Thursday, April 30, 2015

Old Bestsellers: Love Insurance, by Earl Derr Biggers

Old Bestsellers: Love Insurance, by Earl Derr Biggers

a review by Rich Horton


Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933) was an Ohio native, educated at Harvard, who worked for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer before turning to fiction and plays. He had a fair amount of success early on, and a number of his novels were filmed, but his real success came somewhat late in his shortish life, with a series of books about a Chinese-American detective in Honolulu, Charlie Chan. (Chan was based on an actual Hawaiian detective of Chinese descent, Chang Apana.)

Love Insurance comes from earlier in Biggers' career. It was published in 1914. Like a surprising number of the books I cover in this series, it turns out to have been the basis for a fairly significant movie. In this case the movie was One Night in the Tropics (1940), the first film to feature Abbott and Costello. (The two have a fairly minor role in the film, but apparently stole the show, among other things doing an abbreviated version of "Who's on First?") (Love Insurance was also twice made into a silent movie.)

The book opens with a British aristocrat, Lord Harrowby, visiting Lloyd's of London's New York office with a proposition: he wants them to insure the prospect of his marriage to an American heiress. It seems he needs her money to settle his debts, and if for some reason the marriage doesn't go off, at least the insurance policy will clear what he owes. Lloyd's sends a young man, Dick Minot, down to Florida where the wedding is scheduled to keep an eye on Harrowby, and on the others involved, and make sure the wedding goes through.

On the train to Florida, Minot chances across a very pretty girl; and indeed after the train breaks down, he and she engage an automobile to take them the last stage to their destination, San Marco, FL. Of course it turns out that the girl is Cynthia Meyrick, and she is headed to San Marco to marry Lord Harrowby. (San Marco is a real place, now a neighborhood in Jacksonville, but back then apparently a separate town.) It will hardly come as a surprise that Minot has already fallen for Cynthia, and that he is now faced with the agonizing duty to honorably fulfill his mission for Lloyd's and resist the temptation to let the wedding fail to come off and leave him free to court Cynthia.

And so he does, even as a whole variety of occurrences conspire to interfere with the wedding: a jewel thief, blackmailing newspapermen, a rival claimant to Lord Harrowby's title, Lord Harrowby's apparent cold feet, etc. etc. There are other comic bits, most notably a friend of Minot's who makes money by selling jokes to a rich old lady so she can get a reputation as the wittiest woman in San Marco.

We all know pretty much how things will conclude. The novel gets there bouncily enough, though often in quite preposterous fashion. It fits into the category of books that it doesn't surprise me were once popular, but which don't seem destined to ever be read much again, and which don't seem to deserve a revival.

My edition seems to be possibly a first, from Bobbs-Merrill. It was illustrated, pleasantly enough, by Frank Snapp. The 1940 movie, by the way, is a loosish adaptation, though it does retain the fundamental plot devices. But for example San Marco has become a South American country instead of a Jacksonville exurb. And the Abbott and Costello characters are not to be found in the book (though they may be vague amalgams of a few different characters). Still and all, seems like a movie that might be worth checking out.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Old Bestsellers: Bound to Rise, by Horatio Alger, Jr.

Old Bestsellers: Bound to Rise, by Horatio Alger, Jr.

A review by Rich Horton

Back to the later middle 19th Century, and one of the most famous American popular writers of that time. Horatio Alger is best known for “rags to riches” stories of poor young men making their fortunes through hard work.

Horatio Alger, Jr., was born in 1832. His father was a Unitarian minister, of old American stock (several Pilgrims were among his ancestors), but not well off. Young Horatio was a good student, and ended up graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard. He became a minister himself, but was eventually dismissed after allegations of overfamiliarity with the young boys in his congregation. Alger had published occasion stories, poems, and articles to this point, and he turned to more active writing. A few books for adults followed, with limited success. His m├ętier was established with the publication of Ragged Dick in 1868. Most of the books that followed (around a hundred by the end of his life) were very similar: a poor boy, through hard work (and often enough the fortuitous financial assistance of an older wealthy man who the boy might impress through courage or honesty), attains respectably middle class status. Later in his life Alger’s books became a bit more sensational in content, in response to changing public taste. Though his books sold reasonably well, his financial position was never secure. He never married, and that, coupled with the early accusations that cost him his ministerial career, along with veiled references attributed to Henry James, or discovered in some of his books, leads to the assumption by many that he was homosexual, though no hard evidence is available. (Not too surprising, given the views of the times, and the likely affect any such revelation might have had on the sales of his books for boys.)

