • a few days later he’s picked up by the authorities as an illegal and the pearl is discovered, connecting him to Kiki
  • somehow the connection between dead Kiki, the pearls and an illegal immigrant is leaked to the President who immediately shapes it to his anti-immigrant narrative and he gives an extempore speech in which he blames Diego for Kiki’s murder
  • a crowd assembles outside the Palm Beach County Gaol where he’s being held, the story goes all over the national press and Diego becomes a symptom of everything evil and wicked which is threatening the US of A

Angie, Jerry and Paul are agonisingly aware that Diego is completely innocent, but the thing has now got so big and so inflamed that it’s going to be hard if not impossible to shift the narrative, and risky for the two lawmen to get involved. Difficult for individuals to go up against the full force of the Presidential propaganda machine and his attack media. The whole thing has spiralled into, as Angie puts it: ‘a five-star clusterfuck’ (p.153).

Donald and Melania Trump

I knew Trump was referenced in the book but I was curious to see how Hiaasen would handle it. Initially he is a peripheral figure, satirically referred to throughout as ‘the commander in chief’. Presumably it is for legal purposes that he is never referred to by name. His Miami home is jokily referred to as ‘Casa Bellicosa’. Some of his (fictional tweets) are quote verbatim, full of spelling and grammar mistakes.

It is a winning piece of satire that the rich old ladies have formed a club named the POTUS Pussies, referencing the commander-in-chief’s famous quote about grabbing pussy. He is referred to as crude and blustering, as ‘that dysfunctional hump in the White House’ (p.189) – all in all, par for the course, by the standards of American liberals who subjected Trump to four years of scathing criticism.

Then about half way through the novel things change when the Trump figure directly intervenes in the Diego case. Things change from being generalised satire about his crude blustering character to becoming a concrete demonstration of what his rabble-rousing xenophobia means for a real individual, a real person whose life is being wrecked. The commander-in-chief figure changes from being merely pathetic to becoming positively malevolent.

In the earlier parts of the book there are more scenes featuring Melania Trump, riding in the motorcade, prowling her private apartments at the Casa Bellicosa, bored and horny.

I wonder whether it was for legal reasons that neither of them are named. The president is referred to as  the president or commander-in-chief, never by name. Indeed, early on Hiaasen adopts the comic strategy of referring to both of them by the codewords assigned to them by the Secret Service.

Thus Melania is never named, but referred to throughout as Mockingbird, her codename, a curiously poignant name. The president’s codeword is Mastodon, which he loves because it sounds mighty. With typical ignorance he asks if he can visit a zoo to see some real-life mastodons but nobody is brave enough to tell him that mastodons, a generic term for woolly mammoths and suchlike, died out during the last ice age.

We see Mockingbird in her car, interacting with her dishy bodyguard, named ‘Keith Josephson’ (which is actually a pseudonym assigned him by the service; his birth name was Ahmet Youssef which, understandably, the Service want to keep concealed from the xenophobic commander in chief, p.86, another piece of satire on the president’s idiotic xenophobia. Youssef’s full backstory is given on pages 281 to 283).

Possibly the most scandalous thing in the book is that Mockingbird is described as having an affair with Youssef/Keith. We first realise this when she insists he hands her a towel as she emerges naked from a luxury bath, and she then orders him to **** her. Then we get used to her ordering him to service her at short notice in a variety of luxury locations. But as the story progresses we realise he, Keith/Youssef, is genuinely in love with her, genuinely thinks she is different with him, even after people start to talk and rumours about them to circulate.

Trump insults

The funny thing is that Donald Trump had already been referenced in a number of earlier Hiaasen novels, way before he showed any political ambitions, as an epitome of American over-wealthy  narcissism. It’s an epic irony that the man Hiaasen had been mocking for decades as an embodiment of American shallowness ended up becoming 45th President of the United States. The fact it happened is beyond satire and what it says about contemporary American society needs no comment.

The president, according to those who know him best:

  • has no memory
  • has feet like moist loaves
  • is a ‘fat toad’ (p.248)
  • is ‘paranoid, draft-dodging, whore hopping…’ (p.261)
  • is described as ‘Presidential Shitweasel’ (p.300) and ‘the climate-denier-in-chief’ (p.301) by Skink
  • is an ‘ignorant clown’ – Ryskval (p.369)
  • is a ‘lying puke-bucket’ – Angie (p.371)

He has a mistress, Suzy Spooner (p.293), a chunky pole dancer who calls herself a nutritionist. We meet the poor woman on several occasions, desperately helping the president to adopt a sex position which can work round his bloated gut and the fact he can no longer sustain an erection. It is typical Hiaasen/typical America, that Suzy is at the same time hawking round New York publishers a kiss-and-tell memoir in which she compares the President’s gonads to ‘dessicated chickpeas’ and describes how he snorts like a wildebeest when he climaxes (pages 293 and 294).

The president struggles mightily to have a bowel motion, emerging from the can puffing and panting, and then struggles to get a hold of his belt buckle ‘below the rolling sea of his gut’ (p.313). He’s portrayed as being fully aware of the ‘phoney Facebook ads’ paid for by his supporters (p.314). When he forgets that her dog died over a year ago, Mockingbird simply calls him ‘such a dick’ (p.315).

Tut tut. Not very respectful.

Plot developments

Uric proves what a scumbag he is by murdering his assistant, the dim-witted Prince Paladin aka Keever Bracco, weighingt down his body and dumping it in a canal near where he dumped the stolen car they drove the snake around in. This is a rookie crim error, meaning both are soon discovered by the cops.

Uric’s anxiety about the cops’ discovery is itself short-lived as he himself is swiftly bumped off by a hitman hired by the Lipid Estate manager Teabull, who is quickly emerging as the daemon ex machina of the plot.

Rather unprofessionally, Uric’s body is hanged from a suspension bridge along with a suicide note in which he claims complete responsibility for killing Kiki, stealing her jewels and then murdering his accomplice – this is Teabull’s pathetic attempt to get the whole damn story shut down. To little avail. When ‘our team’ of Angie, Jerry and Paul hear about it and read the note they realise how fake it is.

The paranoid rich i.e. Fay Alex Riptoad et al, and their attack dog media, soon embellish the Diego situation to have him being a member of the fearsome DBC-88, the ‘Diego Border Cartel’. Nobody knows what 88 means but it sounds scary (p.221). It is an example of the general fictionalisation of American life in which malicious rumours instantly become poisonous political fact.

To complete his tidy-up strategy, Teabull hires an arsonist to lure Angie in her truck to a fake call-out in a remote location as the sun is setting, and the guy lobs a firebomb in the back of her truck. Both she and Joel who she’d taken along, scramble out of the truck which melts down and is a write-off. But this doesn’t put Angie off, was never likely to.

In the event all Teabull’s efforts come to naught as he is sacked from his job at the Lipid Estate as the media furore around Diego snowballs. A TV station runs an entirely fictitious ‘reconstruction’ of the night Diego and his dastardly accomplices supposedly broke into the estate and abducted little old Kiki,  an entirely fictional recreation which leads to just about every rich charity cancelling its bookings at the Lipid mansion, hence Teabull’s sacking. It is also another example of the fictionalisation of American journalism, the triumph of fakery over news.

Mockingbird’s affair with her Secret Service man becomes increasingly intense. His superior, the same Paul Ryskamp who is beginning an affair with Angie, learns about Keith and the First Lady and warns him off, and steps are taken to reassign him, but Mockingbird intervenes to keep him around as her lover. She and the President never even touch each other, let alone sleep together. Anyway, he’s screwing Suzi Spooner so Mockingbird has no moral qualms.

The return of Skink

But the big revelation of the last third of the novel is the Return of Skink, yes everybody, Skink! Skink is back! And his trusty helper and minder, Jim Tile, an old man now, who walks with a cane and lives at the Rainbow of Life Senior Centre. It’s Jim who gets in touch with Angie Armstrong, tells her he sat in back during her court case for mutilating Pruitt on behalf of a friend who admired her style i.e. the old eco-vigilante and ex-governor, once known as Clinton Tyree, who has for a long time now (well, ever since Hiaasen’s second novel), gone under the pseudonym Skink.

Jim gives Angie a map to Skink’s secret base deep in the Everglades and she hires a flatboater to take her out there. Just to keep up his quota of outlandish concepts, Hiaasen tells us that in the empty  eye socket where Skink usually sports a glass eye, he is currently incubating an iguana egg. This doesn’t faze Angie, used to all kinds of weird critter situations, so she passes the Skink test.

He then offers her some roadkill coyote for dinner, which is standard. But we discover he has a new habit: he is continually micro-dosing himself with acid to stave off boredom and despair, and he has slipped a little into her rum.

Which explains why, when Skink takes her into his snake enclosure, Angie finds them glowing with fiery red eyes and changing colour. Snake enclosure? Yes. For it is Skink who has been collecting king-sized pythons and deploying them in Presidential hangouts. He was responsible for deploying mega pythons into: a vanload of the President’s favourite key lime pies; the First Lady’s favourite fashion boutique, plus 2 or 3 other random locations. Did he deploy the monster python which ate Kiki?

Anyway, his obsession with giant pythons explains why Skink’s camp is among trees from which hang hundreds of long dried snakeskins, which the pythons have shed. Half way through their meeting, Angie realises that Skink not only took interest in her trial but paid for her defence lawyer. So he has deep involvement with her going back some way. With that revelation, he shoos Angie back to the shore of the island where the airboat driver has returned to collect her, and she stumbles, dazed, back towards civilisation after this trippy encounter with Hiaasen’s great anti-hero.

The novel heads towards the traditional Big Climax, which is the so-called Commander’s Ball, hosted by Mastodon at the Casa Bellicosa. Seems pretty obvious Skink has got something big planned, like releasing all the pythons he’s been collecting.

Meanwhile, back in what you could call the dirty realist end of the plot, Diego, still in prison, foils one attack by a white supremacist, but is then badly stabbed and beaten up by some ‘Aryan Brothers’. (Look them up. American prisons are full of white supremacist groups. No wonder our media admire America so much: so much to copy, so much to learn from.)

Diego is hospitalised, his plight is dire, a friendly Hispanic tells him there’s a ten grand bounty on his head, eleven if they cut off his ‘nut sack’. His defence lawyers quit because they’ve been receiving death threats. The gaol guards are also threatened and/or tired of the extra hassle of protecting him. They include a new leather belt in his next laundry delivery. One of them gives him a full bottle of sleeping pills. These are not-too-subtle hints that he kill himself. Thus the fate of illegals in the US ‘justice’ system’ i.e. hounded to death.

