Pamela Branch: The Wooden Overcoat

“Cor! What a bit o’ fat! I got away with it!” – Benji Cann, on his release from prison

woodenovercoatLeave it to Rue Morgue to provide me with my read of the month; when modern mysteries aren’t grabbing me, it’s delightful to read one of the gems of the past unearthed by the Rue Morgue Press, in this case this very funny novel by Pamela Branch, written in 1951. The tone is very similar to those hilarious British comedies of the 50’s – The Lavender Hill Mob,Tight Little IslandKind Hearts and Coronets, and more recently A Fish Called Wanda, that take place in the most ordinary sorts of places but thanks to dry humor and a generous dollop of improbable plot, build the laughs until they bubble up on every page as you read (or watch, in the case of the movies) along. This book has a great starting point – a house full of murderers takes in one of their own, to give him more or less a fresh start in life. The unwary Benji Cann finds himself lodging and dining with a group of people who make him uneasy, especially after he figures out who they are. Especially delicious is the “Creaker” and his repulsive cat; so called because of his creaky wooden leg. His crimes are too disgusting to be revealed (which certainly sets the wheels of the brain turning). Benji actually lives next door in a house full of artists, and unfortunately, rats.

The rats aren’t all that unfortunate, because they require the services of the hilarious Alfred L. Beesum, retired rodent officer, who has a system for dealing with “rets”. Anytime he appeared and began to talk about the “rets” I was completely captivated. As the corpses begin to mount up and the residents aren’t sure who is responsible but suspect one another, they decide to dispose of the bodies. Unbeknownst to them they are observed in everything they do by the “professional” killers next door who are horrified at the mess the “amateurs” are going to create. The extended sequence where the various artists and fellow lodgers attempt to dispose of their unsightly cargo is so funny I had to pace myself – I didn’t want it to end too soon. I even sold a copy I was reading to a customer before I was finished with it because I was sure she would love it too. Happily, The Wooden Overcoat has a worthy ending and the secret of the title – which I can’t possible reveal – only comes up at the very end. You may be sad when you finish this but as luck would have it, Rue Morgue is planning to release the other three Branch books in quick order. This book is a truly delicious treat that shouldn’t be missed by any lover of plain old humor.