I thought I’d have a go at the 1924 celebration at Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, so I did a hasty breakfast-time search on Project Gutenberg and downloaded The Bandbox for my week’s commuting. By the time I noticed it wasn’t published in 1924, it was too late, still I don’t regret it, because this is a rock-solid book.
A few words about Louis Joseph Vance (1879–1933), who wrote eight books featuring jewel-thief-turned-detective Michael Lanyard, ‘the Lone Wolf’, who went on to appear in radio programmes and films. Vance died tragically – it sounds like he managed to set himself alight with a cigarette after falling asleep drunk in his chair.
At the start of The Bandbox, Benjamin Staff, an American playwright in London, is feeling homesick after two months’ exile, and decides to catch the next ship home to New York. Just before he leaves, an inconvenient parcel arrives to make his life difficult – a bandbox.
a capacious edifice of stout pasteboard neatly plastered with wall-paper in whose design narrow stripes of white alternated with aggressive stripes of brown, the whole effectively setting off an abundance of purple blossoms counterfeiting no flower known to botanists.
The box contains a fine black-and-white plumed hat, but no clue as to its ownership. Staff suspects his girlfriend Alison wants him to haul it back to the States for her, so loads it into his luggage (not without some grumbling).
On board the Autocratic, Staff is sharing his cabin with an acerbic American named Iff.
‘I-double-F, Iff: a name, not a joke. I-F-F—William Howard Iff. W. H. Iff, Whiff: joke.’
It soon emerges that Iff may or may not be a famous thief named Ismay, who staged a successful jewel heist on this very ship a year ago. Then who should arrive on board but Staff’s wealthy girlfriend Alison, who has just bought herself a famous diamond necklace called the Cadogan Collar. Guess what? The Collar goes missing in impossible circumstances, as Iff points out when he is arrested by the ship’s purser…
‘Then will anyone explain how any thief could effect an entrance, pull a heavy steamer trunk out from under a bed, get at the bag, cut a slit in its side, extract the leather case—and the collar, to be sure—replace the bag, replace the trunk, leave the stateroom and lock the door, all in five short minutes—and without any key?’ Iff wound up triumphantly: ‘I tell you, it couldn’t be done; it ain’t human.’
It looks like Iff, if Ismay, is getting away with another theft. It’s left to Staff, when he gets home to New York, to sort things out.
There’s a rom-com style complication in the form of Alison, the actress in wonderful Parisian tea gowns who has bewitched our hero. Staff is writing her a play but one suspects she is leading him on. Meanwhile, he gets on tremendously well with a Miss Searle, a fellow passenger on board the Autocratic. When the ship lands in New York, Staff’s bandbox gets mixed up with Miss Searle’s at the docks. This proves significant.
The final part of the book takes a more adventurous B-movie turn, involving midnight taxi abductions and cross-country pursuits by automobile and motorboat. Ismay – if not Iff – is a dastardly sort, and poor Miss Searle gets left in a derelict hotel in the care of a elderly woman who she has been assured is a vitriol-thrower with a hatred of beautiful women. Staff to the rescue.
Ontos reproduces some very positive contemporary reviews of The Bandbox:
The band-box leads them a merry chase, and there isn’t a moment to spare anywhere in the book. It’s the sort of book one saves for a trip from Boston to New York—to shorten the journey by about two hours.
Louis Joseph Vance
First published in 1912 in the US by A. L. Burt and Company
320 pages in print
Source: Project Gutenberg