The President’s Ball

Well, the President’s Ball does serve as the climax to the novel alright, though, to tell the truth, it is a little underwhelming. Highlights are:

1. Throughout the novel there’s been a running thread about the President’s tanning sunbed, and the guys who service and clean it. In the days leading up to the ball there are some unexplained malfunctions so it is no real surprise when it goes badly wrong just hours before the big event, turning the President’s face aubergine purple and burning his hair. With the result that he appears on the stage and delivers a big speech hiding his face behind the only thing they could rustle up at short notice – a Bakongo tribal fertility mask!!!! (p.350) More clearly than ever, you can see how Hiaasen goes way beyond ‘satire’ into a realm of lunatic farce.

2. Mastodon addresses his puzzled millionaire guests from behind his African mask but, when he turns to introduce his lovely wife, she isn’t there – and this is because she is in her private rooms having wild sex with Special Agent Keith/Youssef (in a tiny detail, she is riding him cowgirl style, the position which I’ve noticed, is favoured by all of Hiaasen’s strong, independent female protagonists)

3. As we might have predicted, a massive Burmese python does turn up in the grounds of the Casa Bellicosa, where it disturbs the most repellent of the POTUS Pussies, the cohort of super-rich widow supporters of the Commander-in-Chief, Fay Alex Riptoad. Unfortunately the python interruption occurs just as she is having the front of her expensive dress unbuttoned by an over-sexed guest, Stanleigh Cobo, who thinks he’s ingested a heroic amount of erection-inducing narwhal horn (a long story about erectile dysfunction and the lengths the rich will go to in order to secure cures).

Secret Agent Paul Ryskval had made sure to invite Angie Armstrong to the ball and so, when Fay’s screams attract all the guests, Angie takes centre stage, the only one with the balls and expertise to confront the huge swaying python and Angie suddenly realises that it is tripping. Skink is dosing his giant pythons with LSD.

Still, in the end, Angie manages to decapitate this one like the last one, although her pretty ball dress does get covered in spraying blood in the process. Once the body is taken away by ground staff, and the guests wander off gossiping, Angie goes to the ladies loo to have a good cry. When she comes out, gentlemanly special agent Ryskamp tells her how fabulous she looks and how brave she was. Which cheers her up, a bit.

Angie and the First Lady

The president addressing the crowd in an African mask and a tripping python menacing his chief cheerleader just as she is being undressed for sex, this ought to be funny, and it reads fairly funny in summary, but in practice, somehow, I found it a bit inevitable and, I’m afraid, under-whelming. Maybe I’ve read too many Hiaasens and know what to expect.

But if the doomed gala ball turns out to be a bit of a damp squib, maybe what follows at the end of the evening is the real climax of the plot. Angie is still at the ball and slips a message to the First Lady asking to see her. Mockingbird is curious to meet the woman who dealt with the giant snake and so agrees, and the two women meet on the seawall of the Casa Bellicosa (well, accompanied at a distance by all her security men).

Here Angie explains that a) she knows all about Mockingbird’s affair with Keith, and b) that Keith is a Muslim, which would play terribly with the C-in-C’s supporter, and c) she knows all about the President’s affair with the pole dancer, d) who is writing a no-holds-barred memoir about her affair with the President.

She, Angie, will blow all this wide open, leak it all to the press, ruin everyone’s lives, unless Mockingbird uses her influence, and this threat, to get the President to give Diego Beltrán a full pardon and fast track his appeal for political asylum.

Which is what Mockingbird proceeds to do, encountering the President as he stumbles out of a state room where he just tried and miserably failed to take the pole dancer from behind. Mockingbird makes plain she will blow the whole gaff, expose their sham marriage and list his many affairs to the press unless he releases Diego. So Mastodon caves in.

I hadn’t mentioned that Jim Tile had used some old connections to get invited to the president’s ball, dressing snappily and toting a stylish cane. Right at the end of the evening, after she has had her seawall meeting, he accompanies Angie out onto the steps of the mansion as chauffeur-driven cars line up to collect the super-rich. Jim climbs into one which, she suddenly realises, is driven by Skink. She races after it, flags it down, and is amazed at Skink’s stylish appearance. He has washed and combed his hair and put on a suit specially.

I thought the funniest thing in the entire book was the fact that the iguana whose egg he had been carrying in his empty eye socket has now hatched.

Skink smiled down at the breast pocket of his suit jacket. A little bright green head was peeking out. ‘We’re working on our manners,’ Skink whispered. (p.378)

It’s almost the only moment of gentleness. There’s plenty of humour elsewhere in the book, but it’s of the savage, violent, macabre or super-cynical fuckstick variety. This was one tiny moment of humanity. Thank you, Skink.

It’s quickly over though because when Angie asks what that loud banging is, Skink explains it’s her stalker, Pruitt, stashed in the boot of the car. Skink is going to take him out to the wilderness to teach him ‘how to be at one with nature’. That’s comedy, too, but of the more tough-minded, cruel variety.

Epilogue

Diego Beltrán is freed on orders from the president, is smuggled out the back of the gaol, given a wig and fake moustache and transported north to New Jersey.

Turns out that Skink unleashed not one but a host of monster pythons at a number of other charity balls on the same night. Police chief Jerry Crosby drove round to all of the events, shooting them dead, but was filmed doing so, clips which made their way onto YouTube and killed the Florida hospitality sector stone dead. Why have a party in Florida if a python might eat your guests? The industry’s anger falls on the chief and he quits before he’s fired.

Mockingbird has Youssef acknowledged as her lover, but still kept on by the Secret Service because she blackmails the Secret Service bosses with her knowledge of a hushed-up drug orgy among the agents.

On the last pages Angie hires an airboat and skims out through the Everglades to visit Skink in his new base. No more snakes, he transported them all north to freedom. And Pruitt? Skink attached an electronic tracking collar round his neck and set him free in the wilderness. He’s still alive, somewhere.

And then the punchline to the whole story: the huge Burmese python which ate Kiki Fitzsimmons? Turns out it wasn’t Skink’s idea. He didn’t set it loose on the Lipid Estate. It made its own way there. It was a normal, free python doing its own thing. Nothing to do with Skink, the incident only gave him the inspiration for his later battle plan. Angie laughs with relief, Skink is off the hook and takes none of the blame.

THE END.

The environment

This is the first novel in his long career where Hiaasen seems to have given up on saving the environment which is, I think, the appropriate response. The fight to save the environment has been decisively lost. Eco-systems around the world, along with the countless species they contain, are being exterminated on a daily basis. Global warming is only one aspect of the man-made destruction of the environment, of all environments, going on all the time, everywhere, as Angie mournfully reflects:

It didn’t seem to matter who was in power – nothing got better in the besieged, breathtaking world she cared about most. The Everglades would never be the lush unbroken river it once was; the shallows of Florida Bay would never be as pure and sparkling with fish; the bleached dying reefs of the Keys would never bloom fully back to life. Being overrun and exploited was the historical fate of places so rare and beautiful…

The President of the United States was a soulless imbecile who hated the outdoors but, in Angie’s view, at this point Teddy Roosevelt himself couldn’t turn the tide if he came back from the dead. All the treasured wilderness that had been sacrificed at the altar of growth was gone for all time. More disappeared every day; nothing ever changed except the speed of destruction, and only because there were fewer pristine pieces to sell off, carve up and pave. (p.318)

Fruity and novel language

Hiaasen’s characters swear freely and so does the narrator. ‘Fuckstick’, ‘shitbird’, ‘cockhead’ and ‘Señor Fuckwhistle’ (p.258) being some of the nicer expressions characters use about each other. Here are some other samples of state-of-the-art Yankee slang:

  • Prince was flipping through channels like a gacked-up chimp. (p.74)
  • ‘The Feds cut your time ’cause you flipped. You rat-fucked your friends.’ (p.74) = betrayed.
  • ‘Hit the shower, bro’. You smell like a fucking grow house.’ (p.173) I think ‘grow house’ means the kind of indoors greenhouse space used to grow marijuana.
  • Uric ended up paying the Prince the full three hundred he wanted, which he ended up spending on chronic. (p.173) ‘Among cannabis consumers, chronic can be used as slang for marijuana itself, but many users reserve the term for particularly potent strains of the plant’ (Dictionary.com)
  • nutsack = scrotum
  • knuckle bump, aka fist bump
  • ‘I got a dope new truck’ (p.214) – where ‘dope’ presumably means cool, neat, great.
  • ‘I can’t take a chance that he hasn’t suddenly stripped his gears.’ (p.242) presumably meaning lost it, gone mad, gone psycho.
  • Two white-clad Brits stood in wait while the driver, whose name was Guppo, backed up the gaily painted Betancourt Pastries chariot. (p.247) ‘Stood in wait’?
  • One day Nutter was approached in the chow line by an inmate who said a group of patriots on the outside was offering serious bank for the death of Diego Beltrán. (p.254) = big money
  • A buzz kill = something which destroys the mood, specially a romantic mood around sex (p.280)
  • Studly = like a stud, as in ‘a studly lover’ (p.326)
  • Reamed = getting reamed, being reamed = a strong telling-off (p.33)
  • Rails = lines of cocaine (p.366)
  • Toasted = stoned (p.380)

Fleabag

I was surprised when Hiaasen has his sympathetic protagonist, Angie, in a spare evening, catch an episode of Fleabag, the award-winning British TV series. He also has a character, the one-handed psycho Pruitt, reference Game of Thrones, specifically the one-handed character Jaime Lannister (p.257). Gotta keep up with the popular culture, I suppose.


Credit

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2020. All references are to the 2021 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen (2016)

‘This is Florida, the land of batshit, trigger-happy motherfuckers.’ (p.82)

Andrew Yancy

The most notable thing about Hiaasen’s 14th novel is that it is a direct sequel to his 13th, featuring the same protagonist (former Monroe County detective Andrew Yancy), the same girlfriend he ended that novel with (Dr Rosa Campesino), and the same running feud with the owners of the vacant lot next to his, on the island of Big Pine Key, who are threatening to build a mansion which will block out Yancy’s restful view of the sunset.

At the start of book 13 Yancy was kicked off the small Monroe County police force for assaulting the husband of his then-mistress. Bonnie Witt. The easy-going head of the Monroe police, Sonny Summers, had to drop Yancy after the press furore about the assault, but got him a job he cordially hates, as a health and safety or ‘roach’ inspector of local restaurants.

