Here is Chesterton at his silliest, and I prefer a silly Chesterton to a political or
religious one any day! However, unlike many of his other books that are silly, but have a point, The Club of Queer Trades really seems quite pointless! But
it is amusing, so maybe that's the point after all.
In addition to being a writer, journalist, and numerous other titles, Chesterton was an illustrator, and this Dover edition includes all his original thirty-two sketches for all six of these stories, which were originally serialized and published over a period of seven months in The Idler. I have included this volume under the "Books with Lots of Pictures" index for that reason.
The premise that things are not always, or maybe even not even usually, what they seem is a favorite with Chesterton. He used it in Manalive, and absolutely exploits it in this one. But while Manalive is really quite clever, Queer Trades is mostly. . . um. . . just silly.
Though each story in the book was originally published separately, they all hang together to form the whole, which becomes even more apparent at the end. The first story begins with a brief explanation of The Club of Queer Trades—not the book, The Club. In order to become a member, one must have created a completely new profession and earn a living by that trade. It is important for the reader to keep that in mind.
The main characters are the narrator, Charles Swinburne, of whom we know very little except that he hangs around with Basil Grant, a former judge whom some believe went mad one day, but in Chesterton's world, there is often a fine line between madness and genius (and perhaps in real life, too).
Basil's brother Rupert is a detective, of sorts, and not a very bright one, because he uses deduction and logic to reach his conclusions, and those are useless processes when dealing with the members of The Club. The thing is, Basil is the only one who really understands what is going on in each of the stories, because he knows about The Club, and we find out in the last story just how much he knows, and why he knows the inside goings-on with all these strange people, when everyone else is clueless.
I don't want to spoil the surprises in this book, so I will give a short example, then let you, the readers, try to solve each mystery on your own, because they are all written as mysteries of a sort.
In the first one, Major Brown comes to Rupert and Basil for help with an odd and frightening experience he has just escaped. He relates his story to his friends:
Brown collects flowers, particularly pansies. He comes upon a fat man wheeling a barrow full of them. When the Major stops to examine the flowers, the fat man suggests he look over the wall to see a fine array of them. Brown does get over the wall, only to see an arrangement of bright yellow pansies that spell out "Death to Major Brown." A wizened man with white whiskers is watering them, and upon learning that the snooping man is, in fact, Major Brown, he invites him down and leads him through the house. Brown is warned to not mention the jackals.
The old man leads him into a lush and rich red lamp-lit room, then disappears, leaving him alone with a mysterious woman with red hair, dressed in green. She is turned toward the street, and says she must not turn around until six o'clock each evening. She mentions the "hateful title deeds," and a voice in the street begins calling out questions about the jackal.
Things get more terrifying when Major Brown sees a head pop up in the street through the coal hole, sending him down the cellar to fight with the menacing brute, who disappears after a short scuffle. Brown manages to tear off a piece of his coat, where he finds a note with an address. When he goes back upstairs, the lady and the rich furnishings have also disappeared, leaving a bare, white room.
Basil and Rupert, along with Swinburne go to investigate the address on the note, but what they find is a completely normal little office, run by a member of The Club. And the rest, my readers, I will let you discover!
This book is not deep, possibly slightly philosophical, and an easy and entertaining read, which is its main value. If you like Chesterton, or are just getting acquainted, give this one a try. I enjoyed it. I hope you do, too.
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