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Some E. Phillips Oppenheim Stories

December 4, 2017

I’ve made the extremely belated discovery that E. Phillips Oppenheim’s short story collections are more fun than his novels. (With a few exceptions; you can pry The Great Impersonation from my cold, dead hands.) So, that’s mostly what I’ve been reading. Here’s a roundup of some of them.

The Long Arm of Mannister (1909)

The title character’s so-called friends hired someone to run off with his wife, and while he was trying to find her, they stole a lot of his money. Now he’s back, and out for revenge on each of them individually. His revenges are sometimes harsh, sometimes semi-accidental, and, towards the end when he calms down a bit, not that bad. In between framing people for crimes and getting them shot in the face and stuff, he likes to take his victims to dinner and toy with them.

I liked this a lot more than I expected to when I first understood the premise. Mannister has just enough of a sense of honor to be appealing, and his former friends are mostly pretty awful. I make an exception for the one woman in the scheme. Her twisted friendship with Mannister is one of the best things about the book. If I had to pick a favorite story, it’s the one where Mannister ingratiates himself with a local hunt and reluctantly rescues a young woman from one of his former friends.

The Deliberate Detective (1914)

I enjoy an aristocratic young detective pretending to be stupider than he is as much as the next person, but I regret to inform you that this book is Bad. Mr. Stanley Brooke is boring, the mysteries are uneven, and the romance is unconvincing. There’s a major shift when Brooke takes on a female partner who’s smarter and more interesting than he is, but not actually better. The whole thing is super disappointing. My favorite story is the one where the two partners insist on eating lunch at a particular restaurant when it’s very clear that no one wants them there.

The Terrible Hobby of Sir Joseph Londe, Bart. (1924)

Sir Joseph is a surgeon from Australia who went mad after operating on vast numbers of soldiers during WWI. His terrible hobby is cutting people’s heads open to steal bits of their brains. His wife is a former nurse who went mad alongside him. A code-breaker named Rocke, working with the daughter of one of Londe’s victims, tries and repeatedly fails to capture him. This book doesn’t make a lot of sense, in part because Oppenheim seems to forget details between stories: in one story, Londe will talk freely about his madness. In the next, he’ll insist that he’s completely sane. Otherwise sensible characters do things like decline to pursue Londe and then express surprise when he escapes, or go to his house for dinner when they know he likes to drug people. And yet–I don’t know. I enjoyed this. The story where Rocke comes under suspicion might be the best one, but I was also pretty into the Monte Carlo stories.

Mr. Billingham, the Marquis and Madelon (1927)

Mr. Billingham is an American businessman at loose ends. The Marquis de Felan is a French aristocrat who insists on living a lifestyle he can’t afford. Madelon is his English-educated niece. Mr. Billingham meets the de Felans in Monte Carlo, and the three of them enter into a partnership to cheat some of the town’s more objectionable habitués out of their money — and to solve any other little mysteries that crop up.

Mr. Billingham is almost the kind of vulgar American Oppenheim hates, but somehow he manages to also make him everything he thinks a gentleman ought to be. I, as ever, simultaneously roll my eyes at Oppenheim’s snobbery and enjoy it. Everyone drinks a lot of champagne cocktails. My favorite story was probably the one that starts with Mr. Billingham seeing lights in a closed hotel after dark, but I’m not sure why.

Advice Limited (1936)

It’s tempting to stick this in the same pigeonhole as Ask Miss Mott, since both feature female detectives who dispense advice. But Baroness Clara Linz is several times more competent than Lucie Mott, and lives in a different social landscape. She’s very wealthy, and her friends assume she does nothing but travel and enjoy herself, but she also quietly runs a small and expensive private inquiry business. She deals with some smaller crimes, but most of her work has the potential to cause scandals and international financial crises and things.

Of all the Oppenheim characters I’ve encountered, Clara may be the most likable. My favorite story might be the one where she investigates a spate of broken engagements, or the one where a woman believes that her husband is poisoning her, but he insists she’s doing it to herself. Honorable mention to the one that starts with a Duke ringing Clara’s bell in the middle of the night and then flirting with her via the window.

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One comment

  1. The plot of Advice Limited sounds sooo much like a mystery series I read when I was in middle school and I legit wanted to be the narrator when I grew up (still do, really). I forget the author’s name but the detective’s name was Emma Rhodes



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