Yancy is ‘a tall, lean man with a baked-in Florida tan’ (p.134) in his early 40s. He is a regular smoker of dope, who sometimes does his job or gets involved in the novel’s various criminal escapades, half-stoned. Like other Hiaasen heroes he is too honest and blunt for his own good, ‘prone to an acid bluntness that produced poor results careerwise…’ (p.55)

As usual with Hiaasen, Yancy was soon joined by a blizzard of other characters, all of whom are given complicated backstories and then placed in ever-complexifying situations and interlinking storylines.

Buck Nance

The central thread which just about keeps all the complex storylines of this novel together concerns a popular reality TV show titled Bayou Brethren, about a family of rednecks who live and bicker on a chicken farm in the Florida panhandle.

The star of the show is one Buck Nance, a middle-aged redneck with a long salt-and-pepper beard, who runs the chicken farm and so has acquired the ironic nickname Captain Cock (p.58). He lords it over his brothers, has a tough bitching wife, Krystal, but is also screwing a ‘sex-crazed’ mistress with the porny name of Miracle, on the side. (It is a given in all Hiaasen novels, that American marriage entails infidelity.)

In reality, like everything in Hiaasen, the entire show is a meretricious fake and a scam. Buck’s real name is Matthew Romberg and he and his three brothers ( Bradley (TV name: Junior), Henry (TV name: Buddy) and Todd (TV name: Clee Roy, p.68) are actually from rural Wisconsin.

They were in an unsuccessful band named Grand Funk Romberg (a jokey riff on the actual American hard rock group, Grand Funk Railroad) when they were talent-spotted on account of their hick appearance and cast as the central characters in the new show (p.71). The brothers have had to be extensively coached in every aspect of the Florida redneck life which their adoring fans consider them to epitomise: the Cajun accent, the chewing tobacco, the down-home oaths and jokes, it’s all fake.

Lane is kidnapped

The novel opens with Buck’s agent, Lane Coolman, a no-nonsense, cynical New York talent agent working for Platinum Artists Management who owes his career and wages and expense account lifestyle to Buck’s success, arriving in Miami to supervise some ‘gigs’ Buck is scheduled to give. These ‘gigs’ consist of Buck sitting up on stage telling good ole boy stories and jokes while a guitarist noodles folk melodies behind him and Lane supports and whispers prompts from the wings.

Instead, as he drives from the airport to his hotel, Lane is kidnapped by the criminal Zeto (full name Juan Zeto-Fernandez) and his sexy, unhinged sidekick, Merry Mansfield. They use a technique known as ‘bump and grab’ whereby Merry bumps her (stolen) car into the rear of Lane’s hire car. When he pulls over and gets out to remonstrate, he notices her jeans are down to her knees and her knickers pulled down and she is shaving her pubic hair while she is driving. Merry is the Razor Girl of the book’s title.

Lane is speechless with astonishment and anger, as he watches Merry apologetically pull up her panties, then quickly becomes addled with lust. Thus, when Merry declares her car a write-off and asks if he can give her a lift to the nearest service station, Lane readily agrees. But when they get there, Zeto is waiting with a gun, climbs into the passenger seat and orders him to drive. He’s done gone and been kidnapped, the sucker.

Martin Trebeaux and beach renourishment

In fact, typically for Hiaasen’s comedies of accidents and misadventures, it turns out Zeto and Merry have grabbed the wrong guy. Zeto had been hired by a New York mobster, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola, from the Calzone crime family (p.139) to kidnap a crooked businessman named Martin Trebeaux, who was scheduled to drive a similar colour car along the same highway at the same time and looks similar to Lane. Oops.

Why was Trebeaux the intended target of a grab? This requires a bit of explanation. Trebeaux runs a big company resanding Florida beaches in a process known as ‘beach renourishment’. This is because global warming and rising sea levels are washing away lots of Florida’s luxury sandy beaches. Trebeaux’s company, Sedimental Journeys, rakes up tonnes of sand from just offshore and replenishes vanishing beaches.

So far, so reasonable. But Trebeaux is a crook. His company has been dogged by scandal. Firstly, the resanding process tends to muddy up the water and produce thousands of dead fish which wash up ashore, putting off the very tourists it’s meant to attract. Discovering this early on, Trebeaux moved his  sand dredging operation to the Bahamas, shipping the sand back to Miami. But it had the same environment-destroying impact in the island and when this was reported on the news and even prompted a BBC investigation, he was forced to shut it down, too (p.32).

Then Trebeaux took some bad advice from a contact who told him he could use sand from a ‘burrow pit’ (something I think we would call a gravel pit) on the edge of the Everglades. This Trebeaux proceeds to excavate and ship to the beach behind the Royal Pyrenees hotel. But the sand from this source turns out to be not only hard and sharp but to contain recycled asphalt and even broken glass! Soon after it is laid, tourists start cutting themselves to shreds and trade to the hotel plummets.

And this is where the mob comes in because the Royal Pyrenees hotel is owned by them and managed by their man, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola. This is why Big Noogie had hired Zeto to kidnap Trebeaux. But Zeto screws up and kidnaps Lane, who quickly makes it clear he’s the wrong guy. Nonetheless, Zeto and Merry tie and gag Lane while they ponder what to do with him, Zeto casually weighing the pros and cons of killing him.

Long story short, after failing to bump Len off on a boat, Zeto reluctantly agrees to take him along with them when they have another go at bumping and grabbing the actual Martin Trebeaux the next day and, during the confusion, Lane manages to wriggle out the window of the car he’s being held in and run off, eventually finding a payphone and calling his boss in LA.

Buck’s disastrous gig

Now the important thing about Coolman being mistakenly kidnapped is that he provides a vital psychological support to his TV star Buck Nance when the latter does his ‘gigs’. Buck has a guitarist strumming along in the background but it is Lane’s reassuring presence just offstage that gets him through the gigs, giving him confidence beforehand and prompting him if he dries, as he tells good ole boy stories and jokes to his redneck audience.

So Buck turns up for his ‘gig’ at a bar called the Parched Pirate on Duvall Street in Key West and, without either the guitar player (whose absence is unexplained) or Lane (who we have seen being kidnapped en route to the gig) Buck’s set goes disastrously awry. Instead of the usual stories he panics, forgets his script and ad libs some off colour jokes from Wisconsin about blacks and then about gays. This turns out to be a terrible idea because the Parched Pirate is actually a gay hangout.

The upshot is there’s a riot, Buck is grabbed, beaten up, has his shirt ripped off and his long grey beard forcibly chopped off with scissors before he can flee for his life, ducking through a maze of back alleys and eventually hiding out in the tangled branches of a huge banyan tree where he stays, thoroughly razzled, for the entire night.

During the ruckus he has lost his wallet and his mobile phone and he looks like crap. He has been reduced to bum status.

Enter Yancy

Believe it or not, this is where Yancy comes in, because next day he’s called to a restaurant run by Irv Clipowski (‘a long-distance runner with a goatee which he dyed goosewhite’), which generally has good hygiene standards, but where they’ve found hanks of grey hair in the quinoa vat. The hair has apparently been chucked there overnight and the reader quickly realises it’s the remnants of Buck Nance’s beard, forcibly cut off him by an enraged crowd and chucked through an open window.

Yancy clears up the sample of rogue hair cuttings and orders the restaurant owners to do a thorough deep clean of their kitchen.

As it happens, later that day, Rogelio Burton, a friend of Yancy’s who’s still a detective on the Monroe police force, mentions that a big fuss has kicked off about this TV star, Buck Nance, who’s gone missing and when, that evening, Yancey watches a few old episodes of Bayou Brethren out of boredom, he suddenly realises the grey hair in the quinoa looks identical with Buck Nance’s grey beard in the TV show. Huh. A clue!

Now, Yancy is bored with his job and pissed off because his long-term girlfriend, smart Dr Rosa Campesino, formerly of the Miami morgue (her job when he met her), now working in a hospital emergency room, has abruptly announced that she’s going to Europe, to Norway, without him. It feels like a snub and they part at the airport on bad terms. At a loose end, on impulse, Yancy decides, what the hell, he’ll have a go at tracking down this missing TV star.

Fallout from Buck’s bad gig

Meanwhile, the president of Platinum Artists Management, John David Ampergrodt, known as Amp, is going nuts because Nance’s homophobic, racist jokes were recorded by some of his audience and immediately posted on YouTube. Not only that, but Buck’s unhinged girlfriend, Miracle, becomes convinced that the missing Buck has run off with some other woman and so hacks into the Bayou Brethren‘s Facebook page, adding a photo of Osama bin Laden and making it look like Buck is jokily comparing his own beard with the famous terrorist’s.

So Amp finds himself in the midst of a major PR disaster, when Zeto lets Lane rings up desperately begging for a ransom to be paid so that mad Zeto doesn’t waste him (while Zeto and Merry are still holding him). You can see why Amp doesn’t immediately believe Lane or grasp the seriousness of the situation. 12 hours later Lane rings from a roadside phone box to say he’s managed, as we’ve seen, to free himself from his kidnappers but, again, Amp is too distracted by the crisis in hand to take him seriously.

(There’s a running thread that Lane has a wife, Rachel, who is planning to divorce him and is currently ‘revenge fucking’ her way through all the men in Los Angeles, notably Lane’s boss John David Ampergrodt, who routinely meets her at the Wilshire Hotel for quick cunnilingus and boning sessions [p.144]. We are given graphic descriptions of comic moments when Amp has his head rammed firmly between Rachel’s parted thighs and is slurping away when his phone goes off with an important business call. The hard life of a Hollywood agent, eh. Lane has a divorce lawyer working for him and trying to discredit Rachel. The lawyer’s name is Smegg [p.278].)

Pause for breath

So: what’s going to happen to Martin Trebeaux, who by now Zeto and Merry have successfully kidnapped? Where’s Buck Nance hiding out and what’s going to happen to him, now beaten up, penniless and beardless? Will Yancy manage to find Buck or will he get dragged into the whole Zeto-Merry-Trebeaux storyline? Will there be a happy resolution to Yancy and Rosa Campesino’s relationship, which seems to have fallen on hard times? Stay tuned, folks.

Main plot developments

There are so many complicated plot ramifications and complexifications it’s hard to keep track. Here are the highlights:

Zeto electrocutes himself trying to adjust the plug on the cable to an electric car he’s stolen, so he’s out of the story quite early on.

Trebeaux is handed over to Big Noogie who, with a hardass assistant (‘the man with the ivory toothpick’), attaches surgical clamps to Trebeaux’s ‘nutsack’ (scrotum) and then dangles him from a local railway bridge until Trebeaux admits the sand he rebeached the Grand Pyrenees with was sub-standard and promises to do everything in his power to fix it.

