Elephant’s Work (Bentley)

  • By E.C. Bentley
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1950; US: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950. Also published in the US as The Chill.

Michael Innes’s From London Far features an endearing psychiatrist who believes his adventures are psychosexual hallucinations. In this one… Well, that would be telling, as Number Two once remarked. But let us say that Father Brown (or Leo Bruce’s parody) would have blandly said: ‘I told you so’ – and that David L. Vineyard flung the book across the room.

The elephant appears at the beginning; it breaks out of its box-car and wrecks a railway train. In the ensuing crash, Lord Severn loses his memory; he is mistaken for ‘the Chill’, a New York gunman.

Bentley described the novel as “an Enigma”, and dedicated it to John Buchan, who had suggested he write a shocker.

“It’s twenty times easier than writing a detective story, like Trent’s Last Case.” His argument was that, in writing a shocker one need not bother about probabilities – hardly even about possibilities – all that mattered was the shock.

I cannot claim that this story attains at any point to so high a standard of improbability as is reached in The Thirty-Nine Steps in some places. But I have done my best.

This is a sometimes amusing, sometimes tedious shaggy dog story. As a shocker, there’s little tension or excitement. Despite the dedication to Buchan, it belongs squarely to the literary improbable school. It is leisurely, urbane, civilized: a South American general wonders why Kipling’s Indians speak like Elizabethan clergymen, Jewish diamond merchants criticize the Count of Monte Cristo’s economics, and a scholar’s wife praises Confucius and Chinese civilization. Like a modern Tristram Shandy, the farcical plot is really the vehicle for the digressions.

Critics agreed that the book was not as good as Trent’s Last Case; many found it an amusing extravaganza, but A.A. Milne (less cuddly a critic than his Pooh books would suggest) thought it too improbable, and that psychological realist Patricia Highsmith thought the situation rather wasted.

Contemporary reviews

Kirkus (15th May 1950, 130w): Playfully implausible, this is for more imaginative tastes in escape.

Times Literary Supplement (Julian Maclaren-Ross, 23rd June 1950): It must be admitted that Mr. E.C. Bentley has done his best, with Elephant’s Work, to follow the doctrine of improbability so lightheartedly laid down for him, according to the dedicatory preface, by the late John Buchan (an author careful to avoid following, in his own work, the principle which he suggested to Mr. Bentley, in spite of the latter’s modest claim that his own effort fails to attain the high degree of improbability reached by The Thirty Nine Steps).  The author of Trent’s Last Case has included, in this attempt to write a “shocker”, an elephant which causes a railway smash while trying to drive a train with its trunk; an amnesia case who is mistaken for a transatlantic gunman known as the Chill; a former Guards officer who takes Holy Orders; a Chinese butler; a criminal named Ketch; and a South American general related to an English canon, who believes it his mission to restore treasures plundered from a cathedral by King Henry VIII.  The book—even considered as a pure frolic—falls far below the standard of Mr. Bentley’s own detective classic, while his urbane and erudite manner in chronicling the absurd story may prove irritating to modern readers accustomed to the more hectically sinister style initiated by Mr. Graham Greene’s “entertainments”.

Spectator (A.A. Milne, 30th June 1950, 250w): No reader of however improbable a story wants to feel that the author is doing his best to attain a high standard of improbability.  What he wants to feel for a few hours is that the author, without effort, is attaining a high standard of truth.

NY Times (Patricia Highsmith, 30th July 1950, 270w): Here is a fascinating set-up for an action story that could answer an unusual question: How easily does a rather sedate Englishman step into the shoes of an American gunman?  Mr. Bentley’s story does not cover enough time or show his characters in enough action to bring out a very positive answer.  Even so, this is an engaging story with humorous and philosophical sidelights.

Chicago Sun (James Sandoe, 1st August 1950, 80w)

Chicago Sunday Tribune (Kelsey Guilfoil, 6th August 1950, 460w): Elephant’s Work is a far cry from being as subtle a piece of workmanship as Mr. Bentley’s detective story, Trent’s Last Case, published many years ago and acclaimed as one of the best of its kind ever written.  But it’s a first class entertainment, and offers a pleasant change of diet for the reader of mysteries.

Time (7th August 1950, 380w): Elephant’s Work is written as smoothly as whipped cream, and it is not a jot more thrilling than a session with a charlotte russe…  Author Bentley’s trouble is that he has turned out neither a mystery nor a thriller, something Bentley seems to realise since he modestly decides that perhaps his book is only an ‘enigma’.  The real enigma is that the author of Trent’s Last Case got stopped in his tracks so near the foot of John Buchan’s steps.

New Yorker (12th August 1950, 120w): Funny and engaging.

NY Herald Tribune Bk R (13th August 1950, 200w): A mellow if not too exciting novel, in which surprisingly few of the characters are villainous.

Cath World (Mary Sandrock, September 1950, 240w)

Library J (E.F. Walbridge, 1st September 1950, 80w): This amusing extravaganza is successful on the whole…  Recommended.

San Francisco Chronicle (E.D. Doyle, 17th September 1950, 200w)

Library J (M.D. Read, 15th October 1950, 50w)

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Not detection.  As fantasy, only fair; as adventure, pretty poor, since all the bad men turn out frauds.

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