P. G. WODEHOUSE – Psmith, Journalist. Adam & Charles Black, UK. hardcover, 1915. Macmillan, US, hardcover, 1915. Reprinted several times, in both hardcover and paperback.

   Wodehouse is generally praised, and rightly so, for raising Light Fiction to the plane of High Art. The problem with analyzing his work is that there is nothing — or almost nothing — to seriously compare it to. As one critic put it, Authors who write the stuff that Wodehouse does don’t write it as well, and those who write as well as he don’t write the stuff that Wodehouse does.

   Stylistically, he is very much on a level with Henry James or James Joyce. Thematically, he seems at first much closer to Barbara Cartland and/or the Marx Brothers. If there is a philosophic underpinning to his work (and I think there is) it is simply a profound sense of laissez-faire. His characters go about trying to enjoy life with an almost Zen-like devotion, and even the most dull and stupid of them have a charming tale to tell, no less than the trees and the stars.

   In much the same way, the airy, almost superficial, lightness of Wodehouse’s prose masks a Proustian depth, dropping literary allusions with an ease that never seems the least bit affected (Van Dine could have picked up a tip here) and working in even the farthest-flung reference with seamless grace. Look up the passage in Service with a Smile where Gally compares the sabotage of a Boy-Scout tent with the murder of Becket, and you’ll see what I mean.

   All this would be quite enough in a mere novelist, but Wodehouse was a humorist as well. While analyses of Humor are generally as flat as Stop Signs and much less colorful, some mention should be made here as to the Wodehouse Technique, which is to play against his own style. He loves to set up a staid rhythm, smooth as an ornamental pond, then drop the Cosmic Clanger into it with a burst of hyperbole or some off-the-wall metaphor.

   Thus, a character abruptly jilted by his fiancée, “looked rather as if he had been smacked across the bridge of the nose with a wet fish,” or “was reminded of the moment when, boxing in college, he had inadvertently placed his chin in the exact spot occupied by his opponent’s right fist,” or “made a noise somewhat like an elephant pulling his foot from a mud-hole in a Burmese teak forest.”

   Of course, such situations always form the mainsprings of Wodehouse’s plots, since, as Bertie Wooster puts it, “A sensitive chap always feels a pang of distress at seeing the ship of love come a stinker on the rocks,” but there is invariably a helpful soul or two around to help straighten things out with such good advice as the following formula to win back a lost love: “Simply clasp her in your arms, waggle her about a bit, and cry ‘My woman! My woman!'”

   Well, five paragraphs into the article now, and the thoughtful reader is probably asking himself “What the Hell has all this got to do with Mystery Fiction?” Well, keep your pants on. Now at last we wend our way towards Wodehouse’s crime novel, Psmith, Journalist.

   Most people know Wodehouse for his humorous romances, set in a tirelessly timeless England. He started out, however as a writer for children and young adults, primarily of mild and fanciful adventure stories. Psmith, Journalist is a transitional novel, written just as Wodehouse was beginning to humorize his style and gear his plots more towards adults. As such, it is quite interesting, but Penguin, who keep it in print, should be publicly reprimanded for reprinting it in a series with more traditional Wodehouse works, with never a word of warning to the unwary laugh-seeker.

   For Psmith, Journalist is very much a novel of its time, set in a corrupt, squalid, and often violent New York City. The story is of one Billy Windsor, the assistant editor of Cosy Moments, a kiddie-oriented weekly magazine who, finding himself placed temporarily in charge, decides to turn it into a muckraking scandal sheet along the lines of The National Enquirer. (An idea Wodehouse would later use to great humorous effect for the opening paragraphs of Heavy Weather.)

   Aided by the urbane and ubiquitous Psmith (the P is silent), Billy is soon promoting up-and-coming prizefighters, running afoul of venal slumlords, and dodging ruffians’ bullets in the darkened alleyways of the City of Night.

   The wonder is not that Wodehouse does this at all, but that he does it so well. Although some of the set-pieces have a rather contrived feel about them (see the cover illustration of Psmith holding off small-time thug on a rooftop) and although his dialogue at this time was still a bit primitive, the descriptions have a sardonic economy to them that recalls — and anticipates — Hammett and Chandler. Chandler, in fact, went to the same college in England as Wodehouse, but a few years later. One wonders who taught Elements of Composition there. Compare out this moment from Farewell My Lovely:

   He swung the fist very hard and short, with a sudden outward jerk of the elbow and hit the big man on the side of the jaw. A soft sigh went around the room.

   It was a good punch. The shoulder dropped and the body swung behind it. There was a lot of weight in that punch and the man who landed it had had plenty of practice. The big man didn’t move his head more than an inch.

   He didn’t try to block the punch. He took it, shook himself lightly, made a quiet sound in his throat and took hold of the bouncer by the throat… “Guys,” the big man said, “has got wrong ideas about when to get tough.”

   With this from Psmith, Journalist

   Suddenly his opponent’s long left shot out. The Kid, who had been strolling forward, received it under the chin, and continued to stroll forward as if nothing of note had happened. He gave the impression of being aware that Mr Wolmann had committed a breach of good taste and of being resolved to pass it off with ready tact.

   The Cyclone, having executed a backward leap, a forward leap, and a feint, landed heavily with both hands. The Kid’s genial smile did not even quiver, but he continued to move forward. His opponent’s left flashed out again, but this time, instead of ignoring the matter, the Kid replied with a heavy right swing: and Mr Wolmann. leaping back, found himself against the ropes. By the time he had got out of that uncongenial position, two more of the Kid’s swings had found their mark. Mr Wolmann, somewhat perturbed, scuttered out into the middle of the ring, the Kid following in his self-contained, solid way.

   Finally, a bit of Wodehousian philosophy, this from the letters reprinted in Author! Author! As the master humorist neared Ninety, he reflected:

   “I had always supposed that my contemporaries might pass on, but that I myself would remain more or less immortal. Of late, however, it begins to dawn on me that I, too, must ere long hand in my dinner pail; I can’t say I much care for the arrangement, but there it is.”