Merry astonishes Lane by bumping into Lane a few days after he escaped from her and Zeto and calmly asking if she can move into his motel room with him. Merry is a splendid fictional creation, a constant fount of unexpected and unpredictable behaviour. She refuses to conform to any conventions, kidnapping someone one minute then wanting to be their friend. She concocts extravagant and hilarious lies at the drop of a hat. After a brief period with Lane she then arrives on Yancy’s doorstep (see below). There’s a funny piece of dialogue where she explains to Yancy that she doesn’t regard herself as a criminal at all, but more of a performance artist (p.93).

Brock and Deb I need to mention Yancy’s neighbours. After he drove away the property developer who was trying to build on the lot adjacent to his house in the previous novel, the lot has now been purchased by a shyster lawyer, Brock Richardson, and his good-looking spoiled fiancée, Debbie. As with the previous owner, Yancy embarks on a campaign to drive them away, which includes drunkenly firing his rifle at beer bottles he lobs into the air close to the border fence when Brock and Deb are around. In a later gag he gets a buddy of his that he plays poker with to pretend to be a state archaeologist and ‘discover’ ancient teeth on the site, which he claims must have belonged to the Calusa native Americans who occupied this land thousands of years ago. The fake archaeologist immediately declares that all building works will have to be suspended while the site is fully excavated, much to Brock’s fury (p.177).

Pitrolux Worth mentioning that one of the book’s dozen or so storylines focuses on Brock’s role as the lawyer for a series of class actions he’s managing against a new wonder-product named ‘Pitrolux’. This is a combination underarm deoderant which also cures erectile dysfunction i.e. gives men boners which last for hours. Despite what he knows about its ill effects, Brock himself starts taking Pitrolux and his rock-hard, everlasting erections rekindle his love life with Debs, until he starts to suffer from the same side effects as all his clients, namely a) the erections won’t go away, last for hours and become really painful, and b) the growth of unsightly skin tags or polyps in the shape of tiny penises in his armpit, which Debs discovers and freak her out.

The diamond ring A simple incident occurs early on which turns out to become central to the plot. Yancy spies Deb poking around in the as-yet-unbuilt-on plot. He jumps over the fence and aggressively questions her. Turns out she has lost the massive engagement ring Brock gave her which cost him $200,000. She’s pissed off because it was slightly too big for her finger, Brock having originally bought it for an earlier, tubbier fiancée. Yancy pretends to help until Debs gets fed up and leaves, at which point Yancy picks it up from where it was lying concealed in long grass.

Yancy stores the monster ring in a tub of hummus in his fridge and what happens is, through various coincidences, a series of bad guys hear about the missing ring and come to pay Yancy visits. Thus, at one point Trebeaux and Richardson meet by complete accident in a bar and both mouth off about their woes. But when Richardson mentions the missing $200,000 ring, and that he thinks Yancy has stolen it, Trebeaux passes the news along to Big Noogie in a bid to impress his new mafioso boss.

Big Noogie immediately decides the ring will be just perfect for his son to give to his fiancée, and sends a couple of hard men round to Yancy’s to intimidate or, if necessary, torture its whereabouts out of him. They only have to start slashing up Yancy’s sofa before Yancy gives in and hands it over.

Merry moves in By this point half a dozen other things have happened. For a start, when Lane moves out of his motel into a smarter hotel, Merry has nowhere to stay and so turns up on Yancy’s doortstep. To his own surprise he takes a keen liking to her, for her independent, free-spirited sassiness. She’s great fun, an outrageous liar and flirt and fantasist. Some of her extended riffs are very funny and help to make this, at least in the first half, arguably Hiaasen’s funniest novel (for example, page 166).

‘You don’t know what to do with me, do you? I love that!’ (p.257)

There’s also broad comedy when Yancy’s estranged girlfriend, Dr Campesino, phones from Oslo and every time it seems, by bad luck, to be Merry who answers the phone. One time by bursting into the bathroom where Yancy is having a shower so that she answers the call from Rosa but then hands it over to an obviously naked Yancy (p.148). Yancy finds this (understandably) difficult to explain and Rosa for her part announces that she wants to stay in Norway.

Comedic though the shape of this storyline is, it contains a very serious social point. Rosa has worked all her life in either the Miami morgue or Miami emergency ward and she’s had enough. She’s snapped. She’s had a sort of breakdown. She just can’t face the sound of endless police sirens from morning to night, and she can’t face any more the task of patching up children – children – with extensive gunshot wounds. On one of their long, difficult calls Rosa tells Yancy how many murders there have been in Oslo that year. The answer: one. Two farmers got into a drunken fight and one hit the other with a shovel a bit harder than he meant to. Guns are illegal in Norway, so there is no gun crime, compared to:

a place as ethnically diverse and gun crazy as Florida. (p.298)

It’s a serious point about the stupidity of America’s gun laws and its out-of-control epidemic of violence and I read it on the same day there was a mass shooting in the very same Miami Rosa is talking about, Hiaasen’s Miami.

‘These people [the Norwegians] have evolved in a positive direction,’ Rosa said. ‘Americans are heading the other direction.’ (p.377)

Anyway, the fact that Merry seems to have moved in with him explains why she is present when Big Noogie’s goons arrive and why she helps to persuade Yancy to give in and hand over the diamond. Mind you, Yancy is easily persuaded because he is, at the time, lying on his sofa recovering from a bad knife wound to the gut. Knife wound?

Yes, because there is an entirely separate plotline which only really gets going in the middle of the book but then comes to dominate it. This rotates around a redneck cretin named Benjamin ‘Blister’ Krill who is a fanatical fan of the Bayou Brethren, so fanatical that he has a massive tattoo inked across his shoulders reading HAIL CAPTAIN COCK.

When Buck climbs down from the banyan tree the morning after the riot in the bar he sets about shoplifting a new shirt and hat and shades etc. But Blister Krill recognises his hero and tries to engage him in conversation. When Buck repeatedly rebuffs him (p.200), idiot Blister gets furious, whips out his knife and frogmarches Buck through the tourist crowds in Key West, out to the dock and onto a little put-put boat which he drives out to a knackered old boat he owns, a cabin cruiser named Wet Nurse. Here he handcuffs Buck to a bunk in the cabin until he learns some manners.

From this point onwards Blister becomes a sort of daemon ex machina, the wild card driving the plot. Things escalate when Blister, inspired by the kind of racist language Buck used at his ill-fated gig and which has triggered an outpouring of redneck bigotry across the internet, spots a foreign-looking guy on the tacky touristy Conch Train which weaves through Old Key West, goes up to him and starts yelling Islamophobic abuse.

This poor man, Abdul-Halim Shamoon, is from New York where he has a family and children and runs a harmless electronics retail shop (p.126). He’s loaded up on tacky souvenirs which he’s planning to take home for the kids when a rough redneck confronts him and starts spitting insults in his face. So Shamoon tries to get off the train while it’s still moving but falls awkwardly onto a tacky porcelain gewgaw he’s bought which pierces his sternum and punctures his aorta. There and then he bleeds to death all over his tropical tourist shirt and souvenir knick-knacks. Blister runs off into the crowd.

Hiaasen’s early novels feature some outrageously grotesquely violent incidents, such as the hitman who gets a dead pitbull attached to his arm in Double Whammy and the angry New Yorker who crucifies a crooked property developer to a satellite dish in Stormy Weather. Later novels try but, I think, generally fail to match the first fine careless insanity of these early incidents. Having Shamoon fall on some tourist gewgaws and bleed to death isn’t outrageous enough to be blackly funny. Instead it feels genuinely tragic and sad.

Anyway, Blister runs off, but some bystanders provide identification of sorts and the ‘murder’ of Shamoom gets mixed up with the ongoing disappearance of TV star Buck Nance in a whole load of complicated and twisted ways.

Yancy, bored and hoping to impress his ex-boss by solving the crime, picks up various clues which lead him to Blister in his crappy apartment, where he’s barely begun questioning him (with absolutely no authority; he is no longer a detective and the head of Monroe’s Police force has emphatically told him to stop interfering) when Blister takes a ‘spazzy’ swipe at him with a knife, not stabbing him but raking a cut across his stomach.

Luckily enough Yancy was accompanied by Merry, who manhandled him out the apartment, into their car and ran all the red lights to get home to a hospital ER in 6 minutes.

Being the tough guy hero of a thriller / obstinate failed cop and stoner (take your pick) Yancy refuses to stay in hospital overnight after he’s been stitched up, and insists on going home where he can lie on his own sofa and get pleasantly stoned while Merry tends to him. Which is precisely the moment Big Noogie’s hoods choose to arrive and threaten to turn over his house till they find the $200,000 engagement ring.

Complicated, isn’t it? There’s a lot more. Blister then kidnaps Lane Coolman as well as Buck and ends up with both of them handcuffed to bunks in the cabin of his rancid old motor yacht. The only way the two men can persuade Blister to let them go is with a plan which goes beyond any bounds of sanity or probability: the three concoct the idea that Blister will join the cast of Bayou Brethren as Buck’s long lost brother. It’s Blister’s idea, and he comes up with a long and extravagant backstory to justify his sudden appearance in the show. Lane is one tough, cynical agent and, despite having been kidnapped and handcuffed to a bunk in a rancid old boat, he can actually see Blister’s plot twist working.

The result is that Blister releases them from their handcuffs, takes them back to the mainland, Lane calls Amp at the agency’s office in Los Angeles, pitches the story and, to the reader’s increasing disbelief, Amp flies out to meet the (by now genuinely psychopathic and dangerous) Blister in person.

This storyline now spins way out of control leading to a scene where Blister is taken for a spin in Amp’s private jet along with his common law wife, Mona, and Lane and Buck as they drink champagne and discuss the finer points of the contract he’s going to be signed to. All is going well until Amp’s big black bodyguard, Prawney, makes a grab for Blister’s Glock semi-automatic which he’s been carrying round for the past hundred pages. The gun goes off, shooting Prawney through the cheeks and in the chest. Amp orders the pilot to turn the plane round and land back in Key West. Well, as business meetings go, that wasn’t a great success.

Trebeaux and Juvenile

Now he’s come all this way south to sort out the sand situation, Big Noogie likes it in Key West. After Trebeaux had been hung off the bridge and made the wise decision to co-operate fully with the mob, he’d been flown to New York to meet the heads of the Calzone family who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse i.e. took over his company wholesale (p.139). On the way Trebeaux had introduced Noogie to a scam he’d never heard of before, which was to get hold of a dog and dress it in a hazard jacket and pretend to be disabled so as to blag a better seat on the plane. Americans appear to call this a ‘service dog’ (p.410). When they fly back to Key West together, Trebeaux wants nothing more to do with the dog and the Noogie finds himself looking after it and slowly getting to like going for regular walks through the tourist crowds of Old Key West and along the beach. Yes, life here is nice and relaxing.

