- Ruth Rendell
The Gem Collector (also published as The Intrusion of Jimmy and A Gentleman of Leisure) holds particular interest for the fan of its author, P. G. Wodehouse. Originally published as a magazine story in 1909, it captures almost the precise moment in “Plum's” career when he began to discover the formula that would soon make him the most successful author of light fiction in the world. He hasn't quite put the pieces together yet, but the elements are all here, in unfinished form.
The story is of Jimmy Pitt, London millionaire. In his earlier years, being a privately educated young man of high birth but low income, he made his living as a jewel thief in New York City. But now he's inherited his uncle's title and fortune, and he's a reformed character. At least he's pretty sure he is. In the opening scene, he earns the reader's sympathy by observing a young man in visible discomfort across a restaurant dining room, divining that the idiot has taken his two female companions out without enough money in his pockets to pay the bill, and surreptitiously sending along five pounds of the needful, by way of a waiter. This earns him the everlasting gratitude and friendship of Spencer “Spennie” Blunt.
On the same evening, by one of those ridiculous coincidences which the author will learn to depend on not less, but more, in his later career, Jimmy encounters a vagrant on the street. And who does he turn out to be but Spike Mullins, a New York criminal (with a ridiculous accent) with whom Jimmy used to work in the old days? Jimmy, kind soul that he is, does not hesitate to take him home and put him up in his own house.
Soon afterward, Jimmy gets invited by Spennie to a house party at his stepfather's country house. The stepfather turns out to be none other than Pat McEachern, formerly an extremely corrupt New York policeman. McEachern has cashed in on his graft and purchased an English estate. With him has come his daughter Molly, who used to be a friend of Jimmy's until her father forbade her to see him again.
You can predict the general lines of what follows. I need only add that one of the other guests is wearing a remarkable pearl necklace, which sorely tempts Spike, and has even Jimmy working hard to suppress his old sporting instincts.
The later Wodehouse, of course, would learn to exert less effort to keep his stories realistic. He would learn that, although you can make a reformed jewel thief sympathetic if you try, it's much easier (and funnier) to find a blockheaded young man of the upper classes and force him, through the blackmail of a ruthless aunt or the pleas of a desperate friend, to burgle the necklace—or cow creamer, or pig. And instead of having your character cool and in control of things, like Jimmy, make him pretty generally feckless, have him caught dead to rights, and watch him squirm. Then deliver him by a deus ex machina, perhaps a brainy valet.
Still, The Gem Collector clearly shows the elements coming together in Wodehouse's imagination. It's also an amusing story in its own right, written in the inimitable Wodehouse style, and a very enjoyable read. Suitable for all ages, if they're literate.