Outrageous Fortune by Patricia Wentworth. 1933. French title: Les huit émeraudes.
Before reviewing the book, let me tell you about when and where I started reading it. I was on a train and for people who know French TGVs, I was sitting in a carriage, alone about eight sits, the seven others occupied by gendarmes-musicians, i.e. gendarmes who play in a gendarmes band. They had performed a concert somewhere during the weekend and were heading back home. It was the noon train and they started pulling their lunch out of their back-bags: baguette, saucisson, pâté, red wine and they even had schnapps. I almost expected real glasses for the wine and felt a bit disappointed that they didn’t have stinking cheese and berets too. They were talking loudly, full of banter. I looked at them, amused, thinking how clichéd French they looked like. I’m sure that if foreign tourists had been in the carriage, they would have blissfully thought themselves at the core of real and eternal France. So here I sit, among them, observing and smiling. They were eating, chatting, joking, playing cards and discussing an aria by Bach. An interesting combination and a colourful set of people, for sure. When a cell phone rang with an old-fashioned shrieking “Driiiing”, one of them took a serious voice and said “Yes, Derrick speaking”. When I told you in my German crime fiction entry that French people are traumatised by Derrick!! As funny as this little scene was, it wasn’t the perfect moment to read The Custom of the Country in English. Lucky me -or clever me, who knows- I had brought Outrageous Fortune by Patricia Wentworth. And that is definitely a Beach and Public Transport book: no problem concentrating on this one and no steel concentration needed either. The right book and the right place and time, that’s my motto.
So what about Outrageous Fortune? OK, I have to admit, I grabed this book in the bookstore because of its cover; I thought it was gorgeous. It had been a while since my last Wentworth, she’s one of my comfort writers, the ones I read when I want something distracting and not complicated. A man is in a hospital in Sussex. He was shipwrecked when the Alice Aiden, the coastal boat heading to Glasgow encountered a thick fog. This man lost his memory, he can’t say who he is but keeps talking in his sleep about a Jim Randall or Jim Riddel. The nurses advertise on the radio that a man named Jim Randall or Jim Riddel has been found; if anyone knows him, they can pick him up. Nesta Riddel hears the message and decides to go and fetch him, especially when she realizes that he relentlessly mentions the eight emeralds that she and her accomplice Jim Riddel have stolen from the rich New-Yorker Elmer van Berg. (A very Whartonian name to me). The robbery has been making the headlines for a few weeks as Elmer was shot by the thief and is in a coma. A few days after the injured man has left the hospital with Nesta, Caroline shows up there, explaining she thinks the man could be her cousin Jim Randal.
From there on, we follow the slow reconstruction of the events. Who is that man? Where are the stolen emeralds? Will Elmer van Berg wake up?. It’s full of mistaken identities, villains, encounters in trains, night chases, deserted houses, and rendezvous in dark parks. Wentworth wrote this novel in 1933 and for the contemporary reader, it has the sweet flavour of a disappeared world full of righteous ex-militaries, dignified and slightly ridiculous spinsters, quaint English villages, greedy villains with bad teeth, old mansions and ethereal beauties who need smelling salts. The clichéd England for foreigners, just like the clichéd France of the little group I described before.
Sure Patricia Wentworth doesn’t deserve the Nobel Prize for literature but it was an enjoyable read and exactly what I needed then. Her novels are translated for the first time in French for the 10:18 collection.