Anyway, Trebeaux is still orientating himself in his dangerous new situation vis-a-vis the mafia, and is unpacking in his hotel room when there’s a knock on the door and Big Noogie’s mistress, a big florid flake nicknamed Juveline (a name she acquired when a New York cop couldn’t spell ‘juvenile’ on her arrest sheet) walks into his room and asks whether he fancies a mind-blowing fuck. Trebeaux says yes and they go for it. Soon she has become his mistress, two-timing the Big Noogie.

Trebeaux knows this is a very bad idea but is turned on by the sheer outrageousness of the situation and they keep having regular sex, Juveline explaining that Big Noogie is such a big, fat, middle-aged guy that he isn’t that interested in it. Also, Noogie doesn’t get jealous if she disappears for days on end to her relatives’ houses or shopping and such, which gives her plenty of opportunity to be unfaithful.

This plotline reaches a peak when Trebeaux tries to pull a scam on the Big Noogie, bullshitting that he has heavyweight connections in Havana Cuba who will do a deal to supply world-class pink sand from Cuban beaches to make the Royal Pyrenees beach the envy of Florida. Unwisely, Trebeaux lets Juveline talk him into taking her on the 2-day jaunt to Havana.

Only trouble is that Juveline talks in her sleep and one night cries out ‘Harder, Marty, harder’, much to the surprise of Big Noogie lying next to her, who instantly realises what’s going on (p.389). Thus, when Trebeaux has landed and made himself at home in Havana, and goes to meet Juveline off a later flight, it is not Juveline he sees walking through passport control but the same hardman who applied the surgical clamps to his nutsack and helped dangle him off the bridge. Ah. Oh. Bad. In fact Trebeaux’s body is discovered a few days later, buried on a beach. So, that’s the end of him, then.

Funny

Razor Girls may well be Hiaasen’s funniest novel, meaning the one which made me laugh out loud the most. For two reasons: Yancy develops a really buddy-buddy routine with fellow detective Rogelio, which leads to lots of snappy repartee:

YANCY: ‘The human bloodhound is what they call me.’
ROGERIO: ‘A pain in the sphincter is what they call you.’ (p.87)

OK, so it’s not Oscar Wilde, but in the context of a fast-moving, American crime comedy caper, and in the context of the sustained backchat between the pair, it’s good, it works.

But the main reason is for the indefatigably unpredictable behaviour of fantasist and survivor Merry Mansfield. Almost everything she says and does is wonderfully confident, bluff and canny. Unquenchably amoral. At several points Yancy realises it would be wise to tell her to move out and make a break with her, but she’s just so much fun to have around.

It was hard to picture an even-keeled relationship with a person who took her last name from a  dead movie star and and crashed automobiles half-naked for a living. (p.284)

Men

Once again, as in many previous Hiaasen novels, the entire male sex comes in for sustained criticism, yet again, for their pitiful addiction to sex. Flash most men some boob or a whiff of your panties and they turn into drooling slaves. Most of this comes from the mouth if Merry, inventor of the shaving pubes scam, who has the lowest possible opinion of pathetic men.

  • Merry said, ‘Men. I swear.’ (p.44)
  • ‘Men are so pitiful.’ (p.93)
  • ‘his poor little pecker…’ (p.119)
  • ‘You men.’ (p.134)
  • He said, ‘Yeah, I know. Us men, we’re pitiful.’ ‘Totally, Andrew.’ (p.190)
  • ‘Men, I swear.’ (p.285)
  • She had had ‘a lifetime of being disappointed by men.’ (p.360)
  • ‘Men are the worst.’ (p.364)
  • ‘Men are so freakin’ predictable.’ (p.415)

One touch on the pecker and men become ‘immune to rational thought’ (p.388). I wonder if Hiaasen made the same kind of sustained criticism of women or Jews or blacks or Muslims, whether his liberal readers would take it all in good spirit and laughingly accept the sustained barrage of negative stereotypes.

American slang

Hiaasen’s novels are notable not only for their very dense plots, overflowing with colourful characters and garish incidents, but for the aggressive ‘attitude’ of the narrator himself, who freely uses street slang and swearwords to describe his characters and their doings, and liberally sprinkles the text with those handy terms for things and actions which Americans just seem to have and we Brits don’t. I found this novel particularly rich in new terminology, in fact I became addicted to collecting them.

  • app = short for appetiser. ‘His calamari app.’
  • baggie = a brand of plastic bag, Yancy uses them for stashing mank he finds on his restaurant inspections, such as rodent ‘scat’
  • baked = stoned
  • to ball = to fuck cf. to bone. ‘Is she still balling that dickface Drucker?’ (p.370)
  • to bang = to fuck, cf, to ball, to bone. ‘Don’t bang a stranger.’ (p.404)
  • bank = big money. ‘You saved the agency some serious bank.’ (p.63)
  • a beat-down = a severe beating. ‘So I can cancel your beat-down?’ (p.414)
  • berserk-o = adjective meaning wild, crazy. ‘The beserk-o side of the place [Miami] was basically all you saw, if you were a cop or a coroner.’ (p.190)
  • to bitch someone out = nag someone, generally a woman bitching out a man (p.252)
  • blow smoke = to bullshit, make something up. ‘… that didn’t mean Trebeaux wasn’t blowing smoke.’ (p.182)
  • to bone = to fuck
  • bonehead = ‘A stubborn, thickheaded and determined person that doesn’t think things through before acting upon them’
  • boner = erection (p.374)
  • to brace = to meet, to confront (p.393)
  • a bumblefuck = insult
  • Bumfuck = generic term for inconsequential settlement in the middle of nowhere, as in Bumfuck Wisconsin or any of the other anonymous mid-Western states.
  • a bump and grab = a type of criminal scam: one crim bumps their car into the back of the victims car; when the victim stops, they’re hijacked / kidnapped
  • to bus tables = to be a waiter
  • buy the farm = to die. ‘… a biker who’d bought the farm at Mile Marker 19.’ (p.304)
  • buzzed = adjective meaning ‘stoned’
  • to can = to fire. ‘No wonder the sheriff canned your ass.’ (p.188)
  • chunk-muffin  = fat person (p.36)
  • cockhead = variation on dickhead, an idiot, an annoying or vexatious person (p.367)
  • cold one = a beer (p.306)
  • cooch = pussy, fanny, vulva. ‘…shaving cream all over her cooch…’ (p.260)
  • to crack the blinds = of closed blinds, to prise them apart to spy through them (p.327)
  • courtesy fuck = a guy buys a woman dinner, chocolates etc, she owes him a courtesy fuck
  • cracker = term of contempt for poor whites, particularly of Georgia and Florida, dating back to the American Revolution, and derives from the cracked corn which was their staple diet
  • to dick around = to waste time (p.309)
  • dickface = loser, idiot (p.370)
  • dickweed = an asshole or idiot so pernicious they are like a weed (p.384)
  • dirtbag = person who is committed to an alternative lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other social norms i.e. washing
  • to do = have sex with. ‘I’d do her.’
  • Dogpatch = name of a fictional poor rural community in the U.S., especially in the South, whose inhabitants are unsophisticated and have little education. Hence its use as an adjective: ‘A Dogpatch moniker like Clee Roy should have stuck in his head.’ (p.188)
  • a doobie or doob = a joint, cannabis cigarette (p.328)
  • dopp kit = small bag made for transporting toiletries in a convenient and portable manner
  • douche, short for douche bag = ‘a dick, an asshole, a jerk, whose crass behaviour has led them to be compared to a cleansing product for vaginas.’
  • a dust bunny = ball of dust and fluff (p.326)
  • dweeb = abbreviation of ‘dick with eyebrows’, implying the person is a walking penis
  • flake = an unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something, but never follows through (p.311)
  • four-top = table for four in a diner
  • to frog = to punch someone in the upper arm or chest with the middle knuckle partially extended to inflict a sharp concentrated blow
  • fry cartons = generic name for the kind of flimsy, grease-stained cardboard cartons you get takeaway fast food in
  • fuckwhistle = idiot, moron, one who lacks the most basic common sense to make correct decisions
  • fuckweasel = person who behaves in a sneaky manner to create favourable circumstances for themselves at the expense of others
  • gank = to steal. ‘I think the asshole who lives next door might’ve ganked it.’ (p.181)
  • gas up = fill a car with petrol (p.346)
  • goatfuck = a monumental screwup. (p.410)
  • goober = term of affection for a lovable, silly, lighthearted person: ‘…a crew from ET [was] interviewing some sunburned goober’ (p.97)
  • googan = a person wearing trendy sports clothing that is completely clueless in the ways of fishing
  • goomah = a mafioso’s mistress
  • grab-ass = the act of wrestling or chasing another person with the intention to touch or squeeze that person’s butt
  • a grow house = a room or rooms or larger space where marijuana plants are grown (p.245)
  • a hardass = someone who takes no shit off anyone, someone who expects to get their own way and won’t take no for an answer; dominating (p.364)
  • hard chargers = party animals. ‘Rogelio didn’t screw around on his wife, never stayed out late with the hard chargers.’ (p.82)
  • hardcore = adjective meaning serious, intense, relentless. ‘This judge is hardcore.’ (p.370)
  • honcho = a person in charge of some group or function. ‘The network honchos…’ (p.247)
  • horn, on the = on the phone
  • horndog = a guy or girl that is always horny. ‘He couldn’t rule out the possibility that he was a hopelessly shallow horndog.’ (p.284)
  • iced = adjective meaning killed or completed, depending on context. ‘I’ll have [the contract] iced by the next time we walk.’ (p.238)
  • an innie = belly buttons come in two shapes, innies and outies
  • to jack = ​jack something or somebody (for something) to steal something from somebody, especially something small or of low value (p.322)
  • jackoff = a stupid, irritating, or contemptible person
  • jag = ‘To “be on a jag” or “go on a jag” means to be completely unrestrained, whether you’re on a drinking jag or a crying jag.’
  • jazzed = expression of extreme happiness. ‘I am totally jazzed to hear your voice.’ (p.238)
  • jewels = penis and testicles. ‘I mean she’ll kill me, cut off my fuckin’ jewels and kill me all over again.’ (p.90)
  • jizz = semen (p.268)
  • Johnson = penis (p.374)
  • junk = cock and balls. ‘Next she made him dunk his junk in a bucket of ice cubes…’ (p.287)
  • landing zone = woman’s genitals (p.331)
  • look fly = look smart, well presented (p.359)
  • mash = press hard. ‘He mashed the Lobby button half a dozen times…’ (p.309)
  • meathead = overmuscular man, too much time at the gym, can’t string a sentence together (p.292)
  • meat hog = muscle i.e. goons i.e. hired enforcers (p.322)
  • mick = Irish (noun or adjective) (p.373)
  • mo-fo = adjective, short for ‘motherfucking’, suggesting ‘big’ (p.180)
  • a mope = a person of any race or culture who presents themselves as uneducated and possibly criminal either by behaviour or clothes
  • a mouthbreather = a retard: someone so stupid they never learned to breathe through their nose
  • nooner = a sex session during a lunch break or around noon; made famous by Al Bundy of ‘Married with Children’. ‘She promised him that she was done with payback nooners at the Wlshire.’ (p.409)
  • nosebleed heels = heels so high your head is in the upper atmosphere, hence the nosebleed
  • a numbnut = someone who is a constant source of trouble, an individual who screws up, or constant makes mistakes
  • nut sack = scrotum; male characters in Hiaasen novels are always getting something bad happen to their nut sacks, in this novel Trebeaux has some surgical clamps (hemostats) attached to his balls
  • nuts = testicles
  • on the lam = on the run, very old slang
  • a peckerwood = used by Afro-Americans to describe a rural white southerner, usually poor, undereducated or otherwise ignorant and bigoted (p.381)
  • to peel out = to drive or go away. ‘Yancy grinned at the sight of the Taurus peeling out.’ (p.190)
  • to peel rubber = to accelerate an automobile very rapidly (p.364)
  • piece = gun (p.370)
  • poon = woman’s genitals. Short for ‘poontang‘, ditto (p.308)
  • a pop tab = the flip top on drink cans
  • to pop a tent = to have an erection that shows through your trousers, or erects a bedsheet
  • pussy hound = ‘a dude who’s main goal in life is balling ladies.’
  • rearview, to put someone in your rearview = get over someone, move on (p.302)
  • rebar = reinforcing steel used as rods in concrete.
  • revenge fuck = joins mercy fuck, courtesy fuck and sportfucking as categories of fuck. ‘Rachel was the undoubted queen of the revenge fuck in a town with many contenders for the title.’ (p.42)
  • the root prong = of a tooth (p.178)
  • salvor = ‘a person engaged in salvage of a ship or items lost at sea’
  • sawbuck = $10
  • scat = poo; ‘rodent scat’ (p.84)
  • schlep = noun: a long and tiresome journey; verb: to make a long and tiresome journey. Yiddish (p.373)
  • to screak = to make a harsh shrill noise : screech
  • shit-bird = a completely useless individual who is unaware of their own complete uselessness
  • shit-heel = adjective. ‘…his shit-heel brothers…’ (p.221)
  • shitkicker = insult
  • shitstick = insult
  • shitsucker = insult
  • shitweasel = person who is sly, sneaky, and opportunistic; someone who is looking to slip their way into a shitty situation and make it even shittier
  • a shucker = someone who shucks oysters, clams, corn, walnuts etc out of their shells
  • sick = adjective meaning really good, cool or very impressive
  • a slim jim = a tool used to open doors on cars, by ‘pulling up’ the lock within the door, hence the verb, to slim jim a car. ‘… content in mid-life to be slim-jimming cars…’ (p.275)
  • slut puppy = person who uses their adorable looks to attract a partner or partners for a casual sexual encounter
  • to snitch out = to betray. ‘A million bucks says you wouldn’t never snitch out your wife.’ (p.358)
  • to spazz out = sudden, fast movement(s); to go mental (p.373)
  • spazzy = adjective meaning clumsy or inept, with an overtone of demented or mad. ‘Benny Krill had made one spazzy swing with the blade…’ (p.192)
  • to stare down = verb: to look fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away
  • a stare-down = noun: the act of looking fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away (p.386)
  • stoner = someone who regularly smokes marijuana: there are many different types of stoner
  • swag = merchandise. ‘He promised to donate a truckload of Brethren swag to an auction benefiting the local kids’ baseball league…’ (p.248).
  • tanked = stoned
  • tank suit = a woman’s one-piece swimsuit with high-cut legs. Merry wears one (p.300)
  • a thundercunt = that much more cunty than an ordinary cunt. ‘She’s a major thundercunt.’ (p.62)
  • toot = to snort, generally cocaine (p.329)
  • to tune up = to give someone an attitude adjustment by beating their ass. ‘… the man who’d just tuned up Rick and Rod…’ (p.275)
  • a tweaker = a methamphetamine addict; derives from ‘tweak’ which is a slang name for methamphetamine’. ‘Mr Nance isn’t just some homeless tweaker.’ (p.47)
  • unspooled = adjective meaning unhinged, bonkers
  • weed = marijuana aka grass
  • a whack job = a nutcase, a lunatic
  • to whale at something = to hit something forcefully and repeatedly
  • to whorehop = to go from one (loose) woman to another, regardless of consequences (p.61)
  • to wig out = ‘to suddenly become unnecessarily worried, anxious, upset, or paranoid most often while under the influence of an intoxicating substance, especially marijuana’
  • wild-ass = adjective meaning crazy. ‘The van driver figured out they were being tailed, and made a wild-ass turn off Flagler Avenue.’ (p.362)
  • wood = an erect penis; thus ‘to get wood’, ‘to have wood’. Brock Richardson: ‘Never waste good wood.’ (p.288)

