I think I've found the quintessential P.G. Wodehouse novel. My Penguin edition has a back-cover blurb from the Daily Telegraph, "He has done nothing funnier than this," which initially left me a bit skeptical, a bit suspicious of hyperbole. I wasn't half-way through the book before I found myself in complete agreement and reaching for superlatives of my own. Hot Water was published in 1932, and I've mentioned before that I find the books written in the late 1920s and 1930s to have a brilliance, a comic energy, which show Wodehouse at the top of his game, which the later books sometimes lack, wonderful as they still are.
The story is set in St. Rocque in Brittany, where Mrs. J. Wellington Gedge has rented the Château Blissac for the season. Mr. J. Wellington Gedge is oblivious to the charms of the resort and its famous Casino, homesick for his beloved Glendale, California. Having lost all his money in the stock market crash, however, he must go where his wife leads. Even when he had money, he would have found it hard to assert himself.
Mrs Gedge herself would have fought in the light-heavy division. She was a solidly built, handsome woman a few years younger than her husband, and you could see from a glance at her why he always did what she told him to. Even in repose, her manner was forceful. Of her past life before their marriage, except that she was the widow of a multi-millionaire oil man named Brewster who had left her all his multi-millions, Mr Gedge knew nothing. He sometimes thought she might have been a lion tamer.Mrs Gedge summons her husband to her room to inform him she is leaving unexpectedly for England, and that guests will be arriving in her absence: an American Senator, Mr Opal, and his daughter Jane, as well as the Vicomte de Blissac. These guests have been invited because they can influence the appointment of the next American Ambassador to France. Mr Gedge is stunned and horrified to learn that he will be their candidate. He dislikes France and the French, he wants to go home to California, and worst of all, "Didn't Ambassadors have to wear uniforms and satin knickerbockers?" However, he well knows that resistance is futile.
Also staying in St Rocque are two fellow Americans, Soup Slattery and Oily Carlisle, a safe-cracker and a con man respectively. Both have their eye on Mrs Gedge's jewels, securely locked in her bedroom safe at the Château. They aren't the only ones with their eyes on that safe. It also contains a letter from Senator Opal that explains why he is reluctantly supporting Mrs Gedge's ambassadorial ambitions. He wants that letter back. His daughter Jane is engaged to a rising young writer named Blair Eggleston, whose recent novel Worm i' the Root thrilled the critics if not the people who actually buy books. When Jane sends her fiancé to ask for her hand, her father mistakes him for the latest in a long line of valets and hires him on the spot. The Senator is the male equivalent of Mrs Gedge, and Eggleston can't even manage to get a word in edgewise, let alone explain that far from being a valet, he hopes to marry the Senator's daughter. Meanwhile, Jane has met Patrick (Packy) Franklyn, a young American millionaire, recently graduated from Yale, where he was a football star. He is engaged to Lady Beatrice Bracken, an earl's daughter, a society beauty with higher thoughts and highest ideals. Packy doesn't quite measure up to her standards, but she is trying to improve him through exposure to the arts and to writers like Eggleston (whom Packy considers "A gosh-awful pill with side-whiskers"). Lady Beatrice is setting off for a visit to her parents, and in her absence Packy is drawn into helping Jane recover the damaging letter, purely in a spirit of friendship of course. He ends up in St Roque, where he meets his old friend the Vicomte and makes new friends in Soup and Mr Gedge. I took to Packy straight off. He has the high spirits of the Drones Club members, with the good heart and loyalty of Bertie Wooster, combined with the devious plotting of Psmith (though not his persiflage).
Hot Water has one of Wodehouse's more complicated plots, which is saying something. It's full of surprises right to the end - the last of which I never saw coming. The Château is crawling with impostors, and there are double- and triple-crosses, long-buried secrets, lovers' quarrels and reunions. I had a pretty good idea how it would all end, but oh the fun in getting there! From now on, if anyone asks me where to start, among P.G. Wodehouse's many marvelous books, with all due respect to Uncle Fred and Psmith, Mr Mulliner and the Oldest Member, I'm going to say Hot Water.