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A Safety Match

May 16, 2018

A Safety Match is like if Ian Hay deliberately set out to write a fun he/she fell in love with his/her wife/husband book minus all of the really knotty emotional scenes, and mostly succeeded. In fact, I’m not sure it’s not on purpose. Skipping past Daphne’s early married life seems like a spoilsport move, but I can see him legitimately not finding that interesting. Skipping past most of her estrangement from her husband…well, I can see me not finding that all that interesting. But when Jack Carr’s secretary sends Daphne home and Hay excises only the part of the conversation that convinces her, I began to get annoyed. He does give us the reconciliation scene, but by then everything is a foregone conclusion, so it’s not that exciting. Actually, nothing is that exciting. There are few surprises in this book. Hay knows all the beats this romance plot is supposed to hit, and he hits them. 

I should probably, at this point, give a synopsis of the story — Daphne Vereker parenting her younger siblings, Sir John Carr domineering over coal miners, their first meeting and the businesslike basis of their engagement — but by the time I got to the end of the book, none of that seemed particularly relevant. The romance plot resolves with plenty of book still left, and then the “Jack Carr, heroic capitalist” plot — which I had not, up to that point, recognized as a full-fledged plot — kicks in with a visit from some rioting miners. This plot, too, is super predictable, and feels uncomfortably like propaganda.

Aside from all the stuff about how the coal miners are too stupid to know they’re not as downtrodden as labor organizers want them to believe, the mine plot is okay. You get to spend some time with characters who aren’t Jack and Daphne, at least. But I didn’t feel like Hay cared about it very much. And he certainly wasn’t all that invested in his appealing but ultimately dull hero and heroine. And, look, I’ve read The First Hundred Thousand. I know his heart is in comedy. But if the only parts of the book he was really interested in were the ones with the younger Verekers in them, why didn’t he include more of them? He’s the author; he can do what he wants. But apparently what he wanted to do was entertain himself with some fun characters, set a plot in motion, and fill out the rest of the book with clichés.

I don’t want to give Ian Hay a hard time, partly because he died in 1952 and there’s no point, and partly because each part of A Safety Match is fine, individually. But it doesn’t all add up, and my sense is that he really did set out to write a specific kind of book, and then did it with a fair amount of skill and not a whole lot of real feeling.

ETA: I neglected to mention that a dog dies, under very sad and slightly gruesome circumstances. Read at your own risk.

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10 comments

  1. Some writers just don’t gel with certain types of books – no matter how much they want to write them


    • True, but I never even got the sense that he wanted to be writing this book. I’d prefer a good faith attempt that came out bad, honestly.


  2. Yes! I was totally fine with it, because it fell within my Fluff Fiction Quality Parameters (which are low), but there were a lot of things missing from it (including how, exactly, she was falling short of his Housekeeping Expectations; why, if she realized what she wanted only after receiving his letter, she didn’t just *go back* then; why the idiot did not tell her about the car he had ordered for her at any time, etc.).

    But I thought it was a bit cheaty on the “he fell in love with his wife” thing because he was obviously starting to fall for her before he proposed (see: boots)(I would have loved to read the rest of the book that did not turn out to be, by the way, where she struggles between helping her family and living at a higher income level than they are, and the married couple have their first few years together trying to figure each other out or not trying, as the case turned out to be.).

    Having now read a chunk of other Ian Hay books, I’m generally seeing a pattern of a situation nicely set up and started running with intriguing characters, then a scene/short story, then… we quit with that situation/scene and more or less start over again somewhere else and with mostly different people (either the same theoretical people at a substantially different stage of development/environment or just plain a different cast) going a different direction in a different setting. I’m not sure if this is a congenital writerly weakness, or an editor ruthlessly telling him to cut his books down to size and him picking his favorite parts, or what, but that’s how it seems to me. I’ll have to read The First Hundred Thousand, though…


    • Truly, his worst offense is not giving us Daphne’s slow adjustment to married life, with housekeeping details. I feel like Ian Hay knew that this was a kind of book people would buy, but had no idea what they would want from it.