Englishisms

In among the blizzard of Americanisms I was struck by a handful of times Hiaasen uses what I think of as very English terms, such as nitwit (p.361) and thick (p.215). I wonder whether he was deliberately trying to include as much novel slang as possible in this book i.e. it has a conscious philological interest over and above the storyline.

Once again I note that the woman riding cowboy style is Hiaasen’s (fictional) sexual position of choice, Merry riding Yancy (p.254) just as Dr Rosa Campasino rode him on the morgue dissection table and, later, in his bath. Appropriate for the general ‘girls on top, men are pitiful’ theme of so many of his novels.

Handy phrases

  • Sonny Summers wasn’t the sharpest tack on the corkboard. (p.47)
  • ‘Not my circus, not my monkey.’ (p.185)

Credit

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2016. All references are to the 2019 Vintage Crime paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen (2013)

Sonny Summers looked up, blinking like a toad in a puddle of piss.
(Bad Monkey, page 186)

Hiaasen’s thirteenth novel opens with the usual daunting barrage of information about a challengingly large number of characters and their often complex and detailed backstories, all quickly introduced in the first 40 or 50 pages, before the usual, ever-escalating sequence of farcical, satirical and often very violent complications kicks in.

The setup

Andrew Yancy (backstory p.33) is a 6-foot-two, middle-aged cop, working for small time Monroe County which, when you look it up, is a small jurisdiction far out at the westernmost point of the Florida Keys and whose county seat is Key West.

Yancy used to work up in glamorous Miami but was forced to take retirement after he drunkenly exposed the crooked machinations of a corrupt fellow cop, Sergeant Johnny Mendez, who was running a scam whereby he backdated arrests for crimes for which rewards had been posted, in order to crookedly claim the rewards. Partly because of the way Yancy denounced him (in a drunk phone call from a bar), partly because of cop solidarity, Mendez was exonerated and it was Yancy who was forced to resign (p.16). So although he’s a cop, he’s also the victim of a miscarriage of justice, sort of.

Yancy is not a clean-cut hero, he is a dope-smoking hard case. His current girlfriend is Bonnie Witt, who’s still married to her husband of 14 years, Dr Clifford Witt. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Yancy has recently seriously assaulted Clifford. Yancy was cleaning his car with one of those hand-held mini-hoovers, on a public street, when Clifford and Bonnie happened to walk by and Yancy clearly heard Clifford insulting and cussing Bonnie. Being a headstrong, impulsive guy, Yancy leapt out of his car and chased a screaming Clifford down the street, till he tackled him to the ground, tore down his trousers, and shoved the hoover attachment up his ass. Yes. It’s played for laughs, but quite violent laughs.

Clifford was Yancy’s dermatologist, that’s how he got to meet and seduce Bonnie. Now Clifford is threatening to take Yancy to court and Bonnie wants Yancy to cut one of those plea bargain deals which you always get in American cop TV shows and movies. The local state attorney is Billy Dickinson who wants to avoid a scandal. Yancy’s attorney at the public defender’s office is called Montenegro.

When a severed arm is hauled out the sea off Key West by two honeymooners from Wisconsin, James and Louisa Mayberry, who are on Captain Keith Fitzpatrick‘s hireboat, the arm is handed over to the local police force which is run by the sheriff of Monroe County, a none-too-bright good old boy named Sonny Summers.

Summers is in thrall to the Florida Keys tourist industry and the last thing he wants is publicity about severed arms, so Summers tells one of his detectives, Rogelio Burton, to ring up his old pal, Yancy, and instruct him to take the arm (in an icebox) up to Miami and use his old contacts to persuade the authorities there that the murder happened off their beaches and so falls within their jurisdiction. The Monroe County forensic examiner, Dr Lee Rawlings has done an initial post mortem, but the boys up in Miami will do a better one.

So, with the hope it will get him back in Monroe’s good books, Yancy reluctantly drives the 90 minutes up Interstate One to Miami where he gets an assistant medical examiner, Dr Rosa Campesino, to examine the arm. She finds a small shark tooth in it but resolutely refuses to accept responsibility or notify the Miami police. Yancy is stuck with the arm and will have to take it back to Monroe County.

Taking advantage of being back on his old home turf, Yancy parks his car outside Johnny Mendez’s home for a bit, toying with hanging the severed arm from the rear view mirror of the creep who got him fired, but then thinks better of it, reluctantly turns and motors back to the Keys.

Here he keeps the arm on ice while he has Bonnie over, cooks for her and goes to bed where she gives more details about the plea bargain she wants to arrange for his assault case. They have sex. Afterwards she springs the surprise that she, Bonnie, is herself a fugitive from justice, her real name is Plover Chase, she was a schoolteacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she was accused of extorting sex from a 15-year-old (boy) pupil, Cody, in exchange for giving him A grades. She fled to Florida before her trial,  saw that Clifford’s medical practice was advertising for a secretary, she got the job and seduced him into marriage. Huh. Yancy had no idea.

Yancy’s lawyer tells him that his boss, the prosecutor and the sheriff have arranged a deal so Yancy goes to see his boss, Sonny, to find out what it is. Sonny tells him Dr Witt has agreed to drop all charges  so long as Yancy quits the police force – but it’s OK, because he, Sonny, has found Yancy a new job as… a restaurant inspector! To replace the previous county food inspector, Randolph Nilsson, who died of… food poisoning!! He is given a food inspector instructor, Tommy Lombardo (p.75). Yancy is not happy at all.

