‘The trouble with Harry‘ was first published in 1949 so Jack Trevor Story was probably writing it the year I was being born. It was his first book, but there’s a freshness, an attitude, that still shines through that I doubt many of its contemporaries could muster. Alfred Hitchcock made a film of it, released 6 years later and although he transferred it to an American – albeit New England – setting, the movie still relied heavily on the original dialogue in the novel, which much say a lot. Here is the prototype of the joy – to be taken in prose, situations and people – that is the hallmark of all Story’s work: vernacular, democratic in scope, open, relaxed, and funny. There’s a whiff of Wodehouse at work but situated in the real world. He shares with Kate Atkinson the love of going off on tangents that makes her such a distinctive writer. He’s a hard act to categorise and hugely under-rated – if mentioned at all – in any post-war history of the English novel. The ‘Live now pay later‘ trilogy is surely the definitive fiction take on Macmillan’s “Never had it so good” era, and there was better to come. I’ve loved his work for 40 years now. He is a delightful writer, an author who delights.
As I say, ‘The trouble with Harry‘ was only his first book but there are plenty of hints of what was to come and it’s a pleasing novella – 121 pages – in its own right. The trouble with Harry is, of course, that he’s dead. Not so much a murder mystery – though the blame for the deed, if deed indeed it was is uncertain for the first 2/3rds of the book – as a bedroom farce without the bedrooms, Harry’s body being buried and dug up the equivalent of hiding under beds or in wardrobes. There’s a penniless artist (handsome, rich of singing voice, a free man), an old sea dog (well, a retired Thames tugboat lighterman), a spinster, an unhappily married young mother, the owner of the cramped Wiggs’ Emporium and two or three others, not least a millionaire there to serve up the rather fantastic ending. They all live on a bungalow estate off a main road on the edge of a wooded heath – Sparrowswick, but in the back cover blurb of the 1970 reprint, Sparrowsick – in somewhere like Hertfordshire. The dead body is a catalyst for what happens and old-fashioned romance is in the air.
Like most of Story’s work ‘The trouble with Harry‘ is out of print and it’s not an oeuvre that is to be had from AbeBooks for pence and postage. I got my copy nearly 5 years ago in one of those bookshops – floor to ceiling jam-packed shelves, a warren of rooms and staircases, that smell of old books – in this instance Bookcase in Carlisle, on one of those wet days when you just have to give up on the Lake District. I then managed to lose said book in a move but it has semi-miraculously reappeared so I’ve only just now had the pleasure of it. I was in another such splendid emporium a couple of weeks ago.
Only Scarthin Books, near Cromford in Derbyshire, makes Bookcase seem positively cavernous. Hard to believe so many books in one small terraced period property – not a bare wall to be seen. There’s a nice homely cafe upstairs behind some hinged bookshelves and the setting of the shop, on the edge of the Peak District, overlooking a mill pond, is a joy on a fine day. Cromford Mill – Arkwright’s original – is just round the corner. Lovely website too, quirky, committed and fun, not least the essay ‘The ecology of books‘ on the bookman’s dilemma … to compost or what? They didn’t have any JTS though.
Here, for your delectation then, a few snippets of ‘Harry’ to savour. Here’s Albert Wiles, the Captain: ” He gripped a point-two-two rifle in his arms and a pipe of unknown calibre between his teeth.” He contemplates the dead body: “It was called Harry. Probably she could remember when it walked and talked and breathed and filled in football coupons.” This is where Albert lives: “It was a bungalow that had suffered abominably from bachelors.” Among its contents: “Relics that ranged from a life-belt that had saved Albert Wiles’s life, to the suspender belt of a Dartmouth barmaid who had almost wrecked it.”
And that’s just Albert. He woos Miss Graveley, who, “When she spoke she enunciated her words carefully, as a prime minister about to sell out the country might do.” About a minor character: “He was a small man, full of unpleasant energy.” And here’s Mrs Wiggs’ Emporium:
Mrs . Wiggs sold groceries, lisle stockings, bacon and other provisions, toothache tincture on cards, beautifully coloured packets of seed, stationery, shopping bags and everything imaginable except the thing you wanted when it was early closing in the nearest town.
Enter the charismatic male lead, artist Sam Marlow: “… under his arm he carried an easel and the things with which to make coloured pictures of what he saw and felt and believed.” There’s poetry to: “The sun went down and the moon came up like some ponderous juggling act.” And could there be a simpler rendition of love blossoming than this (Hemingwayesque?):
“She smiled at him again and he enjoyed it.”
Guy Lawley maintains a comprehensive website dedicated to Jack’s life and work. And Reinkarnation Books have just reprinted two of his best novels – the absolutely brilliant ‘Hitler needs you’ and ‘One last mad embrace’. I feel a JTS binge coming on.