Saturday, August 1, 2020

Earl Derr Biggers' The Agony Column

The Agony Column, published in 1916, is an early novel by Earl Derr Biggers. A decade later Biggers would create Charlie Chan (who would make his debut in The House Without a Key) and would thereby achieve fame and fortune but even before Charlie Chan Biggers was a reasonably successful and well-known writer.

The Agony Column is a very short novel, not much more than a novella.

The story takes place in the fateful year of 1914. Geoffrey West is an American in London on business. West is one of those men who hides the soul of a romantic under the surface appearance of sober respectability. He is homesick and one of his few amusements is reading the Personal Notices - the “agony column” - of the Daily Mail. One morning at breakfast at the Carlton he notices a beautiful and very charming young American woman. She is from Texas and is in London with her father. West notices something else about her - she is reading the agony column as well. And reading it with sufficient delight  to suggest that she is in fact a keen devotee of that column.

At this point the suppressed romantic in West leads him to do something rather daring. He places an ad in the agony column, very obviously addressed to the young American woman. He later berates himself for his foolishness. Of course she will not reply. But she does. And she makes him an offer. She invites him to write her a letter a day for seven days. If she decides that he is an interesting young man she may be inclined to permit him to be formally introduced to her. After which, who knows?

In the letters West’s story is unfolded, and it’s a melodramatic story replete with romance and mystery, murder and intrigue, spies and femmes fatales, and of course the young woman is captivated. What girl could resist a man whose life is so packed with danger and excitement?

During the course of this seven-day correspondence war clouds are gathering over Europe.

Several questions will occur to the reader at this point, and I have no doubt that Biggers expects us to ask ourselves these questions.

This is an odd little book. Readers will either be extremely irritated by it, or be charmed and amused. You do have to remember that this was 1916, the heyday of the melodramatic tale of espionage. It was the heyday of melodrama in general. You also have to remember that in 1916 sacrificing oneself for honour, or for love, was not considered eccentric. Spies were a big deal. The looming war merely increased the obsession with spies and betrayal.

Armchair Fiction has reprinted this title as part of its series of double-header paperbacks, each containing two novels. They have paired this title with Fury on Sunday by Richard Matheson (another writer whose work I admire).

The Agony Column bears no real resemblance to the Charlie Chan novels and it certainly does not qualify as an example of golden age detective fiction. In fact it’s not easy to slot it into any particular genre.

It’s a very lightweight book but if you have a taste for melodrama and romance it is quite entertaining in its own strange little way. Recommended perhaps, but only if melodrama and romance are your thing.

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