A World War I veteran with no job and no prospects is invited to a tony Surrey housewarming by a man who claims to be the best friend of his late father. If this sounds too good to be true, it is, in spades.
Shortly after arriving at Thrackley together with Freddie Usher, his equally idle but much wealthier chum, Jim Henderson realizes he has an unusual distinction among the half-dozen weekend guests. Marilyn Brampton writes grim sex novels; her husband, Henry, is a painter of some note; Catherine Lady Stone is a pillar of useless philanthropic organizations; the one-named Raoul is a featured dancer in the West End production Soft Sugar; and Freddie is the languid possessor of some first-class diamonds. All the other guests invited by Edwin Carson, an accomplished gemologist who talks of nothing but his passion, are awash in precious stones; only Jim is stone broke. So why has Jim, who can’t remember ever seeing Carson before in his life, been invited to round out the party—unless Freddie is right and Carson’s goal is to find an unemployed husband for Mary, his attractive daughter? After pages and pages of upper-class blather over breakfast and bridge, a tête-à-tête in which Carson casually mentions where he and Jim’s father first met strikes a false note Jim squelches but doesn’t have the wit to pick up on, and it’s not until he recognizes one of Carson’s servants as someone he’s seen before that the country-house trappings fall away and Melville (Quick Curtain, 2017, etc.) switches abruptly to florid, and considerably less convincing, melodrama.
Even so, Melville’s debut, originally published in 1934, goes far to bear out the wisdom of the guest who complains, “I hate these harmless, potty people. They’re always up to something.”