"Fog had London by the throat. It blinded its eyes and muffled its ears. Such traffic as was not at a standstill groped its way with scarcely a sound through the jaundiced streets, and to cross a road was no longer a casual matter, but an adventure into the unknown. For this reason, the timid stayed indoors, while the more daring, and those who had no choice, groped gingerly along the pavements. The pickpockets were busy."Despite its poor condition, an early Penguin with a green spine and an author I've never heard of is exactly the thing to attract my attention. Why is it that this author, clearly successful having penned 40 novels, is now forgotten, while others retain their fame into modern times? And the opening paragraph quoted above is certainly inviting. In fact, just tell me that the setting is London and I'll probably read on.
But I regretted my choice almost immediately. The "about the author" section was clearly self written and contained a series of hearty comments like "takes a cold tub every morning", which is never a good sign, and the foreword revealed that the book was a work based on a successful play. This I inferred from the text almost immediately anyway, because it carried all the signs: the action was confined to two rooms in a house, there was no character with an "inner life", the dialogue was clearly designed to entertain, and the plot was ludicrous.
The plot centres on the character Ben, an out of work mariner, currently tramping through London, and evocative of the type of person described in George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, and Jack London's The People of the Abyss. He takes shelter in a vacant house, comes across what he believes to be a corpse, and rushes out of the house, stumbling into the arms of Gilbert Fordyce. Fordyce insists that Ben accompany him back into the house to investigate the mystery of the corpse. Ben is cowardly and reluctant, but nonetheless it's obvious that Ben will be the hero of the piece, Fordyce will come to admire him, and all will turn out well.
This much I could bear. The problem I had with the book is that much of the attempted humour is based around Fordyce ridiculing and abusing Ben. It is clear that we are meant to like Ben, but we are meant to identify with Fordyce, who is presented as brave and stoic and upstanding. But he is also given to mocking those not as upstanding as himself, and also given to mocking another character who stutters. This I found unbearable.
Intriguingly, I knew the character Ben. His cowardly and snivelling nature, his humorous comments, his misused words, his oaths and his entire manner of speech were recognisable as Lonely from the late 1960's television show Callan. And of course Edward Woodward, as Callan, used to abuse Lonely in much the same way that Fordyce abuses Ben, while caring about him and remaining loyal. The two characters are remarkably similar, and yet they were conceived forty years apart.