The weather continues to be pretty grim, I've been out in the country for a couple of days where at least the rain has made the everything look perky and green, but back in the city the tiny green patch in the car park outside my window has been weeded. There is one lonely tree and something spiky left and as they whip around in the wind whilst rain spatters the window it's not a very cheerful picture. It's possible that the prospect of being back at work tomorrow combined with an overdose of Easter chocolate this afternoon are contributing to a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the world, that and I've just finished a really enjoyable book and wasn't quite ready to leave it.
I came across Grant Allen in 'The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime', it was such a good short story that I added a couple of titles to my wish list and bought a 'An African Millionaire' a couple of weeks ago (at bonus time - very dangerous moment). The copy that arrived is a lovely floppy American paperback, I was lucky to get it, it now shows as only available for pre order or available for Kindles but I really hope that when it gets its official UK launch it gets some attention. Everything about this book is a treat. I love the cover design for the Penguin classic crime series, especially the use of matt and shiny finishes to differentiate light from dark. The story is good (more of that later) but the authorial voice is the thing.
I'm not sure how a 'Classic' is officially defined, the ever expanding list of rediscovered 'lost classics' muddy the waters somewhat and the idea of an accepted, relatively static, canon begins to look ridiculous. For me personally what makes a book stand out from the vintage heard is the freshness of it's tone, when something makes me think how little, rather than how much, has changed it generally feels like it should be a classic. 'An African Millionaire' whilst being very much of it's time has that freshness.
First serialised in 'The Strand' magazine in 1896 'An African Millionaire' has been widely regarded as the first to feature a criminal protagonist, literature's first gentleman rogue (or so it says on the back blurb). Actually there are three rogues - Seymour Wentworth the narrator who is a worldly man quite willing to put his own interests first, and not above pulling a fast one on his boss, and brother in law, Sir Charles Vandrift the African millionaire of the title. Sir Charles has the golden touch in business and seemingly no scruples at all, if non of his actions are specifically illegal most of his business dealings are of questionable morality if not specifically dishonest - and then there's his nemesis Colonel Clay, master of disguise and international con man.
Colonel Clay has it in for Sir Charles Vandrift and is making it his mission to remove as much of the millionaires money from him as possible. If there's a hero it's Clay, but as hero's go he's not entirely satisfactory - he's to shadowy a figure, not even present in all the chapters. Wentworth is easier to relate to, he has his faults (a willingness to be bribed) but as the poor relation working for an unpleasant man it's hard not to sympathise with his little fiddles. Seeing Sir Charles through eyes that are partly tolerant of his practices makes the books pay off more effective - this is that if a rogue cheats a rogue he must still be punished regardless of who is the greater scoundrel.
The action moves from Monte Carlo to Switzerland, London to New York, Germany to Scotland and spans a good few years. As colonel Clay successfully swindles Sir Charles of ever more money, Sir Charles becomes ever more paranoid until he suspects everyone around him, there are embarrassing scenes where he thinks he's about to close in on his man only to find he's clapped handcuffs on an innocent (and indignant) victim. Eventually though the Colonels luck begins to run out and a showdown seems inevitable...
|This is an attempt to show the shiny cover.|
Allen doesn't like his millionaires at all making this a timely reissue in the wake of the occupy movement, more importantly though it's a very funny book full of smart (if not entirely unforeseen) twists with an eye for detail. There is a bit more Allen in print and I'll be scouring Victorian anthologies for his short stories, I just wish I had more to hand because he turned out to be just the thing for lifting my current mood.