I've been commenting on my book reviews lately that it seems the books I read choose me, rather than the other way
around, because they each have contained something very relevant to the current situation on Planet Earth. This book, however, is a humorous
murder/mystery written in 1945, for the purpose of fun and entertainment. Surely this one has no connections to me or our current civilization . . . . Or not.
As it turns out, it is rather relevant. A murder takes place, of course, and it happens at a Congress of scientists. Yes, a scientist murders another scientist. But what kind of scientists are they? They are—brace yourself—g-e-n-e-t-i-c-i-s-t-s. Yes, there is genetic testing and experiments going on here, as the members share all the wonderful ways they have been manipulating genes. In 1945. Now, in my articles, I have gone on and on about how the period following WWII spawned lots of creepy science and technology. But actually, the discovery of genetics happened at about the turn of the century. And here in 2023 it has certainly exceeded moral and ethical boundaries beyond what the people in 1945 probably could have imagined. And now a little about the author.
Wikipedia provides only a very small page for him. He is one of the many creative artists who ruined their life with alcohol. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1914 as Ruthven Campbell Todd, and was known as a poet and editor of William Blake's works, and also for his expertise on printing techniques. In order to make money, but not wanting to "ruin" his name, he changed it to R.T. Campbell, for the handful of murder mysteries he wrote. They are not masterpieces, by any means, and the plots are not that great, but his writing technique is hilarious. It's like a stand-up comedian—non-stop running jokes with the humor cleverly interwoven into the text. And add to that, his larger than life main character, Professor John Stubbs, who dabbles in a bit of everything, is very fat, smokes a foul-smelling pipe, does not have a concept of speaking softly, and basically his presence is like a stampede of elephants. Nothing subtle about Stubbs. And despite the seeming outlandishness of his behavior, as it turns out, he solves murders by using his unique mental faculty and reading lots of murder/mysteries, much to the annoyance of the "real" inspectors. Todd introduces him in this first novel, and he appears in all the others but one.
This is the first of his eight mysteries that had actually been published, but he probably wrote four more that didn't get published, due to his publisher going bankrupt. The Dover edition provides a four-page Foreword, which is much more interesting and informative than the Wikipedia page. They point out that they were all based on something actual in Todd's life, and are extremely rare finds. Dover has published four of them, all of which I own, and this is the second I've read, the other being Bodies in a Bookshop.
In 1947, Todd moved to NYC, and lived there thirteen years, after which he moved to Martha's Vineyard, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1950. In 1960 while visiting Robert Graves in Mallorca, Spain, he became seriously ill with pleurisy and pneumonia. He recovered, but the medical costs left him unable to return to the United States. He died of emphysema in 1978 in Galilea, Spain.
So, how does this novel have anything to do with Todd's actual life? Here's a quote from Wikipedia.
In 1937, Todd married Cicely Crew, daughter of the geneticist Professor Francis Crew. They had one son, Christopher, born in 1939. The couple separated in 1943 and were divorced three years later. While living in New York in 1949, Todd was briefly and unsuccessfully married to Paula Norworth, before a third marriage to the artist and sculptor Joellen Hall in 1952. They divorced in 1956.
Todd had a lifelong interest in the natural world, particularly in plants and fungi, and was a knowledgeable amateur mycologist. He was also a highly skilled illustrator of wild flowers and fungi. He made some money from selling his drawings, but most were given away to friends.
Here is the
page for the novel. I really do not know where the title comes from. I have an idea, but I think a different title would have been better, unless there is
some secret meaning that I am missing. In any case, in keeping with my policy of not giving much away in mysteries, the rest of this review will be brief. As
with Bodies in a Bookshop, there isn't much action, and the entertainment value revolves around the antics of Stubbs and the non-stop
comedic style, I'll just briefly set up the situation, then provide a few specific details and quotes.
