Ask Miss Mott

November 1, 2017

When I say I kept forgetting Ask Miss Mott was by E. Phillips Oppenheim and not Edgar Wallace, it’s a compliment. There are things that point towards Oppenheim: a lack of humor, an uglier snobbishness,  a brand of racism that’s slightly different from Wallace’s. But the world feels like it belongs to Wallace, with its melodramatic gangs of master criminals, its gallant Scotland Yard official and its intrepid girl detective. The style is Oppenheim, but the substance is mostly Wallace, and that has immediately vaulted Ask Miss Mott into second place on my list of favorite Oppenheim books.

The episodic nature of the story felt Wallace-like, too. Miss Mott is an advice columnist who’s just branched out into private detecting, but the story starts when she encounters a young criminal called Violet Joe. Joe quickly becomes interested in her, and so does his boss, Walter Meredith, chief of the creatively named Number One Gang. But where Violet Joe is almost absurdly chivalrous, Meredith is sinister, and happy to carry Miss Mott off by force — and does, actually, several times.

The charm of the early chapters is mostly in the interaction between Miss Mott and Violet Joe, but later he fades into the background and Miss Mott joins forces with her uncle, Superintendent Wragge, to fight the gang. In spite of her uncle’s lack of enthusiasm, she does pretty well as a detective. I mean, she’s never a really great one. She makes a lot of stupid mistakes and admits to lucking into some things. But she also does clever work on occasion, and while I think the nuance is more about lazy writing than subtle characterization, I like it.

I still think I’d like it more if Wallace wrote it, though. It would be more charming, and the romance would do more than coast on early promise. And either the villain everyone decides they don’t want to bring to justice after all would be more sympathetic, or everyone wouldn’t suddenly go all soft on him.

I mean, I like Oppenheim, mostly. I love The Great Impersonation, at least, and have enjoyed several other books of his. And only really hated one of them. But he’s not fun the way Edgar Wallace is fun. And Ask Miss Mott is almost really, really fun.


  1. As an Oppenheim fan, I’m glad you liked AMM. You could also check out “Clara Linz” (aka “Advice Llimited”)…

    • I really, really liked Advice Limited. Thanks for the recommendation!

      • Glad you liked it, and also Mannister! Oppenheim had some not-so-great stuff, but then there’s some really fun stuff too…

        • My working hypothesis is that the more serious he tries to be, the more boring he gets. Also sometimes his snobbery gets in the way of his ability to be entertaining.

  2. An intrepid girl detective?!?

    • I mean, moderately intrepid. She has some great girl detective moments and some subpar ones.

  3. I should perhaps give it a chance. I once read, and liked (sort of), “The Amazing Quest of Mr. Ernest Bliss“, after that I started on a couple of other books by Oppenheim, but never managed to get through them.

    • His novels are, I think, pretty hit and miss. I’ve failed to get through a few of them, too. The short story collections seem like more fun, mostly.

  4. The Seven Conundrums is another one of Oppenheim’s collection of unlikely detective stories.

    • I see that it’s available at PG Australia. I’ve been working my way through the short story collections, mostly at random, so I’m sure I’ll get to it sooner or later.

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