TorchyMay 7, 2010
After I finished The Circular Staircase and The House of a Thousand Candles, I thought I’d continue on a Mary Roberts Rinehart kick. And I liked Tish, one of her books of stories about an eccentric spinster and her friends, but it didn’t make me want to read more Tish books. It made me want to reread Torchy.
Torchy is, like Tish, a character in a long-running series of short stories. But his are better than hers. I meant just to reread Torchy, but once I was done with that, I read Trying Out Torchy, On With Torchy, Torchy, Private Sec., and Wilt Thou Torchy and now I’m in the middle of Torchy and Vee.
In a lot of ways, Sewell Ford’s New York reminds me of Horatio Alger’s. Torchy lives in the same world of boarding houses and trains and dairy lunches as an Alger hero, allowing for the slight difference in time period, and he mixes with the same sorts of people: con men, magnates, spinsters and telegraph boys. The biggest difference–okay, no, the biggest difference is that I don’t know how much Torchy’s breakfast costs, but the second biggest difference is that Torchy actually is the street-smart smart-aleck that Alger thinks all his bootblacks and newsboys are.
Torchy is an office boy, and I suspect that Sewell Ford’s original intention was to have him bounce around from office to office. But in the second story Torchy arrives at the office of the Corrugated Trust, and Ford, apparently, realizes that there are books worth of material right there. The cast of supporting characters at Corrugated includes the grouchy boss, Hickory Ellins, his competent and fun-loving son Robert, and Mr. Piddie, the office manager, who loathes Torchy on sight. They’re around pretty much all the time. And there are others who we see pretty often–Marjorie Ellins is Old Hickory’s daughter, Skid Mallory is a young man working his way up in the Corrugated ranks, and Miss Vee is the girl Torchy falls in love with.
And really, once you break it all down, it’s hard to explain the appeal. I’m not quite sure what it is myself, except that it’s not often that a series of books has me feeling so completely gleeful as often as this one. Some characters, when they go around being smart and proving people wrong all the time, make me want to strangle them, but when Torchy is sent off with a message to someone and comes back having solved the entire problem, I feel like cheering.
Torchy is smart, but he’s not an ass about it. And he’s not the hero of every story.
And I think part of the appeal is the relationships between the characters, and the way they grow. I guess I’m thinking mainly of the two male Ellinses and Miss Vee. The Ellinses start out thinking of Torchy as an unusually cheeky office boy, but Robert starts sending him on personal errands and finding out how helpful he can be, and eventually both of them get to rely on him whenever there’s a confidential errand to be run. He gets to know the Ellins family, and he’s an usher at Marjorie’s wedding and best man at Robert’s, and they all really like him, and it’s just…kind of adorable, you know? One of my favorite bits is when Torchy says that there are three people who can sort the mail without getting fired: Mr. Ellins, Mr. Robert, and him.
And then there’s Miss Vee. Torchy meets her when he’s subbing in for a friend as a cloakroom attendant. Her date is kind of a jerk about refusing to dance with her, so she dances with Torchy instead. After that, she goes slowly from being just the object of Torchy’s admiration to being sort of his girlfriend and definitely his co-conspirator. She’s very pretty, of course, but Torchy seems to be attracted just as much by the fact that she’s clever and straightforward and mischievous as by that.
I really like Vee. She’s always there to back Torchy up, but she also has her own schemes that she gets Torchy’s help on. And while Torchy is the one who chases Vee up to Maine and gets himself a temporary job on a yacht so he can spend time with her, Vee is the one who wakes Torchy up in the middle of the night to go rescue some lost treasure hunters on another yacht trip a couple of books later. And Torchy gets seasick, but Vee is a good sailor and also knows how to pilot a motorboat. She’s just really cool.
Here’s an irritating thing, though: I thought it was awesome that Torchy the nameless orphan/office boy was romantically involved with an heiress, but then Sewell Ford had to go and give Torchy a socially acceptable family. I mean, fortunately he’s never reunited with his parents, but still. It didn’t bother me so much that I wanted to stop reading, though.
I think I have about two and a half books still to go.