Sunday, 9 February 2014

Penguin no. 1981: Daughters of Mulberry
by Roger Longrigg

Cover design by Milton Glaser
     'He's trying to make his fortune, stupid. Been trying since God was a boy. So what he does, he lets his winnings add up. Won't touch them, won't take a cheque, puts it on the next one, see?'
     'That's sensible, far as it goes.'
     'Ah, but he wants his killing, see? One big lump, making his fortune. So he goes and has a bust on a long-shot, maybe in the fifth or the last, hoping he'll get it short-cut, like, all in a bang. But he won't, poor old Des.'
     'Lumme, s'pose he did?'
     'We'd be moaning, George.'
     'Funny way to live.'
     'I dunno. He'll be doing it till he dies, poor old duck.'

Mulberry has two daughters who look very much alike but who vary considerably with respect to ability: they are racehorses, and Daughters of Mulberry is the story of one man's quest to confirm a suspicion that one daughter will be substituted for the other in the upcoming Prix du Général de Gaulle. His interest is not motivated by any concern with the ethics of the substitution, however: he just wants know what has been planned. The suspected deception may offer to anyone who knows of it the chance of a lifetime to place a killer bet.

The story is something of a caper, clearly exaggerated and meant to be funny, and some readers must find it so, as I have seen Daughters of Mulberry described as "dazzlingly written, outrageously funny and propelled by edge-of-your-seat tension". But I felt much as I do when watching something like The Plank, which is somewhat dismayed by my inability to be even slightly amused by something (some) other people find hilarious. This story features a man who needs whisky to get through each day and a woman who regrets the life she would have led had her sweetheart survived the war. They are unhappy but entirely accepting of the way life has turned out, each doggedly pursuing a course which has never yet delivered happiness, but continuing on with a simple faith that one day it will. It all seemed a little sad.

But persisting with book which seems dull can have its rewards, for even when the story doesn't improve, reflecting on why something didn't work can be as interesting as reflecting on why it did. I was sorely tempted to cast this book aside several times in frustration with the sheer inaneness of the subplots, yet in the end I was surprised to find that the main story became somewhat entertaining. It was one of those stories where the telling makes sense only in retrospect, and where a long drawn-out and at times dull or perplexing set up leads to a reasonably-interesting climax.

Major Cook is getting on in years and his irregular lifestyle is beginning to tell: he is becoming thin on top and looking rather haggard, and his clothes are worn and grubby. He has barely worked a day since leaving the Irish Guards, and while this was initially because of laziness, it is now because not working has become a habit. Instead, he devotes his time to studying the form guide, working the odds, and endlessly pursuing his one goal of accumulating a stake large enough that he can earn his fortune through a single bet. He has come close many times, but he is always let down by his other habit: after each race he retires to the bar to study the form of the next race over a whisky and soda. Any early wins tend to be wiped out by the selections of a whisky-addled brain as the day progresses.

Major Cook longs to spend his declining years in comfort. After years in the same small bedsit and at the mercy of his landlady, he dreams of owning a home with running hot water, and of having a single servant and sufficient land to grow a few vegetables. If he can only get the farm of his dreams he will give up the gambling immediately. But to achieve it he will need £30,000, and to his way of thinking this means one killer bet.

It is a fellow Irishman at Ascot who gives him the tip - not that his words make any sense. The Irishman speaks of Hock and Moselle, the Corkscrew and the pig-man, all the time emphatic that if Yellow Silk, daughter of Mulberry, wins the third race, he knows who will win in Paris. The Irishman is kidnapped shortly after Yellow Silk's win, and Major Cook is left with this bizarre set of clues, and a belief that should he suceed in deciphering them, he too will know who the winner of the international race will be.

The only real life case of a ring-in that I know is the Fine Cotton saga, and in that case the rapidly-plunging odds identified that something was awry, even before the paint was seen running down the leg of the substitute horse. But in this case the odds are no help, as knowledge of the planned ring-in seems closely guarded. Instead this unlikely man must go undercover as a journalist to get access to the horses, and he must gatecrash parties of the jet-setting crowd to learn the gossip. He is deterred by no barrier in his efforts to place the perfect bet.

If the story worked in the end it was not on account of the attempts at humour, but because Roger Longrigg manages to create an appealing character in the indefatigable Major Cook. But if you would struggle to see the humour in a score of policemen being put out of action by a handful of batteries, or have difficulty sustaining interest through several pages devoted to a race of clockwork mice treated as a serious venture, this is a book which is probably best avoided.

First published by Faber & Faber 1961. Published in Penguin Books 1963.

By the same author:
Penguin no 1676: A High-Pitched Buzz


  1. I have to say that I loved this book, but in no way did it seem like a comedy--more an alarmingly convincing 'Sweet Smell of Success'-style tale of failure and self-delusion.

  2. I enjoyed this. As you say it is rather a caper. Nicely written dialogue, clever plot with a couple of surprising twists and a rather appealing if sad central character. The ending is deliberately ambiguous but I like to think it points towards the Colonels final release from his racing life.



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