By Rudyard Kennedy
“Consider the case of Henry Pifield Rice… I must explain Henry early, to avoid disappointment. If I simply said he was a detective, and let it go at that, I should be obtaining the reader’s interest under false pretences. He was really only a sort of detective, a species of sleuth. At Stafford’s International Investigation Bureau, in the Strand, where he was employed, they did not require him to solve mysteries which had baffled the police. He had never measured a footprint in his life, and what he did not know about bloodstains would have filled a library.”
— a typical Wodehouse sleuth, in “Bill the Bloodhound”
P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) wrote nearly 100 books, almost all of them comic novels. He’s best known, of course, for creating Jeeves, the ultimate valet (or as he would have it, the ultimate “gentleman’s gentleman”), as well as other memorable figures such as the charmingly foppish Psmith, get-rich-quick schemer Ukridge, the loquacious Mr. Mulliner, and the various cloth-headed denizens of Blandings Castle and the Drones’ Club.
But the genial Wodehouse — despite being a lifelong devotee of crime stories — certainly never wrote a genuine hard-boiled detective story in his life – in fact, some would say he was patently incapable of such a thing. So what is he doing here?
Well, virtually every one of Wodehouse’s many stories and novels takes place in the same interconnected little world, and given Wodehouse’s continued reliance on farcical plots involving impersonations, mistaken identities and stolen heirlooms, it’s only natural that a private detective would be called in to sort out at least some of the strange goings-on. And indeed, it turns out that several desperate characters in the Wodehouse canon did employ the services of private eyes over the years. Not that any of them – -this being Wodehouse — were particularly good at their job. Nor were they overly concerned with ethics.
Although the unscrupulous gumshoe Percy Pilbeam is never the lead character in any of Wodehouse’s novels, he’s often the funniest. His best showcase is probably “Frozen Assets” (1964), Wodehouse’s last great farce, in which the private detective gets a meaty supporting role and a laugh-out-loud subplot wherein he lives to regret selling his pants to his ex-boss.
But when we first meet Pilbeam in 1924’s “Bill the Conqueror,” he’s actually the gung-ho assistant editor of Society Spice, a sordid tell-all scandal sheet based in London. A man with a natural talent for exposing people’s most embarrassing secrets, Pilbeam later rises to the position of Society Spice‘s editor, in 1925’s “Sam the Sudden,” before finding his true calling as an actual private eye by the time of 1929’s “Summer Lightning.” From this point on, Percy — or ‘P. Frobisher Pilbeam’ as his nameplate would have you believe –heads up London’s Argus Private Enquiry Agency. Along with his staff, he’s both willing and able to undertake any case, no matter how dubious, lurid or extralegal – provided, of course, that the fee is right.
Once he establishes himself as a successful P.I., Percy Pilbeam cuts a memorable figure. Stoutish and squat, Pilbeam has marcelled hair and what is variously described as a “revolting”, “appalling” or “unfortunate” mustache. He also favours a brown, pink and white wardrobe that makes him look like a large ambulatory brick of Neapolitan ice cream. Still, he packs a formidable reputation as an excellent, if underhanded, snoop. His twin Achilles’ heels, however, are his vanity and his love of money, and these character flaws often lead to his comic downfall in the various novels in which he appears.
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Also seen from time to time in Wodehouse’s books is one J. Sheringham Adair, a private detective with even fewer scruples than Pilbeam. “Adair” is actually a pseudonym for conman Alexander “Chimp” Twist, who has merely opened up an English detective agency as a front. Twist, you see, has made the happy discovery that rich people will often approach respectable-looking private detectives with their problems — and that a confidence trickster who is on his toes can turn these rich people’s problems into cold, hard cash via blackmail, theft, extortion or good old-fashioned chicanery and deceit. Twist also tries running a health farm in the 1928 novel Money For Nothing, with a similar eye towards exploiting his wealthy clientele, but he thereafter returns to his tried-and-true PI scam. No matter what the con is though, Chimp Twist is invariably shadowed by his American criminal associates Soapy and Dolly Molloy. Sometimes the Molloys are working in league with Twist, but more often they’re trying to out-con the conman and make off with all the proceeds of Twist’s latest enterprise.
Like Pilbeam, Adair/Twist is a supporting player in all of his appearances rather than a lead, but his continuing presence in Wodehouse’s world over a span of nearly half a century makes him worthy of mention.
