A plot with trimmings worthy of a Balzac novel — desperate pecuniary needs, base motives and intrigue, a flair for legal complication and method, secret orders with absolute powers, some virtuous innocents feinting in the face of corruption, near-caricature foreigners, and a massive villain with a master plan. Or, in terms of form, an instalment from the glory age of the novel.
There’s a strong sense of indulging his readership, of taking the long, prosaic and mannered approach to explanations, indulging their implied moral reactions etc. Very much in the mode of Dickens, and probably getting paid by the word. Often: what in journalism would be called labouring the point, begging the question or overdrawing one’s account.
The perpetual emphasis on future events and contexts, yet still managing to pull off an amazing (again Balzacian) twist, with several smaller twists further on. As well as keeping the reader in mind of past facts and notes. So, coaxing the reader along and flattering him on the way, keeping him entertained in the serialised sense.
A remarkable record of a social code and discourse (broadly Victorian) which has largely disappeared — manners and status and respectability expressed purely through dialogue. And, by way of plotting, the unscrupulous use and abuse of these manners, those English traits. In the words of the Golden Papa: “We don’t want genius in this country, unless it is accompanied by respectability — and then we are very glad to have it, very glad indeed.” (p9)
So much of the action depends on prompt transportation, on anticipation and movement. Thence the actions and intercessions on other’s behalf and interests, deliberately misserving others’ needs as need be; spy rings and manipulation, cowed wives trotting along in trains and flies. Swift movement facilitates more effective surveillance and monitoring, with which the book is stuffed. Trains and trained spies, social bullying and threats. The pleasure and Englishness of the Steam Age English Way underwritten with wilful and measured abuse. And the first appearances of a societal paranoia.
But then again Wilkie does give a sense of good value — especially peppering the early part of the narrative with nice little commentaries and asides: little nuggets of acutely spun observation or artistic expression of thought, little sociological quips from the author. Which, in an occasionally trying and wordy narrative, is like an occasional Scooby-snack on the mystery trail. Good value like the extra lick or hook in a pop song chorus, an in character flutter in the cinema, or a rich Balzac aside.
eg p46: Our words which are giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us a service.
or p110: No sensible man ever engages, unprepared, in a fencing match of words with women.
OK, so they could be more humorous. But this ain’t Amis. There’s more pithy stuffs on pages 36, 39, 94, 151 and 474. Some snide comments on women’s lot.