‘Hugo Ross isn’t a fool at all. He’s a boy. He doesn’t suspect people, because he’s friendly like a boy, and shy like a boy. And I think you are safe – oh yes, quite safe – to bank on being able to ruin this friendly boy.’
Earlier in the month, Dean Street Press got in touch to tell me of their next batch of Patricia Wentworth reissues (see also Silence in Court) just in time for me to review Fool Errant as part of this month’s Crimes of the Century, which is looking at 1929.
The opening chapter finds our hero Hugo Ross, down on his luck, hanging around outside the house of famous inventor Ambrose Minstrel hoping to get a job interview. The interview is on the following morning but Hugo has no place to stay (and no money for pay for one) so he is planning to sleep rough. Stumbling around in the pitch dark looking for a haystack, he finds a young woman instead. She is running away from some kindly but constricting relatives:
‘They’d have smothered me into a sort of swoon, and I’d have waked up to find I’d married James.’
‘Who is James?’
‘Another feather bed, just like them. They love him – he’s Andrew’s cousin. He used to come and play bridge every night and sing Onaway, awake beloved! and Somewhere a voice is calling.’
(I like the air of Wodehouse about that bit)
Hugo helps her find her way to the station and then sleeps in a field. The following morning, with no qualifications, and having turned up uninvited, Hugo is offered the job.
This is quite strange in itself, especially as his first job is interviewing other candidates for the role, but then Hugo notices a number of increasingly surreal occurrences. He starts to feel that he is being followed. A stranger offers him a ridiculous amount of money for a worn-out pair of binoculars that he had to pawn to raise trainfare – and then increases his offer tenfold.
‘I believe you pawned a pair of field-glasses a week ago – no, please don’t take offence – there’s no need – I assure you there’s no need. But the fact is, I have a client who collects such things. Curious hobby – isn’t it?’
His new boss Minstrel is openly hostile towards him but seems to want to keep him around. Finally, after receiving an odd warning letter from the young woman (Loveday) from chapter one, he arranges to meet her – but another woman turns up in her place.
Deeply confused, but sensing some kind of trouble, Hugo seeks advice from a distant relative, Benbow Smith. The cover calls this a Benbow Smith story, but actually Smith’s role is simply to advise Hugo to get back to his job and keep his eyes open for a trap.
Plot-wise, this is a simple but fun thriller with an intriguing opening (the structure reminds me a little of The Journeying Boy – oddball opening turning into adventure), but there’s quite a lot to chew on in Fool Errant. Darkness, for one thing. The dark plays a very significant role in the book. Hugo meets Loveday in the dark, falls in love, and only manages to see her properly towards the end of the book.
They had met in a dark lane, in a dark room, on a dark roof, and in a dark garden.
Darkness helps and hinders Ross in equal measures, but ultimately it is crucial to driving forward the story. At least one of the characters, the seductive neighbour Mme de Lara, loves the dark:
‘I can see,’ she said. ‘But no one can see us. There is something about being quite, quite in the dark that makes me feel very safe. Do you know what I mean? We are here; but we are not here, because no on can see us – we are like invisible ghosts.’
‘I like to s-see where I’m going,’ said Hugo.
Hugo’s true-love Loveday agrees with him:
‘I do hate the dark and – and places where there isn’t anyone…’
There is also metaphorical darkness – foolishness – in the book. Hugo, of course, is the unwitting victim of a conspiracy – but he is not so unwitting that he misses it entirely. He acts a fool – stuttering and blushing when confronted with challenge – but ultimately is he really foolish?
Possibly more innocent than foolish. Hugo is happiest when he wanders off on his own to practise his flute.
Hugo began to feel very happy. He had opened a door and walked right out of his adventure into a place which was full of wind and music and the rustle of leaves. Presently he would go back through the door and go on with the adventure again.
If that paragraph isn’t fairy-tale enough, his fluting is interrupted by Mme de Lara, a woman of ‘altogether an elfin apparition and quite at home in a forest glade’, who sets her cap at Hugo and tries her best to hook him with her passionate woman-as-a-force-of-nature act.
She certainly gets under his skin and into his dreams…
‘We just d-danced.’
He had a vision of the fiery toad-stools and of Mme. de Lara’s burning heels and the sparks that flew from her hair. The wild dream and his own banal phrase shook him with inward laughter.
‘Where were we?’
‘It was a f-funny sort of place.’
‘Ah, tell me now! You’re not telling me.’
Hugo looked blank.
‘We just d-danced.’
So: darkness and metaphorical darkness/foolishness, a splash of fairy-tale, impostors and mistaken identities… Fool Errant is all a bit Shakespearean.
As I am reading this for Crimes of the Century, I am legally obliged to pick out something 1929ish. I give you one piece of small-talk, and one prolonged bout of swearing (shut your ears, ladies).
Mme de Lara kept up a soft, unceasing flow of talk – about music – abbout flying – about jazz – about the Schneider Cup – about all the cities in Europe – about the world’s record flights.
‘See what the dash, dash, dash, dash, blank has given me.’
First published in the US, 1929, by Lipincott
This edition: Dean Street Press, April 2016
Source: Dean Street Press review copy – thanks Rupert
crossexaminingcrime: We have the love interest, though thankfully the woman although a bit of twerp is bearable. Ultimately she redeems herself at the end, as during the middle of the book I think both me and Ross wanted to slap her, as she finds him too dictatorial when he advises sensible decisions e.g. Let’s not make lots of noise to attract the bad guys’ attentions.