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Project Project Gutenberg: A is for Average Jones

July 13, 2009

Welcome to the first installment of this summer’s reading project!  We’re reading our way from A to Z through Project Gutenberg.  You’ll find the rules here.  Today we start with Average Jones (1911) by Samuel Hopkins Adams (it was going to be Marion Harland’s At Last but I didn’t like it very much, so I added another rule to my list–If I don’t enjoy a book, I scrap it and choose again).

Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871-1958) was a New York City journalist and prolific writer of popular fiction.  Under a pseudonym he also wrote the scandalous Flaming Youth and Unforbidden Fruit, which got a lot of attention in the 20s for their sex-mad girl heroines.  He was best known, though, for his public health reporting–particularly reporting on false advertising claims made by patent medicine manufacturers.  Average Jones draws heavily on that experience.

Average (because his initials are A.V.R.E.J.,  Adrian Van Reypen Egerton Jones) has inherited ten million dollars from his uncle, under condition that he reside continuously in New York for five years.  Rich beyond the dreams of avarice, and with nothing to do, he pines at his club.  Newspaper editor Waldemar comes to the rescue with an unlikely proposal:  Jones should become an Ad-Visor, and offer advice and investigation of newspaper ads–particularly personal ads of various types–for free.

It’s a silly, and very popular, frame narrative, and it makes me wonder if Average Jones first saw the light as a newspaper serial.  It’s the formula of magazine serials of the teens:  episodic, with a simple narrative arc, culminating, of course, in an investigative romance.  Average does not disappoint in this regard. 

Early adventures include a mysterious ad for a B-Flat trombonist which leads him to an extremely unlikely chair bomb; a set of murders perpetrated by agents of a meat-packing corporation to protect their disgusting tainted products from exposure; and the disappearance of a gin-sodden heir to a patent medicine fortune.  

I suspect that Adams was busy with other things as he was working on the later sections of the book, as they become increasingly implausible and even ridiculous:   the mysterious murder of a Turkish diplomat by an untraceable poison (hint:  Armenian massacre survivor) and the theft of a copper silicate necklace, which won’t pose much of a challenge to anyone who’s read The Moonstone. 

The next installment, though, strains credulity way past the breaking point.  Imagine, if you will, a man named William (Hunter) Robinson who has been receiving terrifying threats and encouragements to commit suicide in the mail.  Then imagine that he’s receiving them by mistake–they are intended for a different William (Honeywell) Robinson who had lived IN THE SAME HOTEL SUITE, moved without telling any of his family, and who is the mentally-unstable heir to a ten million dollar fortune (the second ten-million dollar inheritance in this slim volume!).  The villain, of course, is next in line for the money–and in a somewhat rococo flourish, is also blind.

An arson/kidnapping/insurance fraud with a side order of phony extraterrestrials is next, followed by a manuscript fraud which manages to encompass both the Bacon-Shakespeare contrcroversy and reincarnation.   Then it’s organized crime-an assassination plot against the governor of New York, foiled by the skillful use of  . . . geometry (no, I’m not kidding).  Finally, Sylvia Graham and her dog make their appearance, and we know that this pleasant farrago is drawing to a close.  Alas, the dog doesn’t make it, but the two lovers come together at the funeral, and all is well.

Verdict?  A completely silly book.  In the days before radio and television, this would no doubt have filled the niche presently held by re-runs of “The A-Team” or “Simon and Simon.”

We’re not off to a rollicking start here.  Let’s hope next week’s choice, The Bars of Iron (1916), by Ethel M. Dell, is less silly.  Just to whet your appetite, here’s the first paragraph:

” ‘Fight? I’ll fight you with pleasure, but I shall probably kill you if I
do. Do you want to be killed?’ Brief and contemptuous the question fell.
The speaker was a mere lad. He could not have been more than nineteen.
But he held himself with the superb British assurance that has its root
in the British public school and which, once planted, in certain soils is
wholly ineradicable.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. hels permalink
    July 17, 2009 5:31 am

    hmmmm ,maybe your nemesis didn’t get the better job after all??

    • July 19, 2009 5:12 pm

      After struggling through The Bars of Iron, I begin to think you’re right.

      And in fairness I should say that I got to do the indexing of my dissertation director’s magisterial book on Matthew Arnold, of which I still have a copy, inscribed “To Melynda, who will doubtless agree that the index is the best part.” So I had my own plummy job.

  2. August 14, 2009 8:01 am

    Oh, I want to read this now. I have a weakness for period piffle.

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