Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Wrong Box: Review

 Body, body--Who's got the body?!

The Wrong Box (1889) is a hilarious mystery spoof by Robert Louis Stevenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. It revolves around Masterson and Joseph Finsbury, two brothers who are the last surviving beneficiaries of a tontine. A tontine is a rather diabolical "investment" scheme--subscribers pay into a fund that is then invested for the lifetime of the participants. It is a winner-take-all scheme meaning that the only one to benefit is the last man or woman standing. This, of course, puts all sorts of temptation in the way of the participants (and/or their heirs)--especially once the numbers start to dwindle naturally. I, mean, after all if you have to live to be 100 in order to outlive the competition just how much are you going to be able to enjoy the spoils? And one's sons or nephews might also think it a good idea to shuffle the competition (and you--last, of course) off the playing field so they have an opportunity to enjoy it for you.

Michael Finsbury is Masterson's son. He is a successful lawyer who isn't afraid to skate a little close to the wind if necessary to get a client off and win a case. Morris and John Finsbury are nephews (and wards) of Joseph. Because Joseph was not the best of businessmen and managed to fritter away what little money he held in trust for his nephews, Morris has gotten the old man to sign over his winnings from the tontine (should he outlast Masterson). So--more than ever, Morris spends his days watching over dear Uncle Joseph just to be sure that he doesn't catch a cold that turns into pneumonia and leads to death before tontine. 

He also has a vague feeling that his Uncle Masterson is really dead and Michael is just pretending the old boy is still alive and kicking while he waits for Joseph to keel over. Once that happens, he [Michael] will produce a "tame doctor" who will verify Masterson's death (after Joseph's) and Michael will scoop the pot. This must be avoided at all costs.

Morris decides that the best plan would be to head to the country with Uncle Joseph and keep him all cozy at the seaside where he can breathe the lovely country air and be just as healthy as can be. Plans go awry when there is a train smash-up and an elderly dead body is found in the rubble--with bruised face and wearing what seems to be Uncle Joseph's coat. Morris and John are in despair--there goes their inheritance! So they decide to stash the body in an out-of-the-way cottage until Morris comes up with a plan to ship uncle's body to himself in a huge barrel. The barrel gets mislabeled and the body winds up going on an unexpected journey--from barrel to packing crate to piano and back again. Who has the body? And is Uncle Joseph really dead? Is Uncle Masterson really dead? Who is going to inherit all that money?

This is an absolutely delightful story--the black comedy is a little unexpected from Stevenson, but it is hilarious. Watching Morris drive himself quietly crazy as he tries to outsmart Michael and track down his missing uncle is great fun. Who would have thought that the most prominent and interesting character in a book would be a dead man who won't sit still long enough for you to get a really good look at him? Not that the other characters aren't interesting, they are. Stevenson always provides great characters and those in The Wrong Box meet his standards. Highly recommended. ★★★★

[Finished on 4/3/18]


Nick Fuller said...

One of my favorites, too! Have you seen the film with Peter Cook, Michael Caine, Dudley Moore, John Mills, and Peter Sellers? Also delightful!

Bev Hankins said...

Nick--the movie is on my list of things to watch. Thanks for the recommendation.

Kate said...

Intriguing review. I've only read his Hyde/Jekyll novel, so interesting to see what else he wrote in the mystery genre.

Peggy Ann said...

Found the film available to watch on YouTube!