Lord John in New YorkJanuary 11, 2012
The worst thing about terrible mystery novels — the kind where the hero judges everyone on the most shallow grounds imaginable, and every tenuous connection is treated as a solid deduction — is that you can make fun of the hero all you want for assuming the Egyptian guy he’s found in the phone book (apparently this is a phone book that sorts by nationality?) is the same mysterious Egyptian guy who might have upset the girl he’s fallen in love at first sight with, but in the end you know the hero is going to be proven right.
And that’s why I had a hard time enjoying Lord John in New York. It’s mostly typical Williamsons charm, but watching the title character treating his leaning tower of flimsy assumptions as if it could stand on its own without the artificial prop of authorial intent was torture. And, as if that weren’t enough, he’s also a moron. Look: when your girlfriend is being held in isolation by evil nuns and you’re worried that the typewritten letters you’ve been getting from her are fake, and then the typewritten letter you find on the dead body of her friend tells you to go meet her at an out-of-the-way train station, you don’t go. Especially if the friend’s chainmail-clad murderer has had time to, say, exchange the letter she’s supposed to be bringing you with another one. And even if the “detective ability” you keep talking about fails you — as it usually does — and you decide to show up at the train station, when the sinister man who’s come to meet you claims to be the brother of the guy you were expecting — a guy who you’ve been told has one sister and no other family — you run. Unless you’re Lord John Hasle, apparently.
It reminds me of a bit in Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees* where he talks about clues in 1890s detective fiction. As Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories became popular, other authors realized that readers wanted clues in their detective stories. So they started putting in lines like, “If only we had a clue,” and having their detective characters discover footprints and dropped handkerchiefs. But these authors didn’t actually know how to use the clues, so, I don’t know, they’d talk a lot about how significant the handkerchief was and then it wouldn’t actually play a part in solving the mystery. Lord John in New York is like that — Lord John keeps finding out all these pieces of information, but they don’t connect in a way that makes sense, and he doesn’t deduce things; he floats along on a wave a hazy conjecture that, irritatingly, lands him at a solution to the wildly implausible mystery and gets him the girl — neither of which he deserves. The villain offers this very clear-sighted comment: “Lord John fancies himself a detective—but it’s luck, more than skill, which has favoured him so far.”
That said, I liked the first chapter, which seems to have been written as a freestanding short story, or at least a freestanding basis for a silent film. Sure, Lord John still makes deductions that seem to be based on information he doesn’t have yet, but he hasn’t yet shown himself to be a moron, and the plot has a very Williamsons-ish snappiness to it, even if no one is traveling incognito. Lord John has written a successful mystery novel and his friend Carr Price has adapted it into a play, which is all set to be equally successful, except that American financier Roger Odell has some kind of grudge against Lord John and is going to screw things up somehow. So Lord John arranges to be on the same ship to New York as Odell, discovers the source of the grudge (John’s brother is an asshole, basically) and realizes that if he solves the mystery that prevents Odell from marrying Grace Callender, Odell will owe him one — and, as it turns out, become his new best friend. So that’s what he does. It’s only after Grace and Odell are married and Price’s play opens that he falls in love at first sight with Odell’s sister Maida (is there a more Williamson-ish name than “Maida Odell”?) and is launched on a larger, more nonsensical adventure involving Egyptian artifacts and evil nuns and airplanes.
An alternative version of my review might go like this: Williamsons, mysterious Egyptian artifacts, evil nuns, and a pining telepathic camel. You get the idea. But the Williamsons did Egypt much better in It Happened in Egypt and English or Irish aristocrats in America better in…oh, probably half a dozen other books.
*I’m paraphrasing, and I haven’t read the chapter in question for a couple of years, so I don’t know how accurately I’m reporting Moretti’s argument. But also: best book of literary theory ever. Run, don’t walk, etc.