Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, February 10, 2012


Brief Candles by Manning Coles (1954)

Neighbors Cyril Coles and Adelaide Oke Manning decided one day over tea to write a spy novel, thus giving birth to both "Manning Coles" and Tommy Hambleton, the hero of twenty-five novels.  While best known for  that series, the pair also went on to write three novels about cousins James and Charles Latimer and Ulysses, Charles's alcohol-loving monkey.  All three happen to be ghosts.

     The series starts with Brief Candles, in which the cousins James (an Englishman) and Charles (an American) are in a French village near the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.  The French have been defeated and are on the run from the German army.  The Latimers (with Ulysses) are the only customers in a restaurant.  They have been drinking heavily, as has their waiter, a patriotic old Frenchman.  The waiter decides to fight the oncoming army -- something that, through their alcoholic haze, seems to be a good idea to the cousins.  Armed with rifles, they confront the army and are killed.  To the outside world they have vanished.

     Fast forward 83 years.  The cousins -- as ghosts -- reappear one evening, with out-of-date beards and dressed in out-of-date clothing.  They pilfer modern clothes, then enter a bank to "borrow" some money.  The bank, however, was in the midst of being burgled.  The cousins "borrow" their money and leave the would-be thieves locked in the bank's vault.  Later that night they shave off their beards -- something I find very interesting.  Who knew ghosts could shave?

     All of this is preparatory to meeting a newly married couple, Jeremy and Sally Latimer.  Sally, it turns out, is the great-granddaughter of James.  She had met and fell in love with her distant cousin, the great-grand nephew of Charles.  It seems that James and Charles appear when relations are nearby -- and are in trouble.  Jeremy and Sally's trouble is money.  Sally's family is broke and is about to lose the family estate, Oakwood Hall.

    The cousins get a ride to Paris with Jeremy and Sally, where they meet up with Ulysses, who had appeared near the Paris zoo.  Adventures ensue.

    Anthony Boucher has called this series "as felicitously foolish as a collaboration of Wodehouse and Thorne Smith."  More Smith than Wodehouse, I'm afraid.  From a prism of 68 years, Brief Candles seems a little dated.  While still good fun (and funny in parts), the writing and episodic plotting can also wear thin.  I like it enough to seek out the other two books in the series, Happy Returns (also published as A Family Affair) and Come and Go., but it pales in the memory of the Tommy Hambleton books I read back in the day.

     The three-book series was published in England as by "Francis Gaite" and under the Coles pseudonym in the United States.

     For more of this Friday's Forgotten Books and links to still more, check in at Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase.

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