Sunday, 24 February 2013

Penguin no. 887: The Mysterious Mickey Finn
by Elliot Paul

Dear Reader,
     My purpose in writing this book is to entertain you. I do not think that purpose is served by starting with the murder of a character who must necessarily be a perfect stranger to you. Do not be afraid, as you read the first few pages, that no one is going to die. The casualties are going to be fairly heavy before we get through.
     If, however, you do not like this departure from the mould into which such stories unhappily have fallen, I promise you that next time I will introduce a dead body into the preface, before the book is properly started at all.
                                                                 The Author

Although it is set in Paris, The Mysterious Mickey Finn seems to be a story about Americans, and perhaps also about the promise of the new world compared with the corruption of the old. Every character of importance hails from the United States, while the French-born characters are, with a single exception, bumbling, self-interested or corrupt. Sergeant Frémont is the exception, and he acts effectively but often reluctantly, and is inclined to be pessimistic and morose. The Americans are portrayed as thinking of others, while he tends to be concerned with himself.

Even the mysterious Mickey Finn, the agency used to bring about the only death which can be unequivocally blamed on those on the wrong side of the law, has an American provenance. It is described as a concoction discovered by the Incas, with a secret recipe known only to bartenders - and to the dilettante chemist and amateur sleuth Homer Evans. It is a soporific favoured here by a few philandering husbands as a way of temporarily dispatching their French wives while they indulge their preference for American women. It is demonstrably harmless to all living things, no matter how insignificant, and yet it causes the death of the sleep-deprived Ambrose Gring. But he was neither American nor French, so no one seems too concerned.

The story begins with a harmless hoax instigated by Homer Evans, but proceeds to the far more serious one he later uncovers. His friend Hjalmar Jansen is a talented Norwegian-American painter who is being funded in his French sojourn by the philanthropic American businessman Hugo Weiss. Jansen has enthusiastically embraced the bohemian lifestyle, living in a garret in Montparnasse, and devoting his evenings to drinking and running after women, and his days to painting.

While Jansen shows dedication to his painting, he is never satisfied with his work, and typically feels compelled to destroy each finished canvas by hurling it from a window of his apartment. Only three paintings have survived the year, and as such a rate of output is unlikely to impress his American patron, he borrows the finished works of his friends and passes them off as his own, hoping to thereby secure a continuation of Weiss's patronage, and a second year in Paris. The hoax succeeds, and Jansen and friends head off to celebrate.

It was Homer Evans who thought up the idea of fooling Weiss by borrowing paintings, and, in fact, every problem thrown up during the course of the story is solved by Evans. He is also the person who proposes every innovation, plans every contingency, and foresees every complication. This is all against his plan, though, for unlike the presumably more typical American expatriate living in Montparnasse, who has grand plans despite meagre talent, Evans is a man of indubitable talent who chooses to be idle. He strives not to make his mark upon the world, but events forestall him.

Weiss is kidnapped shortly after leaving Jansen's premises, and the French police respond with exaggerated ineffectiveness, drag netting Montparnasse and arresting almost everyone. Evans manages to avoid arrest and heads off to find the kidnapped Weiss, taking on what seems like hundreds of opponents, foiling a series of counter-attacks, and eventually uncovering a racket involving El Greco copies and income tax evasion. The plot is complex, frantic, and confused, and as the author promises in the passage quoted above, there are many, many casualties.

Perhaps a little unusually, these casualties are all shot by the good guys. There seems to be a Wild West mentality prevailing where if you are on the right side you can shoot whomever you please without consequence. The oddest moment in the story has a young child accompanying Evans and his sidekick, for no good reason, given permission to go and view the corpse of someone they had recently shot. If nothing else, this story demonstrates that what entertains one generation can completely perplex a later one.

It is evident from the first page that none of this is to be taken at all seriously. As the author makes clear in the passage quoted above, his intention was to entertain, and specifically to entertain by amusing. My problem was that I didn't find it very funny, and in such circumstances it is a very long book, and something of a chore to get through.


  1. Elliot Paul was a talented and able writer, but he never really used all his talents in a book- most of his novels are comic hack-work written for money. Another Penguin, A Narrow Street, a memoir of his life in Paris, isn't hampered by its plot or characters.

  2. This book seems like a farce to me - but was it intentional?

    Mickey Finn? Is that a slang term for something?

    so many questions....

    1. It was certainly intentional, but I think the style of humour hasn't aged well. I would contrast it with The Moving Toyshop (by Edmund Crispin), which was also written as a farce, but is still wonderfully entertaining. I think a Mickey Finn is slang for something slipped into a drink, as it is used here, but perhaps he made up the bit about it originating with the Incas.

    2. Yes, a Mickey Finn is something slipped into a drink to incapacitate the drinker. Tracing it back to the Incas sounds bogus.

  3. You don't make it sound like something I would want to read! One of those Penguins that is best regarded as a curiosity perhaps.

  4. Thanks for the review as I will almost certainly give this one a miss. I don't like humorous writing anyway and that combined with a book that actually isn't funny is the worst combination.



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