“I’ve a sickening sensation that this is going to be one of the world’s worst weekends.”
Aspiring writer Jim Henderson can’t afford to turn down a free meal, let alone an entire weekend at the stately home of Thrackley. Admittedly, he can’t remember ever meeting his host Edwin Carson, who claims to have known his late father in South Africa. Still, once he manages to scrounge a set of evening clothes, Jim anticipates a pleasant house party.
It soon becomes clear that something very strange is going on at Thrackley. For one thing, none of the wealthy and prominent guests seem to know their host. And why is Carson’s daughter Mary so afraid of him? Wisecracking Jim and his slightly dim pal Freddie Usher are woefully unprepared for the conspiracy they’ve stumbled into.
In general, I’m not a fan of the light thrillers that were so popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Weekend at Thrackley is an exception, for two reasons. First, although the trappings surrounding the criminal plot are complicated, the enterprise itself is not. Its outlines are described in enough detail early on that the reader can easily deduce what’s really happening at any given moment. That may count as a negative for some. For me personally, however, one of the drawbacks of this genre is its tendency to devolve into pandemonium at the end, with everyone running around dodging bullets while yelling about how Lord So-and-So was really a German superspy and he had the stolen submarine plans all along. Here, having a basic idea of what the criminals are up to helped me keep track of what was going on during the later action sequences while still leaving plenty of room for surprise developments.
Second, and most important, Weekend at Thrackley is funny. It’s really funny, all the way through. Early on, especially, it seems like more of a pure comedy than a thriller; while the proceedings do get darker, Melville’s understated wit remains. Nearly every line is at least mildly amusing, ranging from pointed character moments (“Raoul smiled at him as though Mr. Usher were a particularly distressing painting which she had been asked by the painter to admire”) to self-referential humor, as when Carson observes that “Really good detectives do not employ stray guests at house-parties for their assistants.”
As the weekend goes more and more awry, relations begin breaking down between the guests.
“If it weren’t for the fact that we were just starting lunch, I should kill you quite cheerfully, Brampton.”
“Well, we are just starting lunch, so that’s quite out of the question,” said Lady Stone.
An ongoing theme throughout the novel is the way its characters’ perceptions are shaped by the media. Even a mundane event like sitting down to dinner takes on a surreal and slightly alarming air. Is popular culture reflecting reality, or vice versa?
At eight o’clock precisely Jacobson, the butler, opened the swing doors which led from the lounge to the dining-room and said, “Dinner is served, sir.”
It must be admitted that Jacobson said it just as it should be said. With exactly the correct intonation. With exactly the right bearing. With just that amount of insinuation which makes the hearers of such a remark sit up in their chairs and mutter: “Now, if I’m not mistaken, this is going to be a damned good dinner.” Exactly, in fact, as the perfect butler breaks this perfect news in the talking pictures or on the stage.
Jim and his fellow guests frequently compare their own actions to the way a character in a thriller or a film would behave (Jim’s favorite movie, Gold-Diggers of Broadway, is of no help here). Lady Stone imagines herself starring in the headlines Jim’s landlady so eagerly consumes: “Society Woman Foils Crook.” The landlady’s obsession with tabloid news ultimately pays off with an ironic twist.
Though none of these characters could be described as complex, they are all distinctive and entertainingly described archetypes, with special attention paid to women like Lady Stone, a bossy lady bountiful type, and the pragmatic gold-digger Raoul. In particular, Mary Carson’s role is small yet crucial; while she does play the obligatory love interest, she’s a lot smarter and tougher than she initially seems. Female characters are typically pretty useless in thrillers of this sort, so I was pleasantly surprised by the way her character develops.
While Weekend at Thrackley is the epitome of turn-off-your-brain leisure reading. it also reflects several interesting cultural trends of the era, particularly the rise of mass media leading to a shared pop-culture vocabulary. If the plot is somewhat simplistic, the humor and good cheer of the writing more than compensate.
One of the many things I like about Melville’s work is that each novel is distinctive and different from the others, not only in terms of milieu but also in terms of structure. Though I was still surprised by Melville’s choice to do a light hearted thriller, with unexpected touches and hues of darkness. The term thriller can sometimes be read as a code for a poor read or a poorly plotted book, but that would do injustice to this novel, as with Melville you can always rely on him to surprise you along the way and not to do things how you might suspect. Equally I think the type of plot Melville presents the reader with, means there are still things to mull over and ponder, trying to predict how things will resolve themselves.
Weekend at Thrackley was the author’s first work and represents a different style of storytelling more reminiscent of some of the early Agatha Christie thrillers. It is unmistakably from the same author however being told in a very witty style that often draws comparisons with Wodehouse. Not all the jokes land quite as well as they probably did in 1934 but even when a joke falls flat, the humorous approach gives the book a light and breezy quality that makes it a pleasure to read.
Weekend at Thrackley is available in paperback and ebook formats from British Library Crime Classics (via Poisoned Pen Press in the US).