Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Cloak & Dagger #2

Way and Means – Henry Cecil

The English judge Henry Cecil (1902 - 1976) wrote comic legal fiction. Think of John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories, though more gentle and less acerbic, just as clever, funny, and enjoyable (see The Painswick Line). Sometimes he is intense– see According to the Evidence, which is about capital punishment.

This novel from 1952 describes four scams pulled off by the con artists Basil and Nicholas. The shameless fraudsters unethically exploit soft spots in the British legal system in order to spin money, avoid real work, and keep their attractive wives in "oysters and Chablis." Cecil explains their ingenious scams and the vulnerable legal system in clear language. The dialogue-driven stories should be read slowly and savored.

Cecil’s bag of tricks will call to mind P.G. Wodehouse in that he uses stock characters like the dumb colonel and on the make widow. But, to my mind, Cecil writes breezy, sometimes profound stories set in a recognizable world whereas Wodehouse writes silly and inconsequential tales set in Neverneverland.

Reading Henry Cecil’s books (and William Haggard’s, for that matter, here, here, and here) makes me feel nostalgic for a vanished world I never knew first-hand but confirms my belief that the basic vices (snobbery, greed, malice, lust, inquisitiveness) and virtues (self-control, fairness, temperance) of human beings haven’t changed and probably won’t change down through the ages.

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