In Schott’s fabulous re-creation of Wodehouse’s version of an England that never was, old chums mingle with new characters: Pongo Twistleton makes a welcome appearance; someone called Montague Montgomery is suffering from both “moolah” and matrimony problems, which Bertie makes both better and worse;... As with Wodehouse himself, or like spending a long evening in the company of a scintillating conversationalist, things eventually begin to flag, but discretion on this point, as Bertie would have it, is the better p. of v. Schott has hit the target.
Predictably, reassuringly, soothingly, Jeeves and the King of Clubs returns us to such idyllic haunts as Bertie’s flat... In Schott’s story, the club has become the hub of a spy ring... This introduces some not unwelcome pace and urgency... Schott risks it — unwisely, I feel... Schott manages some goodish gags... But let us compare Schott’s ‘Aunt Dahlia rose from the table with the cumbersome majesty of an unmoored Zeppelin’ to ‘I could see Aunt Dahlia swelling slowly like a chunk of bubble gum’. Such comparisons are invidious, of course, but inevitable and actively invited.
Schott’s brilliant homage draws out something else from Wodehouse’s oeuvre: that – for all his undoubted political naivety – he was a more democratic, Eurocentric and open-minded writer than many presume... Drawing on Wodehouse’s own savage depiction of far-right nationalists, Schott’s main antagonists, Sir Roderick Spode and Graydon Hogg, are a clear nod to our political soup du jour... This is P. G. for the Brexit era... This joyous and thoughtful tribute leaves you wanting more.
The plot, let it be said, is of an intricacy worthy of the master... Where Mr Schott falls down is in dealing with what Jeeves refers to as ‘The psychology of the individual’... On occasion Schott gets it very nearly right... Periodically clunking too is Schott’s use of English. A long silence is “protracted”. Long things tend to be . . . but I don’t suppose Wodehouse, whom Belloc famously called ‘The best living writer of English’, would have bothered pointing it out... There are laughs and admirable ingenuity in Schott’s confection. But laughter is not joy nor admiration love.
In a likably modest afterword to his new Jeeves and Wooster novel, Ben Schott writes that “nothing can cap perfection; my aim has been to establish base camp in the foothills of Plum’s genius and direct climbers up towards the peak”. He has certainly succeeded in this aim and a great deal besides. Although Schott, whose first novel this is, cannot compare to PG “Plum” Wodehouse’s peerless ability with comic plotting and situation, his joy in manipulating language is certainly on a par – and an unexpected but welcome topical element gives the high jinks some added bite...Yet there is a decidedly un-Wodehouse-like grit here as well. Spode’s avowed intent is to “keep Great Britain great” and there is a blacker humour than Wodehouse might have embraced, with characters being threatened with extreme violence throughout – albeit of a comic variety – and Aunt Dahlia’s celebrated chef, Anatole, at one point being drugged to remove him from the action.
Yet this is still a delight to read. An especially nice, Schottian, touch is the appendix, explaining allusions and references, although there are plenty left unglossed for the connoisseur to appreciate. Although it’s coming out in time for Christmas, this homage to Plum is anything but duff.
Schott has described the official approval he received to write this book as like being given ‘permission to borrow the Crown Jewels’. Wodehouse’s work is a daunting yardstick by which to judge any writer, let alone a first-time novelist. Schott takes infectious glee in capturing Wodehouse’s allusiveness, as one would expect from a writer who has made his name from a trivia bestseller, Schott’s Miscellany. His prose is elegant and charming, and he captures the lilt and rhythms of the original – ‘my gaze was continually drawn to her, like an eager beagle to aniseed’; ‘Madeline approaches romantic commitment with all the steadfast resolve of the cuckoo clock’ – even if that Wodehousian skill of finding the most unexpectedly magical simile is a little too elusive...I would politely dispute the publisher’s claim that this book serves as a ‘perfect introduction’ to Jeeves and Wooster. I can hardly think of a writer more welcoming and less in need of an introduction than Wodehouse. But for lovers of his work who are looking for a winter treat, Schott’s novel is a warm, worthy and rollicking tribute.
This story, which is at least as intricate as anything conjured by Wodehouse, is handled by Schott with almost unflagging care and finesse (though at times the fastidiousness can be almost too neurotic). His sensitivity to the tics and cadences of his characters’ speech and ways of being is uncannily acute, and full of the same freshness and resonance of perception as Wodehouse’s own style. Schott also shares some of Wodehouse’s ability to animate comic set pieces with the lightest but most powerful of gestures. In all of this, his composition is clearly the product of deep immersion and affection.
There are, however, occasional infelicities. Bertie’s effort to “unravel … the curious incident of the dialogue in the night-time” strikes a discordantly modern note. And the Brexit references, while amusing, can feel crude. Otherwise, there is dismayingly little here about which to complain. Jeeves and the King of Clubs might not deliver a vision of Wodehouse at his full and singular strength. But it vibrates with the spirit and the rhythms of his heart.
It was a brave move by the Wodehouse estate to give its imprimatur to a man without one novel on his CV. Sebastian Faulks had to write a dozen before he was entrusted with a Jeeves and Wooster in 2013. Schott rises to the occasion, though, with a rebooting of one of literature’s great double acts that captures His Master’s Voice and, above all, the famous Wodehouse rhythm...Well maybe some of the early dialogue paints Wooster as a bit more intelligent than he should be, barely a quarter-ass rather than the mentally negligible hero of yore, but let’s put that down to Jeeves slipping an extra kipper on to his breakfast plate. And it is a pity that Gussie Fink-Nottle doesn’t make an appearance. These are trifles, though. On reading this work, the Wodehouse estate must surely be left purring, as Bertie would to Jeeves with the talents that famously won him a prize for scripture knowledge: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”