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Nobody’s Man

April 20, 2012

For some reason, I only feel like writing about E. Phillips Oppenheim when I dislike him. Which is to say that this was meant to be a post about Richard Lane’s creepy methods of courtship in Mr. Grex of Monte Carlo, but then I finished Nobody’s Man on the subway this morning and it was worse.

For one thing, Andrew Tallente’s political career didn’t interest me, and that’s what the book is about. Tallente is an MP, the token leftist in a coalition government. Except that Oppenheim’s notion of socialism contains a generous helping of conservatism, and his fictional Democratic party sounds kind of awful.

Tallente is well thought of, but has recently lost an election to a guy named Miller, a political rival and a bit of a personal one. Having lost his seat in Parliament, he’s thinking about living a quiet life at his country house in Devonshire for a while. Then Stephen Dartrey, head of the Democratic party, comes to visit with Miller and a writer named Nora Miall in tow, and offers Tallente a place in the Democratic party. It’s strongly hinted that when the Democrats take over the government, Tallente will be the Prime Minister. And, mostly because he’s a lot more in sympathy with their ideals than with the ideals — or lack thereof — of his current party, he takes Dartrey up on his offer.

Meanwhile, things aren’t going so well for Tallente personally. He and his wife, Stella, have finally separated after a long and uniformly dissatisfying marriage: he wanted her money and she wanted the social position she thought he would acquire, but he ended up not wanting that much money, and his time in the army during WWI hampered his political career. When the book begins, Stella is having an affair with Tallente’s secretary, Tony Palliser. Tallente takes Palliser to an outcrop over the sea to have a fight with him, but he accidentally knocks him over the edge. Only afterwards does he find out that Palliser’s just stolen a damaging document from Tallente’s safe and sold it to Miller. Then Tallente and his servant go look for him at the bottom of the cliff and find no sign he was ever there. It’s all very mysterious and suspenseful, especially when a police inspector — one Tallente compares to Inspector Bucket from Bleak House multiple times — comes around and starts asking pointed questions. But Oppenheim mostly abandons that storyline pretty quickly. He’s a lot more interested in Tallente’s relationship with his neighbor Lady Jane Partington, who is attractive, worshipful, and twenty years younger than he is. That and the fake politics.

There was no one thing that infuriated me — except, okay, the bit where Tallente gets all snotty and writes Jane a nasty letter breaking off their relationship because she’s worried about what people will think if they see him leaving her house in the middle of that night. That made me kind of angry. Most of the rest of the things were just mildly irritating, like socialist Tallente’s deep dislike for trade unions, the way the women exist in service to the men, Tallente’s massive understatement in saying that his dislike for Miller is almost snobbish, etc. And then there’s the fact that the Tony Palliser storyline — and, for that matter, the entire book, is resolved by Tallente visiting Jane after not communicating with her for weeks, and saying something along the lines of, “Hey, the political storyline is resolved, Stella has divorced me without any input from me whatsoever, and now she’s married to Tony Palliser, which I guess means he’s not dead.”

All the minor irritations combine to make this one of of the most frustrating books I’ve read in a long time. The setting reminded me a lot of The Rustle of Silk — politics, the aftermath of WWI, young women catering to the emtional needs of brilliant politicians — but in that, even though the heroine’s ambition was to become a politician’s mistress, she had agency, whereas it seems like Lady Jane’s socialism exists to make her a better companion for Tallente, and Nora Miall is supposed to be and unconvential and liberated woman but thinks that women should stay home and get married and raise children. Which I suppose corresponds with the fact that Tallente is supposed to be a socialist but hates unions and people who aren’t members of the upper classes.

And it’s not even exciting. Sure, there was a tiny bit of blackmail, but it never came to anything. And Tallente was sort of suspected of murder, but only for about five minutes. I mean, what is E. Phillips Oppenheim for, anyway? If he’s not going to write about impostors and international intrigue and the French Riviera, what’s  the point?

I’m pretty sleepy, and it’s possibe that not all of this post makes sense, but I’ve just finished my half-promised seven days of posting. Yay content. I’m going to go to sleep now.

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2 comments

  1. I agree with you that this isn’t one of Oppenheim’s finest. He wrote several of these social commentaries and they don’t do much for me.
    On the other hand, I liked “Mr. Grex” far more than you. Perhaps it’s because for me Richard Lane was a very minor character, with Sir Henry Hunterleys and his wife being far more interesting and central to the plot, and the relationship between them being, I thought, very well drawn and potentially tragic.


    • I agree that Hunterleys and his wife were really interesting — my irritation with Lane was just so great it overwhelmed most of my other feelings about the book.



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