Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Biffen's Millions by P. G. Wodehouse

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

It’s no mystery that I love P. G. Wodehouse. From the Bertie and Jeeves books, to the Psmith stories, to the Golf tales (especially the golf tales), his wit, humor, and absurdity never fail to make me chuckle. Here are my previous Wodehouse posts:

So anyway, this book was recommended by my friend and colleague Kurt, who shares my love for literature - and specifically my love for Wodehouse and Anthony Trollope.

This particular book isn’t part of any series, and is one of the author’s later works. It is also published under the title of Frozen Assets. (Many Wodehouse books had different titles in the United States and the United Kingdom. Go figure.)

Why this book? Well, it involves a fun legal issue.

Edmund Biffen Christopher, aka “Biff,” is a typically feckless Wodehouse young man. He discovers that his godfather has died, leaving him millions in his will. With a condition.

Biff must make it to age 30 without being arrested. This is a daunting task, because Biff has a tendency to drink and afterward to insult or fight with policemen. In Paris, this was not such a big deal, but in London, they seemed to take it far too seriously.

Biff’s friend Jerry Shoesmith, another young man of limited means and even more limited brains, becomes responsible for getting Biff through the next few weeks so he can inherit. Biff’s sister (with whom Jerry has naturally fallen in love) assists him, while the Godfather’s rich and greedy brother conspires with a private investigator, a lawyer, and a few other characters to get Biff to fall.

Hilarity, and a game of “musical trousers” ensue. (Yes indeed, various characters are left trouserless at the worst of times. This is Wodehouse, after all…)

Other legal issues touched upon are the difference between criminal theft and civil conversion, and the fine distinction between insanity and eccentricity. Wodehouse also takes the time to tease the French and the Americans and get a dig at restricted diets and those who wish to talk about nothing else.

There are some great lines of course. Here are my favorites. The opening scene, for example:

The Sergeant of Police who sat at his desk in the dingy little Paris police station was calm, stolid and ponderous, giving the impression of being constructed of some form of suet.

In fact, the whole opening chapter, wherein poor Jerry attempts - unsuccessfully - to get his lost wallet back from the Paris police is a gas. Also, too familiar to any of us who work with government bureaucracy.

Or Biff and Jerry discussing Biff’s proclivities.

“It’s a pity you have this urge to punch policemen.”
“It’s just a mannerism.”
“I’d correct it, if I were you.”

While Wodehouse doesn’t feel the need to be strictly accurate in his interpretation of the law - that might get in the way of a joke - he does come up with some lines that I would love to use in court some day.

After the evil brother, Tilbury, accuses Biff of using undue influence, Jerry opines, “Obviously there can’t have been anything like that in this case, because you haven’t seen your godfather in three years. You can’t influence people by remote control.”

It was also fun to see a reference to another favorite book. Tilbury’s lackey Pilbeam discovers some of the godfather’s eccentricities from a source.

“His editor told him to go interview your brother, so he wrote asking if he could make an appointment, and your brother wrote back naming a day. His letter was written in red chalk.”
“In what?”
“Red chalk. Each word outlined in blue chalk. Like Hyman Kaplan.”

Seriously. If you have never read Leo Rosten’s “Kaplan” books, you really should do so. Nice of Wodehouse to name-check a fellow humorist.

Wodehouse also makes an astute observation about attorneys.

London solicitors come in every size and shape, but they have this in common, that with a few negligible exceptions they all look like some species of bird. Jerry Shoesmith’s Uncle John, for instance, the guiding spirit of Shoesmith, Shoesmith and Shoesmith of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, resembled a cassowary, while elsewhere you would find owls, ducks, sparrows, parrots and an occasional ptarmigan. Lord Tilbury’s legal adviser, a Mr. Bunting of Bunting, Satterthwaite and Miles, could have mixed without exciting comment in any gathering of vultures in the Gobi Desert, though his associates would have been able to expose him as an imposter when mealtime came, for unlike the generality of vultures he had a weak digestion and had to be careful what he ate.

This is doubly good because I have a local colleague who in fact does look exactly like a vulture. Strikingly so. I shall now go and analyze the other birds in our local bar. Anyone have a suggestion for my own analogue?

One final quote, about Tilbury, after a bitter disappointment.

He was musing bitterly on Providence. A moment before, he had been telling himself that Providence, always on the side of the good man, had gone out of its way to insure that he should prosper as he deserved, and Providence, he now saw, was not the Santa Claus he had supposed but a heartless practical joker who raised the good man’s hopes only to dash them to the ground.

Classic Wodehouse, but also a bit telling. Too many times we ourselves have this assumption. Just a thought.

Anyway, I highly recommend Wodehouse. Jump in anywhere, of course, but I particularly recommend starting with Jeeves.

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