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Should you ever wish to have complete strangers look at you as if you are just a bit loony, dear readers, fear not — I have the perfect recipe for this. Simply be possessed of a British sense of humor, go sit somewhere in public and read a book written by P.G. Wodehouse. Your muffled giggles, slowly transitioning to full-out laughter, will guarantee you funny looks from any hapless passsers-by.
Pelham Grenville — or P.G. — Wodehouse was a prolific British humorist from the early- to mid-20th century, writing more than 90 books in the course of his career. You probably know him even if you don’t think you do. Ever hear of a butler-type figure referred to as Jeeves (such as in that pre-Google search engine, Ask Jeeves)? That’s Wodehouse.
His specialty was jazz-age British humor of the more upper-crust sort, with plenty of dukes and lords, exclusive clubs and grand country estates, and plots containing everything from stolen pearls to stolen pigs. A lot of his humor comes from his use of language, so he has an extra appeal for those who love the joy of lively wordsmithing.
One of my favorite places to start a new reader is the Mulliner stories. These chapter-length tales are connected by the overarching presence of the narrator, Mr. Mulliner, who tells a series of increasingly tall tales about his various relations. “Meet Mr. Mulliner” starts with one of my favorites, the story of George, a crossword puzzle fanatic whose lovestruck stammer leads to all kinds of complications.
Another of Wodehouse’s long-running series is set at the country estate of the Earl of Blandings, dotty-brained pig fancier, and his domineering sister, Constance. One of the early books in this series is the delightful “Leave it to Psmith,” where the titular and irrepressible Psmith ends up undercover at the castle on a quest to steal a diamond necklace — and possibly the heart of his rival necklace thief — leading to a lively country house romp.
“Money in the Bank” is mostly a one-off novel, but it does introduce some longstanding characters in the form of the American thieves and con artists, Soapy and Dolly Molloy. Along with the rest of the cast — including a viscount masquerading as his own butler — they are all on a quest for the missing Uffingham diamonds. The rock cake scene in chapter five had me rolling!
And finally, we must not forget Wodehouse’s most famous creations, the incomparable gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves, and his hapless employer, the overbred and underbrained Bertie Wooster. Poor Bertie’s peaceful existence is constantly complicated by everything from domineering aunts to the unbreakable Code of the Woosters. But fear not. Even when Bertie is pledged to marry three different girls at the same time, Jeeves comes through to save to day.
You can start this series just about anywhere, but any of the short story collections such as “My Man Jeeves” would be a good place to begin.
Genevieve Baillie is the extension services librarian at the Wilson County Public Library.