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Wodehouse also wrote about a number of other detectives, but they tended to be one-shot characters with smallish supporting roles in novels already stuffed to bursting with farcical activity. However, there are a handful of Wodehouse short stories that feature private eyes in leading roles: Henry Pifield Rice in “Bill The Bloodhound” and Adrian Mulliner in “The Smile That Wins” are both astoundingly inept junior detectives at large PI firms who endeavour to clean up their acts in order to impress the respective girls of their dreams. These particular stories are not really detective yarns however, but rather comic romances in which the leads just happen to be gumshoes. (Adrian Mulliner, incidentally, is one of the innumerable nephews of Wodehouse’s Mr. Mulliner character; he would return years later in a short Sherlock Holmes pastiche wherein he discovers the “truth” about the great detective.)
Another one-shot private detective, of sorts, is Mr. McGee, the monosyllabic “house dick” at the Hotel Delehay with a passion for movies who appears in a short story published in the November 1950 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
Wodehouse’s only stab at an actual, if still somewhat comic, P.I. story would appear to be “Death at The Excelsior.” This tale introduces us to the unjustifiably cocksure English private detective Elliot Oakes and his older and theoretically wiser boss Paul Snyder – both of whom end up being beaten to the mystery’s (somewhat far-fetched) solution by their elderly female client!
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Finally, although he was unquestionably not a hardboiled novelist — it’s reputed that the determinedly sunny Wodehouse used the word ‘death’ fewer than a dozen times in his 75-year professional career — Wodehouse also has one other tangential connection to the world of the wisecracking shamus: he and Rex Stout were lifelong mutual admirers and correspondents. Once you know this, it’s easy to see that Stout’s very entertaining Nero Wolfe stories successfully (though possibly unconsciously) set out to mimic Wodehouse’s style of creating a bright, breezy self-contained world in which the lead characters never aged and their roles never changed, even as the ‘real’ world changed drastically around them.
TRIVIA YOU NEED
- Both P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler were educated at Dulwich College in south London. Both have libraries named after them at Dulwich.
SHORT STORIES & SERIALS
- “Death At The Excelsior” (December 1914, Pearson’s, aka “The Harmonica Mystery” and “The Education of Detective Oakes”, May 1978; Elliot Oakes & Paul Snyder)
- “Bill The Bloodhound” (February 1915, Century Magazine; Henry Pifield Rice)
- “The Smile That Wins” (October 1931, American Magazine, aka “Adrian Mulliner, Detective”; Adrian Mulliner)
- “Mr. McGee’s Big Day” (November 1950, EQMM; Mr. McGee)
- “From A Detective’s Notebook” (May 20, 1959, Punch, aka “Adrian Mulliner’s Greatest Triumph”; Adrian Mulliner)
- Bill The Conqueror (1924; Percy Pilbeam)
Originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post.
- Sam in the Suburbs (1925; aka “Sam the Sudden”; J. Sheringham Adair, Percy Pilbeam)
Originally serialized June 13-July 18, 1925, The Saturday Evening Post.
- Money For Nothing (1928; J. Sheringham Adair) | Buy this book
- Summer Lightning (1929; aka “Fish Preferred”; Percy Pilbeam)
Serialized in Colliers
- Heavy Weather (1933; Percy Pilbeam)
Serialized in The Saturday Evening Post
- Money In The Bank (1941; J. Sheringham Adair)
Originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post
- “Something Fishy” (1956; aka “The Butler Did It”; Percy Pilbeam)
Serialized in Colliers
- Ice In The Bedroom (1961; J. Sheringham Adair)
- Pearls, Girls and Monty Bodkin (1972, aka “The Plot That Thickened”; J. Sheringham Adair)
- Frozen Assets (1964, Playboy; aka “Biffen’s Millions“; Percy Pilbeam)
- SUMMER LIGHTNING
(1933, Herbert Wilcox Productions)
Based on the novel by P.G. Wodehouse
Screenplay by Miles Malleson
Directed by Maclean Rogers
Starring Ralph Lynn, Winifred Shotter, Chili Bouchier, Horace Hodges, Helen Ferrers, Esme Percy, Miles Malleson, Joe Monkhouse
and Gordon James as PERCY PILBEAM
- The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories (1917; Henry Pifield Rice) | Buy this book|Kindle it!
Includes “Bill the Bloodhound”
- Death at the Excelsior and Other Stories (2004; Elliot Oakes & Paul Snyder) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
Includes “Death at the Excelsior”