Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Robbery at Rudwick House - Victor L Whitechurch

The Robbery at Rudwick House (1929) is the third of only five crime novels written by Victor L. Whitechurch, cleric turned mystery writer and one of the first members of The Detection Club. Interestingly, like Anthony Berkeley who founded the Detection Club some of Whitechurch's books are far from the usual traditional mystery of the other members. He liked to experiment with the form. This book, originally published as Mixed Relations in the UK, is as far removed from a detective novel as possible. In fact, there is very little detection in the book at all.

Whitechurch attempts to tell the story of a comedy of manners slowly introducing elements familiar to readers of comic crime -- mistaken identity, leaping to conclusions, and the farcical possibilities of bringing together characters of contrasting class backgrounds. Selina Lakenham, an American woman and her son Alexander travel overseas to the home of her brother-in-law Archdeacon Lakenham who has been entrusted with getting Alexander into Oxford University. Cyril Lakenham, whose brother recently died, learns from an odd codicil in his brother's will that he will earn $10,000 if he can safeguard a place for his nephew at Oxford and upon completion of his studies and graduation from university will receive another $10,000. He assures everyone that the money is not the impetus for his meeting with his sister-in-law and nephew. He really has the young man's educational interests at heart.

Simultaneously, another story is unfolding. The Vicar has recently employed Leonard Brooks, a new manservant, who we learn almost immediately is not at all who appears to be. He is leading a double life in an elaborate disguise under the assumed name of Major Greynell. Something fishy is going on. And when another woman Babs Morris and young man posing as her son show up the stage is set for an obvious case of mistaken identity and silliness galore. Mrs. Lakenham and Alexander will soon be mistaken for Babs and her "son" who is really her brother Alan.  The police are hot on the trail of the two con artists; Mr. Gillingham, the Archdeacon's lawyer is trying to sort out the mess of who is who; and Sir Henry Middleton has recently lost a valuable addition to his unique collection of antique snuff boxes. With all this going on there is ample opportunity for farce and laughs galore.

Canon V. L. Whitechurch
Here's the problem. The story is not very funny at all. It's too familiar. The mistaken identity gimmick is easily spotted and the reader can predict everything pages before it happens. This is a shame because Whitechurch has proven he can be a master of the unexpected with offbeat humor in his creation of Thorpe Hazell. The comedy of an Edwardian health nut still has resonance for and can elicit a smile or a giggle from a 21st century reader. The humor in ...Rudwick House, however, is hackneyed. The strength of the book is perhaps in the satirical touches about life at a vicarage and the politics of the clergy, something very close to Whitechurch.

The Robbery at Rudwick House is a pale imitation of an P.G. Wodehouse novel. All the jokes are about making fun of crass Americans. There are too many scenes like those in which the vicar's houseguest Lady Caroline is horrified by the Americans' vulgarity. Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont made a career exploiting this kind of character contrast. Frankly,  I'd rather be watching Groucho so naturally and ebulliently make fun of Dumont than read a book that consists of labored comedy. Nothing brings a frown to my face faster.

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This counts as the seventh book in my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge bingo card.  I've counted it as space G3 ("A Book with a Crime Other Than Murder").


9 comments:

  1. Wow, this is a rare one! I have to admit I find Whitechurch's detective novels awful mild beer. Your take on the earlier tales was very intriguing, however.

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    1. Found this in that legendary store in Milwaukee, Renaissance Books, around 2010 just before the place was permanently shut down because it was being operated in a building that should've been condemned back in the early 1990s! I was really upset when I found it it was forced to shut down by the city of Milwaukee. I bet it took him a couple of years to clean out the palce of all the books. Maybe they're still inside! There were about 50 more books I was planning on buying there, all of them rare titles by GA writers like Berkeley, Clason, Rhode and Miles Burton, Milward Kennedy. I was constantly finding really scarce books there. I'd spend up to half a day going through the shelves and sometimes opening boxes kept in the aisles. I got my copy of DEATH OF JEZEBEL at Renaissance for only $13! I remember that he also had all of Whitechurch's non-detective novel titles. But now I'll probably never find other copies of those books now. At least not so close to home.

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  2. Whitechurch's collection of railway mysteries is still on the top of my wish list after that review. Sorry to hear his full-length novels don’t hold up very well.

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    1. This wasn't really a mystery at all, TomCat. I think I was just overall disappointed because it turned out to be a book of a different sort. Plus, it was so predictable. I still have The Crime at Diana's Pool to read. Based on some criticism I have read ...Diana's Pool is the most interesting of his true detective novels. I also owned a copy of Shot at Dawn a couple of years ago, but I read the first few chapters and didn't like it so I sold the book. That was one of his quasi-detective novels with no real murder mystery.

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  3. Very interesting, and as Curt says, a very rare book. I've never seen it (nor Shot at Dawn, for that matter.) Diana's Pool is okay, except for a bit of unfair play, but I preferred Murder at College. And Thorpe Hazell is indeed an excellent creation. As for the splendid Berkeley, perhaps his weakest book, Mr Priestley's Problem, is another sub-Wodehouse story....

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  4. I read all of Anthony Berkley once upon a time but never ran across this fellow. Too bad it was disappointing.

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  5. So far the only Whitechurch book I've come across is a Dover reprint of Murder at the Pageant. That's one that I need to reread--my first reading was many moons ago (pre-blogging) and I have no notes whatsoever. I did give it three stars back in the day, so I'm interested to see if it holds up now that I've read your two reviews.

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  6. I'll take your word for it that it's not very funny, but I find Wodehouse funny enough that a writer could fall well short of him and still qualify as funny.

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    1. OK, I'll confess Whitechurch got a smile or two out of me, but I grew weary of the American bashing. Constant jokes about how Mrs. Lakenham likes to shake hands fervently with everyone she greets and her overly familiar way of addressing strangers. Ho-hum. That's what isn't too funny to me. A little goes a long way and Whitechurch returned to that kind of business over and over.

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