Alger’s reputation was probably at its highest in the decades just after his death, when reprints of his books sold very widely. But by the middle of the century he was no longer much read, and frankly I doubt he will ever be much read again.

As far as I can tell the book I read, Bound to Rise, is from 1872. It is a reprint, from at a guess somewhere around 1920, published by M. A. Donohue, as part of a series of very inexpensive reprints.

Bound to Rise seems entirely typical of Alger's output. As the story opens, Harry Walton is 14 years old (though the first page says 12 … but 14 is soon after established as correct). His father is a poor farmer in New Hampshire, with six children, just barely scraping by until his cow dies. He is forced to buy a new cow on credit from miserly Squire Green. Harry, after finishing school as the prize student, decides to go off on his own and find a job, hoping to pay back his father's debt.

He spends some time work in a shoemaker's shop, and earns some decent money, while virtuously refusing to waste it on clothes or pool or cigars or any other vice. Thereby he makes an enemy of a dissolute fellow worker, who is always in debt to his tailor. Harry's first catastrophe is when he loses his pocketbook and the other boy steals it … but that is soon rectified. Then the shoe business slows, but Harry finds a place with a magician. Soon he's making even more money – enough to pay off his father's debt, but disaster strikes again when Harry is robbed at gunpoint. In this case he is saved by an even more fortuitous event (the thief steals Harry's fine overcoat, but leaves him his own shabby one in recompense, and forgets that his (the thief's) pocketbook, with even more money than was stolen, is in the overcoat). The novel ends, somewhat abruptly, as the magician, having fallen sick, releases Harry to his next job, his dream job, working for a printer. (Harry is fascinated by Ben Franklin, and eventually wants to be an editor.) Before taking up his new position, Harry returns home to pay off his father's debt, to the discomfiture of the evil Squire Green.

There's little enough action there, to be sure. And if the novel seems incomplete – it was: there was an immediate sequel, Risen from the Ranks. It's really not terribly interesting. Alger's style was quite prosy, and moralizing. He also had the habit of half-describing something interesting, then saying something like “but our story need not dwell on this detail ...” and going on. Women are not very present in the novel, and there is never a suggestion that Harry even notices girls, nor that he ever thinks of a relationship with one. And Harry's path is quite straightforward … he is a hard worker, and thrifty, but otherwise opportunities are thrown willy-nilly in his path, and difficulties are overcome with sheer good luck. All in all, just not a very good book, but it is possible to see why it and its fellows were once very popular.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Old Bestsellers: I Love You, I Love You, I Love You, by Ludwig Bemelmans

Old Bestsellers: I Love You, I Love You, I Love You, by Ludwig Bemelmans

a review by Rich Horton


I dare say most of you have heard of, and indeed have read, at least one and possibly several books by Ludwig Bemelmans. He was the author of a delightful series of children's books about a little girl named Madeline, who went to a boarding school in Paris. The opening lines are widely remembered: "In an old house in Paris all covered with vines/lived twelve little girls in two straight lines/and the smallest one was Madeline." My mother read those books to me when I was young, and I read them to my children when they were young. Indeed, I read them to my daughter probably dozens of times.

By now I think that is all Bemelmans is remembered for. But in his prime he was an active writer of mostly humorous short stories, published in places like Harper's and the New Yorker. He wrote movie scripts as well, and a well-received memoir of his experiences as a not fully trusted volunteer in the U. S. Army during World War I (My War with the United States).