It will become a running joke that the most unhygienic restaurant Yancy has to inspect in his new job is called Stoney’s Crab Palace and run by a shifty, apologetic man named Brennan. There are recurrent scenes where Yancy visits and keeps on finding cockroaches in the kitchen and a rat in the freezer. When anyone exasperates him, Yancy always tells them to go eat at Stoney’s Crab Palace, and a bit later we hear, regular as clockwork, that they’re in hospital with food poisoning, ha ha.

It’s also humorous that doing the food inspection job quickly gives Yancy a phobia about eating out, or eating anything prepared by others, and it is a running gag that he loses weight throughout the book as a result.

Pause for thought

All that information – the names and interlocking relationships of 16 or 17 characters, plus snippets of plot and event – is conveyed in just the first 33 densely-packed pages (though I’ve added a few snippets we pick up later on).

  1. It’s a lot to process, and the rest of the narrative continues at the same level of fact packedness.
  2. Reflecting on this made me realise that maybe facts are what Hiaasen has instead of psychology. Hiaasen’s characters are sketched out with quick decisive strokes, but they have no depth. We learn a lot of facts about them but the more we learn, the more the details of their backstories read like corporate dossiers or police files. For example, we keep on learning more and more about Bonnie but she never really gels, as a character.

More people, more events, more information

The severed arm turns out to belong to one Nick Stripling, in his 40s, who had a criminal record for car crash insurance fraud. When, after a week or so, his wife turns up making enquiries, claiming she’s been away in Paris, the DNA from the arm matches the missing man’s DNA, so it’s a positive ID.

Yancy’s boss sends this widow, Eve Stripling, out to Yancy’s house to collect her husband’s severed arm (which Yancy has been keeping in a deep freeze). He hands it over, reasonably professional and polite etc, but as he investigates further, Yancy learns this dead guy, Nick Stripling, had most recently been making money in a Medicare scooter scam, crookedly getting hold of old and vulnerable people’s Medicare accounts, then making fake claims on them, and extracting money from Medicare for the alleged purchase of all kinds of medication and equipment, without the actual patients ever knowing anything about it. Later we discover he’s made over $11 million through this scam.

(Hiaasen has form with disability scams. Compare Stripling’s with the scams run by Mick Stranahan’s creep brother-in-law, Kipper Garth, who was injured in a Skin Tight but not as much as he pretends, and now makes a living sitting in a wheelchair doing TV ads wheedling money out of people disabled in crashes and accidents. Soon as the cameras are off, he stands up and walks round right as rain.)

Yancy attends Nick’s funeral and meets his estranged, sweary daughter Caitlin Cox (and husband Simon, ramrod straight ex-military). Caitlins doesn’t mince her words, furiously claiming her mother is a ‘cunt’ and killed her father. Well, that opens a whole new perspective on the case.

Neville, the Dragon Queen and Andros island

In a separate storyline, we meet Neville Stafford who is a poor old black dude, aged 64 (p.214) who lives on the island of Andros in the Bahamas. Neville has lived all his life in the family home on the beach, Green Beach, but now his estranged half-sister, who lives in faraway Canada, is selling it to some white guy named simply Christopher, who plans to build the usual complex of condominiums and leisure facilities, which he is going to name ‘The Curly Tail Lane Resort’.

Neville goes to visit the Dragon Queen, an impressively scrawny, dirty, smelly, scary drunk woman, to ask her to put a voodoo spell on this ‘Christopher’.

Neville has a pet capuchin monkey which he won at a dominoes game from a man who claims he appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Neville has renamed the monkey Driggs and has overfed him on fried food, a bad diet for any animal, making the monkey sick so all its hair has fallen out. It chatters and bites and poops freely. It is the bad monkey of the title. Later on, in a comic touch, it is given a full backstory, as full as any of the human characters gets, with a jokily thorough account of his showbiz forebears, his own biography and character (chapter 23).

Yancy starts an affair with Rosa

Back with Yancy and the main storyline, Bonnie announces that she is moving away because hubby Clifford wants to move north (he still has no idea his wife is having an affair with Yancy). She says goodbye to Yancy and disappears from his life. Weeks go by and Yancy misses her. He phones her a couple of times, and on one phone call she explains that her husband, Dr Cliff, has taken to masturbating while part hanging himself by his belt or with a plastic bag over his head, the latest sex fashion for autoerotic asphyxiation (p.170). Cliff doesn’t invite her to take part, so she’s feeling horny and unsatisfied. But she is hundreds of miles away.

Yancy rings up the dishy Miami pathologist, Dr Rosa Campasino, they meet for lunch and start an affair. On the second or third date they swap details of their ex-spouses, as much-divorced Americans do. Yancy was married to Celia who, after three years or so of marriage, wanted to move north but he didn’t want to leave Florida where he was born and raised, so that was the end of that. Dr Rosa was married to a guy called Daniel till she bought him surfing lessons which led to him having an illicit affair with a lissom 29-year-old paddleboard instructor and, she then discovers, several other women, too (p.130). American Marriage, an institution respected around the world.

The first mate is hit

One evening Yancy meets at a bar with Captain Fitzpatrick, the hireboat captain, to ask him questions about the fishing trip when the arm was hooked. In the same bar is a young drunk dude shouting and bragging with a bottle blonde on his arm. The captain tells Yancy it’s Charlie Phinney, until recently his first mate who, after the arm trip, abruptly quit his job, having come into some money. Suspicious.

No sooner have Charlie and his babe left the bar than shots ring out. Yancy runs outside to discover Charlie shot dead on the pavement, his blonde girlfriend in hysterics, and a scooter zooming off down the road. Upon questioning the girlfriend reveals she is called Madeline and works in a shop that sells very rude t-shirts, owned, she claims, by the Russian mafia, managed by a shifty dud named Prestov.

Over the next hundred pages Yancy becomes convinced that Eve Stripling is having an affair with another man, with the very same ‘Christopher’ who is building the new development on the beach on Andros, that she and her lover killed her husband, hacked off his arm, then paid Charlie to hook it to the fishing line of the honeymoon couple from the north. The whole thing was a scam to make the authorities think Nick died in a boat accident and was eaten up by sharks, so they’ll sign off on his death, forget about it, and his widow can cash her dead husband’s $2 million life insurance.

Long-running feud with a property developer

There’s another running gag, that a short irritable guy from New York, Evan Shook, has invested heavily in buying the plot of land next to Yancy’s house (in the little settlement of Big Pine) and is building a monster mansion there with a view to selling it to out-of-towners. The new mansion is way too large for the area (Shook has clearly bribed the authorities), blocks Yancy’s view of the sunset, and has obliterated stands of trees where sometimes, in the fresh dawn, Yancy used to see the distinctive Keys deer come shyly, nibbling trees or grass. Now the area has been de-natured, levelled and is a building site. Yancy loathes and hates the development and Shook.

It becomes a running gag that each time Shook arranges for a prospective buyer to come and look over the half-built property, Yancy arranges something gruesome to meet them.

  • First it’s the body of a big, fat, dead raccoon which he found dead on the highway and carefully places in the half-built living room. Yuk.
  • Then he pays the local pest guy, Miguel, to install a huge bee hive in one of the bedrooms, which the hapless developer upsets with the result that a cloud of furious bees chase him and the prospective buyers off the property.
  • Then it’s Yancy himself who holes up in one of the empty closets after being attacked, beaten and thrown into the nearby canal by a mystery attacker, an assault from which he only barely escapes with his life. When Shook and the latest potential buyers find him, dripping wet and half naked hiding in one of the closets the next morning, Yancy explains his sorry appearance by claiming to have been attacked by one of the packs of savage feral dogs which prowl the neighbourhood which, understandably, puts the buyers off.
  • A few days later and fully recovered, Yancy late one night rigs up a voodoo / Santería shrine in the half-built house, complete with bones and feathers and blood daubings (p.172). This successfully prevents most of the labourers, who are illegal migrants from the Caribbean, from entering the site the next morning.
  • Next Yancy tells Bonnie and her tubby lover Cody (when they turn up half way through the story) that they can camp out in the half-built house, to Shook’s predictable outrage when he discovers them squatting in his property (p.205). It becomes a very funny running feud and Shook’s ever-increasing outrage, anger and frustration with Yancy is very amusing.

By halfway through the book it’s pretty obvious that Eve Stripling did indeed conspire with the little-seen man named Christopher Grunion (we discover his full name on page 166) to murder her husband, and chop off the body to try and prove it was a sailing accident, and then paid hapless young Christopher to hook up the severed arm.

Dr O’Peele is whacked

‘They’ also bump off the drunkard doctor, Dr Gomez O’Peele, who had been connected with Stripling. O’Peele is found dead with a single bullet to the head with the gun in his hand and the cops categorise the latter as suicide, but Yancy had interviewed him just the day before and forced O’Peele to admit that he knew about Stripling’s Medicare fraud. At this point, Yancy thinks Christopher Grunion and Eve Stripling must have learned that Yancy had interviewed O’Peele and suspected that he’d given too much away, maybe even the fact that they’d had Stripling murdered: and that’s why he was bumped off, so he couldn’t be arrested, questioned by the police and so on. Yancy feels partly responsible.

Yancy is attacked

He’s got this far in his investigation, in between his day job of inspecting restaurants, and in between sexy encounters with new lover Dr Campasino, when someone attacks Yancy as he is innocently putting his bin out: whacks him with something heavy upside his head, drags him unconscious to the nearby canal and chucks him in. The cold water wakes Yancy who is savvy enough to pretend to sink to the bottom and then to swim, his lungs bursting, across to the mangroves on the other side of the canal and very carefully surface and not move. The killer surveys the dark water for a while, goes to search Yancy’s house, then departs. It’s after this incident that Yancy decides not to return to his house that night in case the attacker returns and instead holes up in Shook’s half-built mansion next door… where he is found next morning by Shook and his latest set of prospective buyers.

Bonnie returns, with boy friend

Yancy tries to persuade sheriff Summers to let him rejoin the police department as a detective and follow up the case. Summers refuses. Out of the blue Bonnie reappears. Bored of her autoasphyxiating husband she set out on a mission to find the teenage boy who she seduced at school, found him and even though he has matured from a handsome 15 year-old to a balding, stupid fatso, she hooks up with him and the pair have driven down to the Keys and expect Yancy to put them up! As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate already!

