Reviewed by Simon Thomas
It’s fun occasionally to read a book that doesn’t take itself remotely seriously. And it would be impossible for Love Insurance (1914) by Earl Derr Biggers to take itself seriously for a moment – before a few dozen pages are finished, the reader has had to buy a number of extremely unlikely situations – but that all adds to the pleasure. It is unmistakably of its time (if A.A. Milne had written a novel in the 1910s, when he was still being guiltlessly insouciant, it might have been a lot like this) but that doesn’t mean it can’t still charm a century later.
It starts in an American insurance office. Or, rather, just outside it:
Outside a gilt-lettered door on the seventeenth floor of a New York office building, a tall young man in a fur-lined coat stood shivering.
Why did he shiver in that coat? He shivered because he was fussed, poor chap. Because he was rattled, from the soles of his custom-made boots to the apex of his Piccadilly hat. A painful, palpitating spectacle, he stood.
This spectacle is Lord Harrowby; the office is Lloyds of London (albeit its American branch). And what has Harrowby come to insure? As the title may have suggested – he has come to insure love. More specifically, the love of Miss Cynthia Meyrick. They are engaged to be married, and he wishes to make certain that she will see it through – and, if she does not (and he is not the direct or indirect cause of this), he will receive a hefty pay-out. Although it is against any conceivable insurance company’s practice, a renegade insurer who loves a gamble agrees to take it on. (Of course he does, otherwise the novel would end there…)
Lord Harrowby heads off, and Dick Minot is put on the case. His task is to protect his employer’s investment; that is, to follow Harrowby and make sure that the marriage takes place. Since both parties seem to be on board, what could be simpler?
‘On board’ is something Minot is not; he tries to get onto the yacht that is taking Harrowby to San Marco, but is unceremoniously ejected overboard by Martin Wall, the possessor of the yacht. Suspicions justifiably raised, Minot takes the long, slow train from New York to San Marco. On the train, he… well, reader, he falls in love. Of course he does.
Gentlemen of the jury – she was beautiful. The custodian of a library of books on sociology could have seen that with half an astigmatic eye. Her copper-coloured hair flashed alluringly in that sunny car; the curve of her cheek would have created a sensation in the neighbourhood where burning Sappho loved and sang. Dick Minot’s heart beat faster, repeating the performance it had staged when she boarded the train at Jacksonville.
While Earl Derr Biggers favours a witty and ironic tone throughout – one which I adore, and which had recently started being used with great success by P.G. Wodehouse – we also have to acknowledge the love-at-first-sight that propels the narrative. For I don’t think you need me to tell you (and it happens so early in the novel that it is barely a spoiler) that the woman with whom Minot has fallen in love is one Miss Cynthia Meyrick.
Minot – being one of those True Gentlemen who think Breaking Their Word is the worst possible crime – continues to try to keep Cynthia’s marriage to Harrowby on track, all the while falling deeper in love with her. But, fear not, that isn’t the only complication. I shan’t spoil Love Insurance by revealing any more of its twists and turns, but they are certainly plentiful and continual – leaving the reader genuinely not knowing what will happen in the end.
In most books of this variety (star-crossed lovers) you know that the guy gets the girl, but Earl Derr Biggers has painted himself into a corner – in that both Dick and Lord Harrowby are likeable folk. The novel has its villains, but these are not they, are you want to cheer them both on at the same time. I did wonder how it could possibly resolve itself in a satisfactory manner – but, thankfully, it did.
So, this is a novel that is extremely silly – not to mention very funny – and certainly an extremely enjoyable diversion. It is also, in its way, a sort of lightweight thriller. That is to say, it has the twists and surprises of a thriller, and in many ways the tension of a thriller, without being ever in the slightest bit scary.
It’s rather a gem of a novel, and still as fresh and enjoyable as it was a hundred years ago. Thank goodness Hesperus have rescued it from obscurity for us.
Simon Thomas is one of the Shiny New Books editors and has never been thrown off a boat.
Earl Derr Biggers, Love Insurance (Hesperus, London, 1914 repr.2014), ISBN 978-1843915256, 235pp., pbk.