Andrew Blake is not a scientist at all, but a journalist, who has been chosen to cover the eighteenth Congress of Geneticists at the University in Gowerburgh, not because he has a particular interest, but because his uncle is Professor John Stubbs, and genetics is one of the areas in which he "dabbles," or rather "plant physiology," so he is a member of the Congress. Not only will this assignment pay Blake well, but his uncle is covering his board at a local swanky hotel, The story is told in his voice. The opening address has just been given, and we get a description of some other members who become the main characters—one getting murdered and the others suspects. It isn't hard to pick out the one who gets murdered, because he is loathed by nearly everyone as a fraud and one who steals others' discoveries and takes credit for them. The first is Professor Silver, who is the associate of Dr. Ian Porter and has an unhealthy loyalty to him, despite his abuse. He is a wimpy little man described as "a small eager man with a cockatoo lock of greying hair which gave him the appearance of a shrunken version of Arnold Bennett, his voice was surprisingly harsh and I could not place his affected accent." I didn't know who Arnold Bennett was, but apparently he was a very prolific writer who made a great deal of money for his writing, Anyways, much of the comedic value in this book comes from Todd's descriptions of the eccentric Professor Stubbs, and Silver's voice. I will share some quotes further on. Young Peter Hatton is a rather "normal" person compared to the others, and a handsome dapper guy at that. He is engaged to the lovely Mary Lewis, a genetics student who works with the obnoxious Dr. Ian Porter, whom just about everyone would like to kill or see dead. Hmm. Not to give things away, but from the start of the book it is obvious he will be the victim.
The third was a puffy man, whose fat looked flabby opposed to the honest bulk of Uncle John, his eyes were deeply pouched and his mouth petulant and pinched at the corners. He acknowledged my uncle's introduction of him as Dr. Ian Porter with a Canadian drawl, "Waal, I guess I'd better be moving. Coming Silver?" As I took the damp hand he rather grudgingly offered me, I thought of the phrenologists and wondered how the brain found room for itself in Porter's head, which was shaped like an inverted sea-gull's egg with all the width about the jowls.
Hmm. I never thought pf Canadians as speaking with a drawl, and as a kid I spent quite a bit of time in Canada. Texans
speak with drawls. There is another character introduced later on, an American—Dr. Swartz—who is friendly and likeable. Soon even Blake understands
the hatred the others feel towards Porter, who refuses to address him by his name, calling him Mr. Whatsyername instead, and feigning that he can't remember
it, even though "Blake" is rather common. So Andrew begins to call him "Mister" Porter, rather than Doctor, and they, too, are soon at odds. Several
departments at the university have been provided for the Congress members to set up their exhibitions and experiments, so there are plenty of opportunities
for a devious, scheming murder to take place, and one that requires the "expertise" of the amateur sleuth, John Stubbs, to unravel. And with that short
synopsis, I will exit the sketch of the plot. And now for the quotes, which have little to do with the storyline, but lots to do with the entertainment
value of the story.
But first one more odd connection to life here in 2023, and that is the fact that Peter's exhibition is on drosophila, called in the book "vinegar flies," which are more commonly called, at least here in the States, "fruit flies." Now it isn't odd that they would be used in genetic research. They are known for their expeditious reproductive rates. Here is the Wikipedia page. "Males of this genus are known to have the longest sperm cells of any studied organism on Earth, including one species, Drosophila bifurca, that has sperm cells that are 58 mm (2.3 in) long." Another species "sperm cells are a more modest 1.8 mm long, although this is still about 35 times longer than a human sperm." They are determined to get the job done.
I just finished making the last of my flavored vinegars for the year, and never in my life have I seen so many fruit flies! I always bring my vinegar to a boil before I pour it into the bottles, and they were dropping into the boiling vinegar!! I had a long-handled teaspoon that I was using to scoop them out. They are everywhere and all over everything when I try to cook. Then I found this article, that I will also be using in an upcoming Disclosure article devoted to animals and especially insects. Here is the article: Over 2 million fruit flies to be released in Leimert Park to fight infestation
Of course they are genetically manipulated, probably funded by Bill Gates and will end up spreading the plague or something horrible like that. I am firmly opposed to genetic manipulation. Breeding, yes, that's OK. but this isn't breeding.
