At our next meeting, Sunday the 9th of September, The Den(ver) of the Secret Nine will be discussing P.G. Wodehouse’s Do Butlers Burgle Banks? As usual, the meeting will begin at 12:30 pm in our usual haunt, Pints Pub in downtown Denver.
I won’t be present because I will be cruising on the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal in Wales, however I offer these little notes to represent what would have been my contributions to our feast of reason and flow of soul.
It’s very easy to dismiss the genius of P.G. Wodehouse by claiming that he wrote the same few stories again and again but with different characters. Those of us who recognize the genius of Wodehouse know that he wrote the same few stories again and again but using the same characters.
Do Butlers Burgle Banks?, however, proves that in his later years, Wodehouse could write something fresh with different, if familiar, characters. It may not be his best work, but could I write something one tenth as fun and enjoyable, I would be content. I give here the quick synopsis from the Penguin books website.
Do Butlers Burgle Banks? (1968) features Mike Bond, the hitherto fortunate owner of Bond’s Bank, who finds himself in a spot of trouble so serious that he wants someone to burgle the bank before the trustees inspect it. Fortunately for him, Horace Appleby, currently posing as his butler, is on hand to oblige. For Horace is, in fact, not a butler at all but the best sort of American gangster, prudently concealing himself in an English country house while hiding from his rivals. Looking for peace and safety, Horace is to discover before long that the hot-spots of New York are a whole lot more restful than the English countryside. This is the lightest of light comedies, a Wodehousian soufflé from his later years.
This description, which shows up in many places including Wikipedia, is incorrect in that it confuses Horace Appleby with one of his gang members, the gun-toting American Charlie Yost. (The Overlook Press dust jacket removes the word “American.”) The synopsis is correct, however, in calling the story a soufflé—something delicious and yet so delicate that a stray cough could cause it to collapse while baking.
What I love about this story is the collection of various Wodehouse stock characters that get equal treatment throughout the story—one of the benefits of being a “one-off” story. The stars of Wodehouse’s best-known series—Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Lord Emsworth or Psmith—can sometimes take up all the air in the room, but in this story the minor characters get to shine.
Of course the star of this story is Horace Appleby, the leader of a very genteel band of burglars. He’s a criminal mastermind who finds ways to get installed as a temporary butler at country houses and then directs his crew of safecrackers, muscle and second-story men to burgle the house with his inside information. Like many Wodehouse characters, however, this criminal still operates with a strict code—no rough stuff—and so he boots Yost from the gang after the American brings a gun on a job.
At the beginning of the book Horace is just an underworld trope, but we soon see him as a thoughtful and considerate boss, a lovelorn romantic and finally a Jeeves-like character that helps the male lead, Mike Bond. Like an actor, Horace, pretending to be a butler, fully inhabits the role. Like Jeeves, he supplies Mike with the mot juste when necessary and tosses out George Bernard Shaw quotes where appropriate.
The other characters are also well developed. Ada Cootes, Mike’s secretary and the object of Horace’s affections, is wonderful. Her quick thinking when an incidental thief takes Horace’s wallet marks her as one of Wodehouse’s supremely confident women, and yet the extent to which she succumbs to Horace’s charms makes her endearingly vulnerable. I’m not sure of her age, but I see her as a woman approaching middle age who never looked for love and never needed it but who recognizes it when it comes along.
Mike’s girlfriend Jill Willard is another Wodehouse woman who’s up for anything, including burgling a bank to help her man. She’s one of those women who Wodehouse adores—born of privilege but whose family’s fortune have fallen and so she must work as a nurse to support herself. (Oddly, I don’t think Wodehouse ever describes her as small, which makes her different from most of his heroines.)
Horace’s gang also is well developed, including second-story man Ferdie the Fly and muscle “Basher” Evans and the American Yost. It’s endearing that most of Horace’s gang look upon him with respect and admiration, making Yost’s disloyalty stand out. Reading this story in our current age of senseless gun violence, it’s enjoyable that the cracks in Horace’s gang come about because one character finds religion and another is too fond of gunplay. And Yost is eventually made a spent force when it is explained to him how seriously England takes its gun laws.
Scotland Yard Sergeant Claude Potter is another gem, to me recalling the Efficient Baxter, that secretarial bane of Lord Emsworth. He’s so insufferably smug we don’t mind when he gets shot. “No worse than a bad cold,” Mike says to console his guilty feelings when the policeman receives a bullet meant for Mike.
Oddly the one character that serves little purpose is Mike’s Aunt Isobel. She serves as a sounding board for Jill, but otherwise seems to exist only because Wodehouse realized he couldn’t possibly write a book without some species of aunt.
As I mentioned earlier this plot is too frothy and delicate to endure any sort of criticism. Even Horace thinks that Mike’s plan to be plugged by Yost in order to collect on a very specific insurance policy wouldn’t have worked. And the plan to rob the bank to hide any accounting discrepancies also seems unlikely, but at least it avoids the risk of death.
There really are too many characters and plot developments in this slim volume (the Overlook Press edition runs to 201 pages). Consequently the ending (or the solution to Mike’s bookkeeping woes) does seem rushed, like a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta that resolves when everyone agrees that the problem that had propelled the plot is no longer a problem. What I love about this resolution is that makes it possible to retitle the book: Do Burglars Invest in Banks?
To my knowledge there are few of Wodehouse’s stock in trade tropes. No “stout Cortez,” “all’s right with the world” or Infant Samuels. Maybe this is a consequence of being a one-off?
Nice quote by Basher Evans: “He won’t do that guv’nor. This isn’t Chicago. He knows we’ve got a different angle on that sort of thing in England. He isn’t going to risk getting a lifer by bumping you off. He’ll just plug you in the leg or arm or somewhere.” (The death penalty was abolished in Great Britain in 1965.)
And another quote from one of the trustees of the bank while trying to convince Mike that getting shot in order to collect insurance wouldn’t be so bad: “You must have read about fellows who get shot. They don’t feel a thing. It’s only after half an hour or so that they notice there’s anything wrong. ‘Bless my soul,’ they say, ‘I seem to have got a hole in me. Now how did that happen?’”