The Oklahoma detective

In fact Bonnie comes trailing trouble because a detective from the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation turns up, one John Wesley Weiderman, a comically strict, literal, unimaginative and dutiful copper, who is on the trail of the errant Plover Chase aka Bonnie due to her jumping bail all those years ago. Much fun is had with him, starting with Yancy jokingly recommending he have dinner at Stoney’s Crab Palace after which, predictably, he comes down with bad food poisoning, and for the rest of the novel he turns up like a bad penny, at inopportune moments.

Claspers and Egg

Back in the Bahamas we meet a new character, K.J. Claspers (p.202). He used to fly planes smuggling cocaine in from South America. Nowadays, he’s middle aged and flies charter planes around Florida and the Bahamas. At the moment he’s on a retainer from this Christopher Grunion and Eve Stripling, and their goon, the big black hired muscle christened Carter Ecclestone (p.320) but universally referred to as Egg (p.203). When, late one night, Neville climbs over the chain link fence protecting the building site where his family home used to be, Egg appears out of nowhere and badly beats him up.

In fact, to his amazement, Neville discovers that this big chunky bouncer is now shagging the scrawny scarey Dragon Queen. She has a mysterious ability to seduce men, even Egg doesn’t know why he’s with her, specially when she takes to riding around in an electric wheelchair, followed by a small cohort of moaning, swaying devotees. And then she successfully takes Neville’s monkey, the bad monkey of the title, away from him.

Pause for thought 2

This summary has only taken us up to about half way through the plot. In other words, about the same amount of event and character occurs in the second half as I’ve summarised so far, including the one Big Revelation which is central to the plot.

It’s far too much for me to attempt to summarise, but the comic strands – increasing mayhem caused by the increasingly unhinged Bonnie, the comic thread of poor Evan Shook’s half-built house being subjected to endless humiliations by Yancy, Neville’s terror at the Dragon Queen’s increasingly outlandish antics – are brilliantly juxtaposed with the Yancy’s serious investigation into Stripling’s murder, and the other murders which seem to have followed from it. Dr Campasino becomes an increasingly willing assistant and the novel climaxes when they both take a few days off work and fly to Andros to track down for themselves the mysterious ‘Christopher’ figure who seems to be at the centre of all the different plot strands.

It is then that the novel turns quite a lot darker, with the kind of savage and macabre violence which is Hiaasen’s trademark. In a nutshell, the bad guys kidnap Rosa who is being threatened with rape just before the good guys manage to track her down and rescue her. Meanwhile Yancy finds himself staring down the barrel of a sawn-off shotgun and being told he knows far too much to be allowed to live.

And the book reaches its climax just as a tropical hurricane hits the island where all the characters have assembled (although it must be said, the storm is a bit of a disappointment, it blows a few roofs off, knocks over electricity poles and scatters debris round the streets, but isn’t the devastating apocalypse which the reader was secretly hoping for).

For once I won’t summarise the sequence of events leading up to the Big Revelation, nor what the revelation reveals. I’ve given you enough information to guess, or you could read it for yourself.

Are these books thrillers?

Somewhere I’ve read that Hiaasen’s novels are categorised as thrillers, albeit comedy thrillers. I suppose that’s the least bad categorisation, but I think the reader rarely feels much sense of suspense or danger. There’s certainly little or no suspense concerning ‘whodunnit’. Both the ‘good’ guy and the ‘bad’ guys are identified very early on and we can be 100% sure that the good guy will survive and triumph (albeit after navigating some perils and getting beaten up or even shot) and that the bad guys will come to a gruesome and grotesque end.

I suppose Hiaasen’s novels have thriller elements (a crime and a detective and a few violent murders) but these seem secondary compared to the comic incidents, farcically complicated plots and continual stream of ironic reversals, pratfalls, twists and turns and misadventures. The reader reads on not so much to find out the nature of the crime – more often than not we watch the crimes taking place in real time and know exactly who did them – we read on to discover what wickedly grotesque turn of events Hiaasen can dish up next.

Explicit sex

I suppose the sex been there from the start of his career, but in the novels from the Noughties, it feels like the sex in Hiaasen books has become more prominent and more crudely explicit. In Star Island out-of-control pop star Cherry Bunterman sits on Abbott’s thigh and presses her hot pudenda down against him so that he feels her hot ‘wedge’ pushing against his leg. That struck me as unusually explicit and porny.

On page 27 of this book, Yancy is described with his head between Bonnie’s legs, but it isn’t left at that. Bonnie has recently shaved her pubes and so Yancy finds himself rubbing ‘his chin back and forth across her pale stubble’ (p.27).

Later, Yancy and Dr Rosa have sex in the morgue where she works, on one of the stainless steel dissection tables. As so often in Hiaasen, the woman takes the dominant position, hitching up her coat (she’s wearing nothing underneath) straddling and riding him (p.164). Later on, Neville will eavesdrop on the thug Egg being straddled and ridden by the bony drunken voodoo queen (p.236). Near the end of the book Dr Rosa and Yancy have a bath and, again, she straddles and rides him (p.387). The woman riding cowgirl position is definitely Hiaasen’s sexual position of choice (in his fictions). Later, after they’ve flown to Andros, in the hotel, Yancy goes down on Dr Rosa (p.238) while humming Yellow Submarine. I’m sure there is more sex and more explicitly described, than in the first novels from the 1980s. When it’s between characters we are meant to be rooting for (Yancy and Dr Rosa) it is described in reasonably sensitive and sort of loving terms. But elsewhere, sex is portrayed (as I commented in my last review) as having become equivalent to a commercial transaction.

It so happened that one of the most feared divorce lawyers in the tri-state region would be attending that night’s fund-raiser, and Evan Shook’s wife said she planned to fuck him and then hire him. (p.346)

Just hiring him wouldn’t be enough. I understand that Hiaasen’s novels are documentaries or sociological surveys, they are savage farces in which everything is meant to be cranked up and exaggerated. I also understand that sex has always played a central role in the genre of farce because sex is humanity’s weakest point, the fact that human beings have sex lives completely undermines all attempts to portray ourselves as sensible, mature and rational beings.

But all that understood, there is still something particularly rotten and corrupt about the way so many secondary characters in Hiaasen use sex purely as a transaction, our of boredom, to get their way, and have stripped it of any psychological significance whatever.

The American opioid epidemic

Once upon a time, back in the golden 1960s, there was a brief moment when ‘drugs’ were portrayed as an escape from humdrum, boring, bourgeois lifestyles. But 50 years later, they are universally available, widely taken, and the new wave of highly addictive painkillers has made junkies of large numbers of otherwise traditional and respectable people in the Great American Opioid Epidemic.

Hiaasen knows all about this and makes Bonnie’s offensively self-righteous husband an immoral quack who is adding his halfpennyworth to the misery of millions.

Dr Clifford Witt had recently retired from the practice of medicine, having invested in a chain of lucrative storefront pain clinics that dispensed Percocets and Vicodins by the bucket to a new wave of American redneck junkies. (p.20)

Americanisms

In another review I’ve pointed out how, across the 35 years of Hiaasen’s publishing career, you can watch the American language mutate and evolve. One aspect of this is the words which have been shortened, like carry bag where we’d say carri-er bag, swim trunks where we’d say swim-ming trunks, high strung where we’d say high-ly strung. Maybe making words shorter is the lexical equivalent of fast food.

In other places, I enjoyed collecting instances of new words or new uses for existing words:

  • a bounce house = bouncey castle
  • a bumblefuck = idiot
  • frosted = to be angry
  • a fuckstick = idiot
  • a goober = a peanut, a fool (p.221)
  • jazzed = pleased (p.400)
  • a mook = a stupid or incompetent person
  • a mope = noun meaning ‘A person of lower socio-economic status that leeches off the greater good of society, is lazy and is normally involved in some sort of criminal activity’.
  • to be stoked = interested (p.333)
  • ‘The sheriff’s wigging’ = very concerned, going spare (p.190)
  • ‘Sheriff Summers was a chronic stickler and worrywart’

Which,

Talking of Hiaasen’s use of English, this book contains a grammatical form I’ve never seen before, the novel use of ‘which’. ‘Which’ can be used several ways (as an interrogative starting a question) but the relevant usage here is when it is used to introduce a relative clause, as in, ‘The dog which bit me’, where which obviously refers back to the noun ‘dog’ in order to enable the description of what it did.

This use of ‘which’ takes its traditional function and then kind of supercharges and elides it. It’s associated with the Christopher Grunion character who uses it as a speedy shorthand to just pick up conversations. I assume it’s a verbal tic Hiaasen has noticed and transcribed, it’s an odd but powerful usage.

There followed an animated discussion that ricocheted between the subjects of urgent medical care and Eve’s gross culpability for Stripling being ambushed. Which, the guy who attacked him? Nick had no goddam idea who it was. (p.319)

Where ‘which’ means something like ‘Who was he, was the guy who attacked him?’ but is quicker.

He couldn’t stop railing about what had happened. Which, what are the odds of getting randomly stabbed in your own back yard during a hurricane? (p.320)

Where ‘which’ isn’t really needed at all, it’s a verbal tic.

Or he could pack up and run. Purchase a new identity, find another place to hide and start over as an international fugitive. Which, talk about exhausting. (p.322)

See what I mean? It’s difficult to concoct a direct translation into standard English, but you can see what he’s doing – using ‘which’ as an all-purpose way of connecting one thought to another,

But all he could talk about was hunting down Yancy before he could escape. Which, no way was that shithead going to sneak out of Andros today. (p.324)

Say the world ‘outlaw’ and everyone thinks bank robber, but did Dillinger cut off a limb to trick the FBI into thinking he was dead? No, sir, he went to the movies and got shot full of lead. Which, these days any fuckwit with a ballpoint pen and a Halloween mask could rob a bank.

I suppose the standard usage would be to replace ‘which’ in this example with ‘whereas’, but Grunion is clearly not a chap who fusses about his parts of speech. He uses ‘which’ indiscriminately to yank together bits of thought process.

Stripling wondered aloud if the stealth urinator was the same man he’d caught snooping outside the house, the old black guy he’d run off with the shotgun. Which, who’d be crazy enough to come back after somebody fired a twelve-gauge over their head? (p.352)

‘Quit being an asshole, Nicky. You weren’t in the medical care business, you were in the stealing business.’ Which, he would have run over her ungrateful ass with the Rollie except the motor didn’t work because Egg had removed the battery to lighten the vehicle for pushing. (p.354)

Yes, in these last two examples the use of ‘which’ is not grammatically necessary, and when it’s used it’s generally incorrectly, in the wrong grammatical way – but it does have the effect of picking up the thought and jumping to the next one, regardless. In many ways I enjoyed this unusual but effective usage more than a lot of the plot.


Credit

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2013. All references are to the 2014 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)
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