There's one more interesting tidbit. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are titled, respectively, "'Twas Brillig," "Slithy Tove" and "Gimbling in the Wabe." They are from the first stanza of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
And now to the quotes, beginning with Professor Stubbs and his rattle-trap Bentley, and his method of driving it. Remember, Stubbs is a "larger-than-life" character and everything about him is outrageous.
Uncle John was approaching his car, a vehicle so remarkable that it deserves some special notice. It was an immense Bentley of extremely uncertain age, reminding the beholder of nothing so much as one of those vast old four-poster beds one finds in show palaces. I always expected to find an iron step of the sort used to help one mount into a dog-cart, but Uncle John, with a nimbleness surprising in a man of his bulk, swung the starting handle and scrambled on board before the car had time to run away. He told me once that he had learned to do the winding-up and jumping after the car had run away one day in Oxford and he had been forced to commandeer a bicycle and chase it down St. Giles, catching it only about ten feet from some pile of notable stone. He had very little doubt that, if it had felt so inclined, his Bentley would have demolished Oxford as a kind of hors d'oeuvre and continued to do the same by Cambridge for an entrée.
And here's a description of John's driving. This scene is shortly after the murder is discovered.
The Bentley seemed almost to drive itself, or, at least, I am sure that my uncle drove very nearly automatically. He seemed to be thinking and was quite unperturbed when we slid away from the sides of tramcars or cut into the three or four feet separating two cyclists. He shot, unobserved, past several sets of traffic lights whose red eyes winked furiously and drew up, to the accompaniment of vigorous hooting from behind, for a green light to change red before he proceeded. Without pretence at nonchalance I sat beside him and prayed, quite sincerely, that the next corner might disclose an uninhabited stretch of road. My prayers were unanswered. Each stretch was fuller of hair-breadth escape than the last. When we drew up outside the hotel I was not surprised to feel that my collar was a damp and clammy pillory round my neck.
This is when Stubbs is going through the inspector's office looking for particular information.>
When the inspector arrived back, followed by Dr. Flanagan, the professor was leaning back in the chair with his eyes shut and smoke pouring from the pipe hidden in his moustache. This smoke was so thick that it was all the inspector could do to make out the vast buddha-like figure occupying the chair.
Holding his breath the inspector advanced through balls of discarded paper and flung open the window and turned to waken the sleeper who, however, was watching him. "Aha, fresh air fiend, I see," he remarked. "I like fresh air as well as the next one, but I like mine out of doors, not in a room. I come into a room to get away from fresh air. I don't invite it in with me."
He swung a heavy leg from the corner of the desk where it had been resting, spilling a box of paper clips and pen nibs, and straightened up slowly. "Well, I've copied out all that I want. Now I'll need to see what good it is. Thanks for the loan of the room."
And here's a couple descriptions of Silver's voice, the first when he discovers the dead body of Ian and the second a little later.
Silver ran up to us and his voice was pitched like the screech of unoiled brakes. "Professor Stubbs, will you come and look at Ian. I think he's dead."
All this time Silver had said nothing, but had remained at the door trembling. Suddenly he started to speak quickly, and his voice was like the sound of nutmegs being grated.
HA!! I don't believe I have ever heard nutmegs being grated, but I can imagine. And here I will stop. Once again, if
you are looking for a deep and intriguing mystery, this isn't it. Incidentally, in keeping with the general ridiculous character of the book, the solution to
the murder is equally absurd, requiring us to stretch our imaginations! I felt the same about the previous mystery of Todd that I read. But if you need to
spend some time with clever silliness—and who doesn't these days?—this is a great
choice. Dover supplies these four elusive volumes at a very low cost. Open an account and nearly every day you will be informed of sales, coupons and other
bargains. I have paid less than half the value of all their books that I've acquired over the years, which probably number in the thousands. They are truly
By the way, I tried to find a photo of an ugly Bentley that looked like the one Stubbs drives. It was like trying to find an ugly Rolls-Royce. Anyways, here are two and they're not ugly. Green seemed to be popular with them, which is my favorite color. The first is a 1929 Speed Six 'Le Mans'-style Tourer and the second, the 1930 'Peaky Blinders'. Below them: Drosophila.
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