P.G. Wodehouse wrote nearly 100 books, almost all of them comic novels. He's best known, of course, for creating the character of Jeeves, the ultimate valet (or as he would have it, the ultimate "gentleman's gentleman"), as well as other memorable figures such as the charmingly foppish Psmith, get-rich-quick schemer Ukridge, the loquacious Mr. Mulliner, and the various cloth-headed denizens of Blandings Castle and the Drones' Club.
But the genial Wodehouse certainly never write a genuine hard-boiled detective story in his life in fact, some would say he was patently incapable of such a thing so what is he doing here? Well, virtually every one of Wodehouse's many stories and novels takes place in the same interconnected little world, and given Wodehouse's continued reliance on farcical plots involving impersonations, mistaken identities and stolen heirlooms, it's only natural that a private detective would be called in to sort out at least some of the strange goings-on. And indeed, it turns out that several desperate characters in the Wodehouse canon employed the services of private detective PERCY PILBEAM over the years.
Although the unscrupulous Pilbeam is never the lead character in any of Wodehouse's novels, he's often the funniest. His best showcase is probably Frozen Assets (1964), Wodehouse's last great farce, in which the private detective gets a meaty supporting role and a laugh-out-loud subplot wherein he lives to regret selling his pants to his ex-boss.
But when we first meet Pilbeam in 1924's Bill the Conqueror, he's actually the gung-ho assistant editor of Society Spice, a sordid tell-all scandal sheet based in London. A man with a natural talent for exposing people's most embarrassing secrets, Pilbeam later rises to the position of Society Spice's editor, in 1925's Sam the Sudden, before finding his true calling as an actual private eye by the time of 1929's Summer Lightning. From this point on, Percy -- or 'P. Frobisher Pilbeam' as his nameplate would have you believe --heads up London's Argus Private Enquiry Agency. Along with his staff, he's both willing and able to undertake any case, no matter how dubious, lurid or extralegal provided, of course, that the fee is right.
Once he establishes himself as a successful P.I., Percy Pilbeam cuts a memorable, if not exactly likable figure. Stoutish and squat, Pilbeam has marcelled hair and what is variously described as a "revolting", "appalling" or "unfortunate" mustache. He also favours a brown, pink and white wardrobe that makes him look like a large ambulatory brick of Neapolitan ice cream. Still, he packs a formidable reputation as an excellent, if underhanded, snoop. His twin Achilles' heels, however, are his vanity and his love of money, and these character flaws often lead to his comic downfall in the various novels in which he appears.
Respectfully submitted by Rudyard Kennedy. And a tip of the chapeau to James Fulford for the lead on the illustration.
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