The more books I read, the more highly I come to regard the works of the 20th century. I often find myself wondering if we reached some high point in culture then; despite the upheavals, war and turmoil of that century, the books written during it are some of the best in my view. Many of them are lost and out of print now, and so it’s often on the recommendation of another blogger that I’m pointed to a work I love (the perfect example being “Guard your Daughters” which Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book had us all reading).

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However, we’re also in an age where we’re blessed with publishers who will dig lost works out of obscurity and rescue them for the modern age – Hesperus Press being a case in point, and they’ve just brought out a beautiful new edition  of one such book, “Love Insurance”. The author, Earl Derr Biggers, is best known for creating that classic fictional detective, Charlie Chan, and I should confess up front I’ve never read any of the Chan stories. But on the evidence of this book, I certainly think I should!

First a word about the author from Wikipedia:  “Earl Derr Biggers (August 26, 1884 – April 5, 1933) was an American novelist and playwright.He is remembered primarily for his novels, especially those featuring the fictional Chinese American detective Charlie Chan, from which popular films were made in the United States and China. He was born in Warren, Ohio, and graduated from Harvard University in 1907. He worked as a journalist for The Plain Dealer before turning to fiction. Many of his plays and novels were made into movies. He was posthumously inducted into the Warren City Schools Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame.” So he died quite young, but left behind him a lasting body of work!

LI was published in 1914 and opens with a nervous English peer, Lord Harrowby, approaching the US branch of Lloyds of London to put to them a strange proposition. The impecunious peer is due to marry a beautiful heiress, Cynthia Meyrick, in less than a fortnight’s time, and he wants to insure against Cynthia’s changing her mind. Initially he’s scoffed at, but then one of the underwriters agrees to take up the challenge – on condition that one of the firm’s young men, Richard Minot, is sent along to make sure the marriage goes ahead. His Lordship and Minot decamp to San Marco in Florida, where the wedding is to take place, and then the fun begins…. Let’s just say the book is populated with thieves, blackmailers, impecunious newspaper men, crooked newspaper men, missing brothers, heirs apparent, missing necklaces, unrequited love…. well, you get the picture!

And what fun this is! I wasn’t surprised to find that the book had been filmed, once as a silent movie and once starring Abbott and Costello (and probably bearing very little resemblance to the original!) because the book just screams “1930s screwball comedy” and is none the worse for that! I had Minot in my head all the way through as Cary Grant in full “Philadelphia Story” mode, and the book rocketed along from one wonderful episode to another non-stop, barely giving you time to draw breath. The plot was clever, convoluted and very, very funny, and just a pure joy to read.

“No matter how quickly your train has sped through the Carolinas and Georgia, when it crosses the line into Florida a wasting languor overtakes it. Then it hesitates, sighs and creeps across the flat yellow landscape like an aged alligator. Now and again it stops completely in the midst of nothing, as who should say, ‘You came down to see the South, didn’t you? Well, look about you.’ The Palm Beach Special on which Mr Minot rode was no exception to this rule. It entered Florida and a state of innocuous desuetude at one and the same time. After a tremendous struggle, it gasped its way into Jacksonville about nine o’clock of the Monday morning following.  Reluctant as Romeo in his famous exit from Juliet’s boudoir, it got out of Jacksonville an hour later.”

There’s plenty of dry humour and Biggers is happy to have a little pop at more ‘literary’ writers:

“At ten o’clock that Saturday morning Lord Harrowby was engrossed in the ceremony of breakfast in his rooms. For the occasion he wore an orange and purple dressing gown with a floral design no botanist could have sanctioned – the sort of dressing gown that Arnold Bennett, had he seen it, would have made into a leading character in a novel.”

or

“One of the strangers was short, with flaming red hair and in his eye the twinkle without which the collected works of Bernard Shaw are as sounding brass.”

Oddly enough, I found myself thinking it was perhaps an American-style “Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day” – not quite in content, but more in the feel-good factor. The blurb describes the book as a “zany romantic comedy” which pretty much sums it up! The characters might be a tad stereotypical and the action a little unbelievable, but this is a fun fantasy adventure so that doesn’t matter.

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Needless to say I loved this book to bits. If you like screwball comedies, snappy and humorous dialogue, glamorous settings and madcap adventure this is definitely the book for you – highly recommended!

(Book kindly provided by the publishers, Hesperus Press – for which many thanks!)

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