      I’ve only read this and The First Hundred Thousand (and it sounds from your experience like I don’t need to read more of his novels anytime soon) so I shouldn’t be theorizing broadly about Hay, but my hypothesis is that he was a good writer, but a bad novelist. He also wrote a bunch of plays, and the comedies did much better than the dramas.


      • Yes! I wanted those years. I do wonder if he simply couldn’t pull off showing much of their life while maintaining both of them as realistic, sympathetic characters *and* keeping their relationship approximately acquaintance-level, though (I also found it somewhat implausible that they each spent a fair bit of time in the nursery but never caught the other at it, without trying to avoid each other). It seems like “prolonged misunderstanding but with neutrality for no particular reason” between two really-nice-underneath not-wrong-headed people would be very hard to actually accomplish in writing. Or maybe he would have been up to that side of the equation, but writing domestic trials is just not his métier?

        I will say that I found “A Knight on Wheels” highly entertaining (the characters are just stupendous) and lower on the “disjoint” scale. The war novel (A Willing Horse) is also far more connected than most (probably more connected than Knight, actually), although in the general style of a Novel Written During The War (confound the shirkers! propaganda! although not filled with nests of spies…), so while it had many really interesting parts (a daughter feels like she needs to be working for the war effort, so goes to London and does it! but it is more challenging than expected…), I also found myself rolling my eyes at it just a smidge on a fairly regular basis. It also skipped many of what I would consider the good parts of the story, though! This whole “scene close; important things happen offstage; scene open in new location/time!” thing was still definitely happening, just less badly – the characters were more continuous, flashbacks happened as appropriate rather than having the book start in the main characters’ early childhood and then skip forward by five years each chapter (see: Pip: a pretty good collection of short stories prominently featuring the main protagonist at different ages and different life situations; the first half of A Man’s Man is also short-story-style, but the second half coheres better…).

        Really, I’ve enjoyed all of them to some degree; by many measures, they’re not assembled very well, but the individual components are good, they’re fun, and they’re not unnecessarily tortured; they certainly meet my minimum requirements for a mid-fluffy fun happy-ending read. But I could see how this style would work out much better in a play (set scene, act scene, close, repeat) or in short stories, rather than in a novel where the style means that the action and characterization repeatedly winds up to full speed and then drops to a halt again (and the reader goes “ugh. I had just gotten interested in all of them!”).


        • Yeah, I think you’re right–he couldn’t have stopped the story from moving much faster if he’d shown them interacting more earlier. But I also get the sense he’s not that interested in the development of anything at all, or you would see it somewhere. I can’t think of a single thing that happens slowly. You just hear about things as they come to a head.

          I don’t feel like I need to read more Ian Hay right now, but if I do at some point I will definitely come back to your comments.


          • He does seem to be stronger on sketching things than on altering/developing people and situations in substantive manners…

            I had temporarily run out of fluff, and he filled the gap well, though. :-)

            I’m now heading through what’s on HathiTrust and will add more comment clutter if I run across anything better than what I’ve hit so far of Ian Hay…


            • I’ve read a bunch of things on HathiTrust, but only when I already know what book I want. Have you found an effective way to browse?


              • An effective way to browse, absolutely 100% not – I don’t think they could make it harder to serendipitously discover readable things (or even topical things) if they tried. An effective way to find most books by a specific author, yes (the library-style author field-specific search, then selecting the tab for full-text, then sorting by release date usually works well for me).


      • Just found one that does have a continuous setting/set of characters (once past the first chapter, that is): The Right Stuff. So if a dour but exceedingly competent Scotsman, plus an English Conservative politician, his gorgeous wife and her younger twin sisters (with their admiring entourage) his schoolboy brother-in-law might be collectively appealing, they do make it through the book without particularly-disequilibrating time jumps (again, barring the gap between first and second chapter).

        But A Knight on Wheels made me grin more. And The First Hundred Thousand is, of course, of substantially greater historical etc. merit. So. I don’t know.



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