Bemelmans was born in the Tyrol, in what was then Austria-Hungary (it is now Italy), to a Belgian father and a German mother, in 1898. After his father ran off with Ludwig's governess, his mother returned to Germany, which Ludwig disliked. He eventually took an apprentice position at a hotel, but after shooting (though not killing) a waiter, he chose to be deported to the US in lieu of reform school. He worked in hotels and restaurants in the US, spent time in the Army, as noted above, and tried to make it as an artist, among other things briefly writing a comic strip. His friendship with a children's book editor at Viking, May Massee, seems to have been his big break.

I Love You, I Love You, I Love You was published in 1942 by Viking. My edition is a paperback from Signet, published in 1948. There are 12 stories included, all quite short, probably totalling no more than 30,000 words. The stories are "Souvenir", "I Love You, I Love You, I Love You", "Star of Hope", "Pale Hands", "Watch the Birdie", "Bride of Berchtesgaden", "Chagrin D'Amour", "Head-Hunters of the Quito Hills", "Vacation", "Cher Ami", "Camp Nomopo", and "Sweet Death in the Electric Chair". They are illustrated liberally by the author, in a style immediately recognizable to readers of the Madeline books.

Bemelmans, as noted, worked in hotels and restaurants for much of his life. He also owned a restaurant (later a cabaret); and he travelled very widely. So it is no surprise that the bulk of the stories here concern travel, such as the opener, "Souvenir", which has almost no plot as it tells of a trip to France (and back) on the Normandie, one way in a luxury suite, then in third class on the way back. The narrator usually seems to be Bemelmans himself, and very often his daughter Barbara is an important character. For example, "I Love You, I Love You, I Love You" opens suggestively, with a girl slipping into bed with the narrator ... but soon we realize it's his very young daughter. In the end it's about her wheedling ways, and her friendship with a small-time thief named Georges. "Camp Nomopo" is about Barbara again, this time her unhappiness at summer camp. Georges appears again in the following story, "Star of Hope", complaining that the French aren't allowing him to make a dishonest living, and wishing he could be in America, where things are much better. Georges, possibly the same character, shows up again in the next story, helping an art dealer smuggle a painting out of the hands of the Nazis. That is one of a couple of stories that balance the generally light-hearted tone of the collection with mention of the war -- the stories remain humorous but not inappropriately.

"Watch the Birdie" concerns a photographer of nudes and his unsuccessful attempts to practice his art on a beautiful American model, after which he ends up in the US and is chagrined when his agent offhandedly reveals his fortuitous success with the same young woman. "Chagrin D'Amour" feels just a bit dated ... it's set at a Haitian hotel, and turns on a supposed twist, when it is revealed that the local policeman who is in love with a pretty lady's maid is black. "Head-Hunters of the Quito Hills" is another amusing travel story, in which the narrator visits Ecuador, only to be repeatedly importuned by offers to sell him shrunken heads ... he finally learns the secret of their manufacture.

The stories as a whole are a rather slight lot, and very much of their time. But they are an easy, pleasant, read. They are humorous, but not uproariously funny. I wouldn't go out of my way to find more "adult" Bemelmans, but I'm glad to have run across this little book.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Old Bestsellers: The King's General, by Daphne du Maurier

Old Bestsellers: The King's General, by Daphne du Maurier

a review by Rich Horton

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Back to a true Old Bestseller this week. The King's General was the bestselling book in the United States in 1946 according to Publishers' Weekly. (One review I saw called it a "modest bestseller" which makes me wonder what it would have taken for that person to call it a big bestseller?)

Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) was a very popular author and playwright. Her best known novel, by far, was Rebecca (1938), but novels such as Jamaica Inn, Frenchman's Creek, The Scapegoat, and the book at hand, The King's General, also attracted plenty of notice. She was treated very well by filmmakers, especially Alfred Hitchcock, who filmed Jamaica Inn, Rebecca (Best Picture winner in 1940), and The Birds (from a novella). Another movie often called "Hitchockian", Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, comes from a du Maurier short story. Other significant films from du Maurier novels include Frenchman's Creek (starring Joan Fontaine), The Scapegoat (starring Alec Guinness), and My Cousin Rachel (starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland).

