• Sofia L
  • A Wodehousian Review of a Wodehouse Tale of Fiendish Cunning!
A Wodehousian Review of a Wodehouse Tale of Fiendish Cunning!
Written by
Sofia L
September 2017
Written by
Sofia L
September 2017

Tale 1: Strychnine in the Soup

My train was delayed for an hour today. I start off the day very early to catch the 6:44am train that brings me to downtown Chicago by 7:18. I have been doing this for about 2 months now and I have never had any issues. Until today of course.

“Due to mechanical problems, your inbound train to Union Station is running late …” blared the loudspeaker.

I thought the delay might be in minutes.

“How late we are not sure, we will keep you updated!” it blared, before blaring off.

I had to stand there in the slightly chilly weather as the crowd on the platform grew waiting for the loud speaker to blare. Surely, not the best way to start off your Monday morning, is it?
The answer from me would have been a resounding No! had it not been for a brand new Wodehouse novel that I held in my hand. The hardbound volume with a delightful cover of what looked like Gentlemen in the Drones club looking at a well-dressed young man with a smoking gun instead of a cigar in his hand. The tile of the book “Wodehouse on Crime” promised ‘A dozen tales of Fiendish Cunning’! Just what I needed for an unexpected wait on the railway platform on a slightly chilly Monday morning where I was running late for my 9am meeting at work.

I felt special as I turned the pages of the book while everyone around me was either wistfully gazing in the direction of where the train was supposed to come from or directing their attention towards their phones. I, on the other hand, read a delightful preface by D.R.Bensen who attributed the wave of crime in Wodehouse’s novels to a fascination with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, Wodehouse used to wait in line to get the edition of ‘Strand’ that contained an extract of Holmes’ escapades. The way Bensen cleverly weaves the common thread of crime around Wodehouse and Conan Doyle is something I am sure Wodehouse himself would have chuckled at.

I beg to disagree with Mr.Bensen though. I think the crime wave that runs through Wodehouse’s books masterminded by pea-sized Brainiacs running amok with amor is acutally inspired by the very serious tales of fiendish cunning written by one Ms. Agatha Christie. There have been direct and indirect references to her work in many of Wodehouse’s books. I would like to think there is an underlying tinge of admiration towards her works in the way Wodehouse brings it up in his novels. For example in the tale that I am about to narrate, rather Wodhehouse pokes fun at Chrstie’s favorite vehicle for killing someone – Strychnine!

Strychnine in the Soup” is the first tale in this dozen tales of fiendhish cunning . I am not a big fan of Mr. Mulliner’s monologues regarding one of his innumerable nephews, but this story piqued my curiosity because it started off with how readers of mystery stories are a strange lot who are likened to druggies in their addiction for the written works of thrill and intrigue. I understand that sort of addiction. In the past, I have been addicted to Agatha Christies mysteries, especially the ones that had to do with our not-so-modest, thinks-he’s-better-than-Sherlock-Holmes in sniffing out crime and criminals – our own adorable Mr. Poirot. It would take a lot to drag my nose out of a murder mystery that Hercule Poirot was trying to unravel. I decided to give Mr. Mulliner a chance because I identified with the main character of the story and also because I have a fascination with Strychnine, much like how Christie has with it. You can read more about strychnine and its power here: Strychnine Poisoning. Pay close attention to the fact that the poison kills the subject in a matter of 2-3 hours in a very, very gut wrenching manner (literally!)

So it is no surprise that more often than not, Agatha’s choice of weapon to bring Hercule Poirot into the frame was to bump off some unsuspecting character with Strychnine. While I don’t think it was ever administered in a soup, I do think there are many, many instances where Christie’s victims have been administered strychnine. As I said earlier Wodehouse tends to make fun of the lady in his novels and this is how he chooses to do it here. Before you get your hopes up that this tale of fiendish cunning starts off with a murder that somebody commits by putting strychnine in the soup, let me quash those hopes by saying that is merely the title of the mystery book our protagonist is reading and which serves as a very vital prop in making sure our hero is bound in holy matrimony to the woman he loves with the blessing of her explorer Mom who thinks our hero is a pipsqueak who never ventures out of his comfort zone. Delightful, aye?
Consider the following exchange:

Mr. Mulliner (on learning that the woman he hopes to be his future mother-in-law has christened him a pipsqueak): I don’t even know what a pipsqueak is.

Lady Basset (the woman who wants to make sure that Mr.Mulliner is never going to be her future son-in-law): A pipsqueak is a man who has never seen the sun rise beyond the reaches of the Lower Zambezi; who would not know what do if faced by a charging rhinoceros. What, pray would you do if faced by a charging rhinoceros, Mr. Mulliner?

Mr.Mulliner: I am not likely, to move in the same social circles as charging rhinoceri.

I was laughing out loud much to the consternation of the people surrounding me as I read these lines. I did not mind that the loudspeaker blared that the next train that we had been waiting for, for more than half an hour would not make the scheduled stop at the station. Instead, the train coming about 15 minutes after that would be picking us up. I could hear the sighs around me as I turned the page trying to control my laughter.

10 minutes into the story, Lady Basset gives in to Mr.Mulliner’s proposal to marry her daughter to him so that she could finish reading the mystery book that unbeknownst to her Mr.Mulliner manages to steal (borrow in his mind of course) from her and not only blames the crime on the man who borrows it from him (in a very dominant and unborrowable manner, have to say) that Lady Basset chose for her daughter but also helps her catch him red handed. Yes, all this happens in a matter of minutes and Mr.Basset from warning Mr.Mulliner as he comes and goes out of her bedroom at will, falling off her bed sometimes, getting his leg caught in the cord at other times :

“I am, I trust a broad-minded woman but I cannot approve this idea of communal bedrooms!” (I can imagine the high spirited, huge, explorer of a woman who faced lions in her African Adventures starting down at our poor Mr. Mulliner!)

to hobnobbing with Mr.Mulliner to read about the 2 faceless fiends, it was quite a ride.

All I would have to say to Mr.Wodehouse for this delightful tale of crime, passion and quick thinking on the feet is – Mere air, these words, but oh so funny, so so funny!
I also need to quote another dialogue between Mr. Mulliner and his beloved:

Mr.Mulliner: There is only one thing to be done, I shall see your mother and try to make her listen to reason.
Amelia Basset: But you are so diffident Cyril. So shrinking, so retiring and shy. How can you carry through such a task?
Mr.Mulliner: Love will nerve me!

Ah! Trust Wodehouse to lace the narrative with a gallant love story. Love will nerve me!

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  • Dear Sofia, I really like your article. I use to take the train from the suburbs to downtown Chicago so I totally understand delays. I like Agatha Christie. I haven't read this book, but I will be looking it up. I also like M. M. Kaye who writes like Agatha Christie. Her mystery series is very intriguing and has some history in it which I like. Thanks for writing this. Crystal