The Wrong Box by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne (1889)
When we think of Robert Louis Stevenson, we generally conjure up images out of Treasure Island or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but we usually don't associate him with Victorian comic novels. Yet The Wrong Box, which one of several novels he wrote in collaboration with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, is just such an example. Filled with thoroughly silly characters, asides to the reader, complaints against the publisher being stingy about including maps and barrow loads of word play, it chronicles the chain of events centred around the last two surviving members of a tontine. That is, an investment set up in the name of a group of young boys decades ago with the profits going to the last surviving boy.
Perhaps "boy" isn't the right word, because they last two brothers are in their mid seventies. At any rate, a mix up in identities in a rail accident lead to the heirs of one brother thinking that he's died in the wreck when, in reality, he's merely taken the opportunity to escape from the smothering care of his relations. Hoping to keep in the running for the tontine, the two cousins who accompanied their supposedly dead uncle on the train pack up what they think is his body and ship it to themselves in hope of keeping their uncle literally on ice until his brother dies. Unfortunately, there's a mix up in the packing labels and the wrong box goes to the wrong address. Now the cousins are in possessions of a giant marble statue and an artist has a dead body. How is one party to recover it before the second party fobs it off on a third party? And what will the third party do with the body? And what about the escaped uncle?
The Wrong Box is definitely a funny read. Rudyard Kipling pronounced it a real thigh-slapper, though not in those words. His characters are often very odd from the uncle who is a terrifying bore to a very unartistic artist and the book's voice has the clever, conversational snap of Jerome or Wodehouse. It's meringue, but one can't fault meringue for what it is.
The only fly in the ointment is that Stevenson and Osbourne missed the opportunity to crank this funny tale into full-on farce by making it more relentlessly logical. Each of the instances follow on very nicely fromthe previous, but there isn't any real tangling of the skeins and we never worry about how anyone is going to get themselves out of the snarl. Worse, the resolutions come sequentially rather than in fast order, so when the final plot point falls, it has a feeling of anti-climax.
Once a rarity known only to the haunters of the more obscure secondhand book shops, The Wrong Box is now easily available on line to anyone who wishes to just follow the link at the top of this review.