"Mr. Mulliner, Private Detective" by P. G. Wodehouse (first published in The American Magazine, October 1942 as "The Smile That Wins." Also published in The Strand, February 1942 under the same title; in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 1952 as "Adrian Mulliner, Detective; in The Saint Detective Magazine. September 1954 as "Mr. Mulliner, Private Detective;" in Wodehouse's collections Mulliner Nights , The Week-End Wodehouse ,The Most of P. G. Wodehouse , The World of Mr. Mulliner , and Wodehouse on Crime ; as well as the anthology Panorama of Modern Literature, Contributed by 31 Great Modern Writers ; and, most likely, in a gazillion other publications...it's that good. Note: I just reread the story in the September 1954 The Saint Detective Magazine, which is why I'm using this particular title.)
I have made no secret of my great admiration for Wodehouse's writing, although many of you have probably read this story, it's high time I include one of his tales in this regular Wednesday post.
Mr. Mulliner was one of a zillion turnip-brained characters created by Wodehouse. Perhaps less well known than Jeeves and Bertie Wooster or Lord Emsworth and the Empress of Blandings, Mulliner was a long-winded pub raconteur with any number of stories about his hapless clan; some 35 short stories appeared from 1926 to 1970. Adrian Mulliner, his nephew, was a junior detective in a large private detective firm; he also appeared in Wodehouse's 1959 short story (not narrated by Mr. Mulliner this time), "From a Detective's Notebook."
We begin with a typical framing device:
"The conversation in the bar parlour of the Angler's Rest had turned to the subject of the regrettably low standard of morality among the nobility and the landed gentry.
"Miss Postlethwaite, our erudite barmaid, had brought the matter up by mentioning that in the novelette she was reading a Viscount had just thrown a family solicitor over a cliff.
" 'Because he had found out his guilty secret,' explained Miss Postlethwaite, polishing a glass a little more severely, because she was a good woman. 'It was his guilty secret the solicitor had found out, so the Viscount threw him over a cliff. I suppose, if one did but know, that sort of thing is going on all the time.'
"Mr. Mulliner nodded gravely. 'So much so,' he agreed, 'that I believe that whenever a family solicitor is found in two or more pieces at the bottom of a cliff, the first thing the Big Four at Scotland Yard do is make a round-up of all the Viscounts in the area,' "
This conversation eventually leads Mulliner to recount the tale his nephew and his quest for love.
Adrian has fallen for Lady Millicent Shipton-Belling, the daughter of the fifth Earl of Brangbottom. Alas, the Earl has an active dislike of detectives ever since that unfortunate affair with Uncle Jim in 1928. So the Earl forbids Millicent from marring Adrian. Instead, he insists she marry the financier Sir Jasper Addleton.
Adrian had suffered from dyspepsia for many years and Millicent's rejection caused a recurrence of the malady. Adrian's doctor recommended that when the attacks happen that Adrian try to smile -- smiling is something that Adrian had not done since a child, but Adrian is game. The problem is Adrian's smile is a fearsome thing. It seems to convey a message of "I know all." Such a look can be nothing but disconcerting to anyone who has something to hide.
While attending a wedding, Adrian is invited to the country estate of a kleptomaniac Baronet. It happens that the fifth Earl is also staying at the Baronet's estate. While there, Adrian solves the case of the missing soap (don't ask) and in his victory smile he happens to look at Sir Jasper. Being financier, Sir Jasper has plenty to hide and fears the jig is up. He immediately writes Adrian a check for one hundred thousand pounds. Adrian also turns his smile to Millicent's father who, at that moment, was cheating at cards.
Adrian ends up with the money, Millicent, and (of course) her father's blessing.
I often wish we could live in Wodehouse's fictional world. Despite all its complications, everything turns out just fine.