Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Agony Column by Earl Derr Biggers


published 1916





The room was quite in order, despite those sounds of struggle. One or two odd matters met my eye. On the table stood a box from a florist in Bond Street. The lid had been removed and I saw that the box contained a number of white asters. Beside the box lay a scarf-pin—an emerald scarab. And not far from the captain's body lay what is known—owing to the German city where it is made—as a Homburg hat. I recalled that it is most important at such times that nothing be disturbed, and I turned to old Walters. His face was like this paper on which I write; his knees trembled beneath him…


[Later] The man from Rangoon learned that he was to wear a white aster in his button-hole, a scarab pin in his tie, a Homburg hat on his head, and meet Von der Herts at Ye Old Gambrinus Restaurant in Regent Street, last Thursday night at ten o'clock.




observations: A kind reader called Kate Walker mentioned this book to me: the edition she read had illustrations, and she was interested in the idea that this was once common, and wondering when the custom had stopped. I have no idea, and it’s quite a difficult topic to research – but in the meantime I read and greatly enjoyed The Agony Column, which is really a novella, and can be downloaded free to a Kindle (sadly no illos though). The author is most famous for his Charlie Chan stories – he was a highly successful author, and apparently Chan was very popular in China.

This story is a throwaway idea, but great fun. The hero, visiting London, is fascinated by the Agony Column in British papers: the collection of small personal adverts about anything at all. He’s from the USA, where apparently the concept of the agony column doesn’t exist. The young man gets involved with a young woman who is equally intrigued, and then gets caught up in the investigation of a murder in the flat above his…. The story rattles along, and has an unexpected ending.

The messages in the column apparently cost 10 cents a word (more likely 10 d, given it was London) so some writers used what we can only describe as premature textspeak to save money: 

‘—loveu dearly; wantocu; longing; missu --’
The action of the book takes place in the week before the First World War breaks out, so July 1914, and there is a very funny section where the young heroine’s father suddenly starts talking about what will happen next:
His daughter stared at him. She was unaware that it was the bootblack at the Carlton [Hotel] he was now quoting. She began to think he knew more about foreign affairs than she had given him credit for….[later] Her father was bursting with new diplomatic secrets recently extracted from his bootblack adviser. Later, in Washington, he was destined to be a marked man because of his grasp of the situation abroad. No one suspected the bootblack, the power behind the throne…
The whole story is full of the atmosphere of the time, and is clever and entertaining. Thanks to Ms Walker of Florida for the recommendation.

More about adverts and personal columns tomorrow.

The scarab is from the Smithsonian, the Homburg is from the National Media Museum.


The President's Hat, this entry, was also something of a Homburg:


14 comments:

  1. Very, very interesting. I definitely want to read this. I would like to see the illustrations especially, but the text sounds interesting. I was familiar with Seven Keys to Baldpate (as a play mainly), but haven't looked much into Biggers' non-Chan writings.

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    1. It's fun, and short - do you have a Kindle, so you can get it for free? Though, like you, I would have liked to see the pictures.

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    2. Yes, I have a Kindle, and I will start with that... and maybe follow up on an edition with illustrations later.

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  2. Moira - How interesting that the agony columns weren't a part of US newspapers at the time. They did get integrated into them, but not for a couple of decades I think. Not being an expert I can't be sure exactly when that happened. Oh, and I love those 'photos of the Homburg hat. The story does sound like fun too...there, downloaded. :-)

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    1. Oh great, look forward to hearing your opinion. I thought it was fun, and I loved the feel of the times.

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  3. I'll probably read some Biggers/Chan when i get around to Hawaii for a US reading challenge, unless there are some more interesting authors around from that State.

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    1. Was Chan set in Hawaii? I had no idea! I'm sure there must BE other crime stories set in the state, but I can't think of any. Magnum PI, the TV series? Surely there must have been book versions with pictures of Tom Sellek on the front....

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    2. I'm no expert, but I think most of the Chan stuff takes place when he's not actually in Hawaii, I'll check it out. A Magnum tie-in must have been done at some point, more checking!

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    3. I think (but not 100% sure) that only the first Chan is set in Hawaii... but it is a very good one. The second one is set in California, and I think the next one is also. At least one is set on a ship, maybe a cruise?

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    4. You're both such experts! I'd never read a word of Eard DB till this one. I feel my Magnum contribution is quite low-rent. And what about Hawaii 5-0?!

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  4. Ladies....I think Tracy is right re Chan, but I'll find out when I get there. Magnum would be ok - I had the obligatory 'tasche like that back in the 80's - Tom's looked better though!
    Literally just finished watching an episode of Hawaii 5-0 about 15 mins ago. Not Jack Lord but the current incarnation.

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    1. Now I'm feeling really left behind - there's a modern Hawaii 5-0? Also, Tracy, meant to ask you what Seven Keys to Baldpate is....

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  5. Detective with closed mind like blocked keyhole -no good for seeing

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    1. A brilliantly pithy and mysterious comment, Drake....

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