A delightful “lark”: a humorous Edwardian mystery, told in short chapters, each ending on a cliff-hanger or surprising revelation (written for serialisation). It sounds clichéd, but is so well done, that it merely adds to the charm.
Theodore Racksole is an American millionaire “who owned one thousand miles of railway, several towns, and sixty votes in Congress”. He and his daughter, Nella, visit The Grand Babylon Hotel in London, which he buys on a whim because the head waiter refuses to serve steak with a bottle of Bass.
After this extravagant fit of pique, Racksole decides he rather likes the idea of actually running the place, frequented as it is by European royalty and other curious characters, but there is more intrigue than he first realises, which he and Nella are soon uncovering and trying to solve. Racksole is rich, but money does not make him as omnipotent in London, where he is unknown, as it did in the US.
There is death, disappointment, disguise, political scheming, minor royals, kidnap, assassination, message drops, secret passages, secret passwords, foreign travel, chases, assignations, love, rejection, and anything else you might expect from the genre, all crammed into just over 200 beautifully written pages.
Plausibility isn’t its strong suit, and I wonder about Nella’s motivation in particular, but it’s a tribute to Bennett’s writing that it mattered not a jot to me. I kept turning the pages with joy and anticipation. My only regret is that it wasn’t longer.
At times, it has a feel of Oscar Wilde:
* “That air of profound importance of which only really first class waiters have the secret.”
* “The calculated insolence of the words was cleverly masked beneath an accent of humble submission.”
* “An amiable scorn blended with an evident desire to propitiate and please.”
* “The functions of a head waiter are generally more ornamental, spectacular, and morally impressive than useful.”
* “His indifference was so superb, so gorgeous, that Racksole instantly divined that it was assumed for the occasion.”
* “The difficult task of retaining one’s own dignity while not interfering with that of other people.”
* “The clever and calculated insolence of his tone cut her like a lash as she lay bound in the chair.”
* “It is astonishing how well a secret can be kept when the possessors of the secret are handled with the proper mixture of firmness and persuasion.”
* “A prince is never seriously ill until he is dead. Such is statecraft.”
Others are more Wodehousian:
* “Like all people who have lived easy and joyous lives in those fair regions where gold smoothes every crease and law keeps a tight hand on disorder, she found it hard to realise that there were other regions where gold was useless and law without power.”
* “She stood like a statue of scorn.”
* “The deck was as white and smooth as her own hand… All the brass-work, from the band round the slender funnel to the concave surface of the binnacle, shone like gold. The tapered masts stretched upwards at a rakish angle… The rays of sun fell on her caressingly, like a restorative. All around the water was changing from wonderful greys and dark blues to still more wonderful pinks and translucent unearthly greens; the magic kaleidoscope of dawn was going forward in its accustomed way, regardless of the vicissitudes of mortals.”