“I’m going to ask you whether you’ve got an an enemy. No, I’m not—I’m going to ask you who your enemy is. I don’t need to ask whether you’ve got one.”
The day a man’s boots wear out, he’s finally hit rock bottom. After three years of poverty, Car Fairfax has reached that point. If he doesn’t get work soon, he’ll starve, but his appearance is so shabby it seems impossible. A chance meeting with Isobel Tarrant, the love of his life, only depresses him further. What could he ever offer her?
He barely notices when a man shoves a handbill into his fist. In fact, he nearly throws the paper away—until its strange message catches his eye. “Do you want to make five hundred pounds? If you do and are willing to earn it, write to Box Z.10.” Car would do almost anything for five hundred pounds, but this job may cost more than he’s prepared to give.
Beggar’s Choice is a charming light thriller steeped in the financial and social upheavals of the early Depression. It’s clear from the start that there’s something suspicious about Car’s job offer, as he is drawn into an increasingly strange series of events, but the reader is kept guessing right up to the breathless finale.
The big question is whether Car has been randomly caught up in a shady enterprise, or whether a mysterious enemy has it in for him specifically. Raised to be a gentleman, Car found himself penniless when his father died broke and his employer Lymington was exposed as a swindler. He’s had a hard time staying in work since then. “Lymington’s secretary wasn’t exactly in demand. One man told me that if I wasn’t a knave, I must be about the biggest fool in the British Empire, and whichever I was, he hadn’t any use for me.” Shame over his poverty has led him to avoid his friends, especially Isobel. Car is just desperate enough to take a big chance—and just curious enough to want to see where it might lead. After struggling for so long just to get by, the strangeness of the situation sparks his imagination for the first time in years.
I believe the worst part of the sort of life I’ve been living for the last three years is its dull, grinding monotony. You go on and on, just keeping alive. You get jobs and you lose them. If you don’t get them, you go under. Nothing happens.
There are also two other women in Car’s life, both of whom will have their parts to play in the adventure that follows. Fay Everitt is the beautiful and trashy wife of his friend Peter Lymington. Her husband is in America, trying to forge a new life far from the shadow of his father’s crimes. Car promised Peter that he’d watch out for Fay, little realizing the consequences of that promise. Fay is an ultra-modern girl, perfumed, painted, and tied to the worlds of fashion and theater. “Her mouth was all plastered with paint, but the rest of her face was pale. She looked like something artificial in a glass case—beautifully finished and all that, but you wonder what on earth any one would do with it if they had it.”
Even more mysterious is his cousin Anna Lang, who alternates between unrequited love for Car, and fear that he will usurp her in the favor of their wealthy uncle. There are times when she seems to want to help Car, and other times when she appears to be plotting a murky revenge for old hurts apparent only to herself. Anna’s volatile emotions and flair for the dramatic have led her to “dark, difficult places” in the past.
Anger swept you away, and you did things, and then you couldn’t go back. It had been like that ever since. She had said things that she had not meant to say, spoken aloud thoughts that she had played with—dangerously. She had acted, and been carried away by her own acting. But now she had come to a moment in which all the heat of anger, all the glamour and thrill of drama, were stripped away, and there was only fear left.
Anna’s motivations have always been so opaque that it’s unclear whether she’s involved in the conspiracy (perhaps even as its architect), or whether she’s simply trying, in her own strange way, to stay close to him.
Most of the story is told via Car Fairfax’s diary, which displays an enjoyably sardonic sense of humor throughout. His circumstances are constantly changing from terror to farce and back again, as when a flight from police brings him crashing into an eloping couple.
…there was a scrambling noise at the window and Tom fell into the room. He made about twice as much noise as I had done, but she didn’t say “Ssh!” to him. She jumped up and said “Darling!” and flung her arms around his neck just like she had done to me. I thought she might have managed to think out something different, but she was evidently a creature of routine. I felt sorry for Tom, because I could see he’d got years and years of being called “Darling” stretching out before him, and I thought that after the first few thousand times he’d get bored, especially if she always said it in exactly the same way. The time she said it to me and the time she said it to him were as much alike as if you’d been playing the same gramophone record over twice.
Beggar’s Choice is a lot of fun, portraying both the hardships and the glitz of the period immediately following the stock market crash. The plot is full of twists, but the vivid characters are the real strength of the book, especially the character of Anna, who is part victim, part villain, and wholly fascinating.