Du Maurier came from a literary family: her grandfather George du Maurier wrote the notorious 19th century novel Trilby, which introduced the term "Svengali" for a behind the scenes manipulator of another's career; and her sister Angela was also a writer. (Her father Gerald was an actor, and her other sister Jeanne was a painter.) She was also a cousin of the Llewellyn Davies family, whose boys were the inspiration for Peter Pan. Du Maurier became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, styled Lady Browning.

Du Maurier's critical reputation suffered because of her popularity, it seems to me ... at any rate, she seems to have felt that. Of Rebecca, for example, V. S. Pritchett said it would be "here today, gone tomorrow". Pritchett got that prediction rather spectacularly wrong. She was stereotyped as a romance novelist, though most of her novels have sad or ambiguous endings. Jennifer Weiner would probably have a field day analyzing her reviews.

For all that, I hadn't read any or her books, though I have copies of at least Jamaica Inn and The Scapegoat on my bookshelves, in addition to The King's General. I read the latter because the historical setting seemed interesting.

It's a story of the English Civil War. Du Maurier tells it from a deliberately unpromising viewpoint: the narrator, Honor Harris, is a crippled woman, remembering in 1653, shortly before her death, the events of the Civil War, from more or less the late '30s to 1648. She's a Royalist, but fully aware of the shortcomings of King Charles I, and of the mistakes and wrongs perpetuated by her side. As of 1653 Cromwell's tyranny (as she (and I, mostly) would see it), is at its peak. So we know that the novel will end badly -- Honor's side loses, and, because of her injuries, she never marries and dies fairly young.

Her respectably Cornish family becomes entangled with the more prominent Grenvile family when she is 10 (about 1620) as her older brother Kit falls for and marries Gartred Grenvile. Honor, even at that age, dislikes Gartred from the start, and her dislike as proven correct as Gartred is unfaithful to Kit, who soon after dies. A bit later Honor falls for Gartred's brother Richard, a brilliant soldier with a nasty temper and reputation, and they become engaged, but the engagement is broken off when Honor is paralyzed after a nasty fall from a horse, partially caused, it is suggested, by Gartred.

Years pass, and Richard Grenvile makes a disastrous marriage for money, fathering a son and a daughter before the marriage founders. Honor lives quietly at her family's home. Then the Civil War starts, setting family against family, even in mostly Royalist Cornwall. Honor stays with her sister's family at Menabilly (where du Maurier herself lived, and also the model for Manderley in Rebecca). She ends up saving Richard Grenvile's son from the Roundheads using a secret passage she discovers, even while dealing with more bad faith acts by Gartred.

Honor and Richard, despite her injuries, and and Richard's mercurial temper, become closer than ever (though it's not clear they are actually lovers -- she may be unable, actually, because of her injuries). Richard is a key general in the Royalist Army, portrayed in the book (fairly accurately, it seems) as probably the most talented Royalist soldier but fatally flawed because he, er, doesn't play well with others. Richard has many other flaws, most notably his inability to deal with his son Dick, whom he hates because he is not very brave, and because he hates his mother. Honor, however, becomes close to Dick. Richard and his cause fail (as he would have it, because of the incompetence of the King and his advisers as well as some of Richard's officers), and he goes into exile, only to return for the abortive rising of 1648 in Cornwall, which fails, as this book has it, because of a truly wrenching piece of treachery by someone close to him.

The novel is, really, a true tragedy, portrayal of a brilliant but fatally flawed man. And du Maurier's portrayal works, in good part of because we end up believing that Honor truly loves Richard, but also sees his terrible failings. Honor herself is an involving protagonist, and an affecting case. Despite the mostly inactive main character, there is a plenty of action; and a pretty legitimate-seeming portrayal of the war in the West, and of the atrocities committed by both sides.

I wouldn't call it a masterwork, but it's enjoyable and interesting, and the decision to end it in 1653, at the lowest ebb, more or less, for its characters, is effective. (The real Honor Harris did die in 1653, and Richard Grenville (as the name is usually spelled) died in 1659, just before the Restoration. But his nephew, Jack Grenville, was a major supporter of Charles II, and was created Earl of Bath after the Restoration, so in the end Honor and Richard's side, in a sense, did make out OK.)