Some Books: William Rushton’s ‘W.G. Grace’s Last Case’

This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
The books in this feature usually come from the Library, but this is only the second that I actually bought with my own money. Of all places, I brought it home from Headingley, Yorkshire CC’s ground, the club shop, where I saw it one lunch interval in an Eighties Roses Match.
William Rushton, better known as Willie, was from the great satire boom of the early Sixties, and the early Private Eye, of which he was a co-founder. He was a great, jovial, bearded figure with a very posh accent and a gleeful, mocking sense of humour, which made him very popular as both a writer and a performer. W.G.Grace’s Last Case was one of two books by him that I owned, the other (Superpig) being a humourous look at how to live a bachelor life that I actually found to contain much practical advice in amongst the witty remarks, which made it very useful when I finally found myself looking after myself.
I always thought this was Rushton’s only novel but Wikipedia corrects me by confirming there were two others, the last being a spoof of the infamous Spycatcher. It’s a cross between W.G. Grace, the great Victorian cricketer, and a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery, and the premise, plus a read of the first page in the shop, was enough to persuade me to buy it.
Just as with Paperback Writer, I found the book incredibly funny at first, but on subsequent re-readings, diminishing returns set in until I let it go, or at least so I thought. Having had the book recalled to mind, a cheap Amazon copy was easy to procure, and I started again. Not long after, a bout of re-organisation brought about the discovery that I still had my original copy from all those years ago.
Exactly as the first time, I found the book instantly funny. I’d forgotten however just how dense it was with jokes, and with literary references that were out of copyright. To give you a quick example, the book opens at Lords with Grace just putting up a half century and plotting to delay his hundred until there’s a decent crowd and a decent collection. His batting partner is A.J. Raffles.
The bowling, by Castor Vilebastard (pronounced Vilibart but not by Grace), is interrupted by an Apache arrow between the shoulder blades. The first Medical Doctor on the scene to pronounce a pretty obvious death is Dr John Watson, currently on the look-out for a new stream of articles for The Strand magazine, his usual leader having gone over the Reichenbach Falls.
In short, everything is being set up for a madcap meeting of characters from all over the place, all mingled into some amazing and confusing piece of mischief which just happens to be taking place in the year of an invasion by tripod like creatures from another planet… Stir frequently and watch the pot bubble.
And the book is dense to the point of head-whirling with its references and jokes, line after line knowing and silly and hilarious. A decent familiarity, of not an expert eye for Victorian fiction, and sometimes not fiction, such as Oscar Wilde and Toulouse Letrec, is needed to keep up.
Unfortunately, Rushton almost immediately bogs the book down with a long, no, interminable flashback, narrated in persona propre by the Doctor himself, of an MCC Cricket tour of America and the Wild West, organised by the Vilebastard Brothers, who are twins. This goes on for nearly half the book, addressed by Grace to Watson and Lestrade, and it kills the story especially due to how Rushton has framed it. An unbroken narration would have let the flashback stand on its own terms and had the advantage of some brevity, though to be frank it’s too long-winded as it is and far from funny. Filtering it out piecemeal, with continual ‘editorial’ comment from Watson’s thought processes, and Lestrade’s rising eagerness to go off and arrest someone, only drags it out and, worst of all, echoes the reader’s growing indifference to this elephantine explanation. Watson and Lestrade want Grace to get to the point in the same way the reader wants Rushton to get there: it’s like a feedback loop.
By the time we catch up to the present day and can return to the point of the story, i.e., to cram in as much and many of the period’s figures, all trace of momentum is lost and whilst Rushton regains a lot of ground, he can’t recover that freewheeling rush of hilarity with which the book opens.
Nevertheless, the plot rumbles forward, taking our intrepid heroes to Paris to meet the Impressionists, to experience the Folies Bergere (there’s a rather out-of-place sequence where Dr Grace experiences the rather wider-ranging possibilities of intercourse with La Goulue, a famed Can-Can dancer, whilst Dr Watson has to make do with getting off with Queen Victoria…) but the steam is leaking out by now and the story is starting to merge into War of the Worlds, with the Eifell Tower as a rocket ship…
The ending is weak, as if Rushton ultimately didn’t know where to stop. Grace, Raffles, Watson, Lestrade and everyone else involved in defeating the Martians wind up on the moon, eighty years before Armstrong and Aldrin. The invasion has been thwarted and the only ones who might expose the story are stranded without a return ticket. Or are they?
It’s an equivocal ending, and far from the kind of organic conclusion that a well-considered story demands, but maybe I’m being too demanding, expecting high standards of plotting to accompany the intended silliness. But it is a disappointment.
Overall, it’s the plotting that let’s the book down. A firmer, more carefully constructed story would have allowed Rushton full rein with the gags. It’s like the early Goon Shows. Spike Milligan’s writing was hilarious and anarchic but unfocussed and sloppy. Pairing him with Eric Sykes as a writer was an act of genius on the part of the Producer who first conceived it: Sykes imposed a structure that anchored Milligan’s flights of lunacy to a storyline that, instead of restricting him, disciplined him to a more effective, and funnier way of writing. Rushton lacks a Sykes and the book ultimately fails because of it.
Though whilst it fails it’s still very funny. Just not as funny as it could so easily have been. Still, having kept it for so many years, I’ll keep it still.

2 thoughts on “Some Books: William Rushton’s ‘W.G. Grace’s Last Case’

  1. Twenty four years since his death, and I still miss Willie Rushton’s presence on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue.

    The good bits of this book sound enough like my sort of thing to make up for what you didn’t like, so I’ve been and gone and bought one, which should winging its way to me soon.

  2. I know what you mean, David. I will never cease to miss Clive James.

    I think you’ll like the book, and I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on it once you’ve devoured it.

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