Who Killed The Electric Coach-and-Four?
What I've been doing this weekend instead is reading other people's crappy genre writing: specifically, Margery Allingham's The Fear Sign, which is one of the free novels I picked up outside my apartment the other day. I claimed at the time that the three novels I obtained were all modern mysteries, but it turns out I was wrong: The Fear Sign was published in 1933, and went, as the inside front cover says, "under the title Sweet Danger in England and also as Kingdom of Death in the U.S.A." It is in every way a generic mystery of its era from the Hound of the Baskervilles-meets-P.G. Wodehouse school.
The Fear Sign is a frankly unbelievable story, but the upshot is that a crappy little out-of-the-way "kingdom" of a few hundred acres, owned by the Brits centuries ago but almost totally forgotten, has recently (as the story opens) because of an earthquake, become accessible by sea and might have oil reserves. So there's a scramble among the few parties in the know to prove ownership. Including our heroes---three starchy well-heeled and vaguely dissolute young men and their loutish manservant, Lugg. And while they are menaced by various operatives of a sinister cororate giant, the boys are inclined to say things like, "I say, Campion, isn't that the old bird who twigged you that night in Skeffington when you were supposed to be swotting for your Uppers?" I doubt any of them will die, but the hope of at least one grisly end for these insufferable twits has kept me reading.
I wouldn't normally even mention the book, except for one unusual circumstance. As the characters go up to the boarding-house in this mysterious kingdom, run by a woman named Amanda, we get this passage on page 47:
There was one startling anachronism, however. Drawn up before the door was an extremely ancient but unmistakable electric brougham. This remarkable vehicle had been painted crimson by an inexpert hand, and now sat, squat and self-conscious, blushing violently for its own age.
An electric brougham? As in a literal horseless carriage? It struck me then what I love about 1930s literature and culture: it was a time of busy industry and no one knew what the hell was going to work and what wasn't.
Case in point: only a week ago I had the good fortune to be able to watch 1933's It Happened One Night with a woman who'd never seen it before. And although it functions for the most part like a standard romantic comedy (because it's probably the most-imitated romantic comedy since Pride and Prejudice), there's one point near the end that always makes me giggle: Clark Gable's romantic rival, a guy named King Westley (he's not a king; that's his first name, like Vidor), announces that he's going to marry Claudette Colbert---and you can see, right there on the newspaper announcement, the headline "GROOM TO ARRIVE BY AUTOGYRO." You may shake your head and say something like "Autogyro? And no one even asks what it is?" But then, sure enough, in a later scene on the wedding day as the shindig is going down, suddenly everyone looks to the sky and the cry goes up, "Here comes King Westley!" And you see an autogyro: A single-person helicopter with an airplane propellor on the front. Or an airplane with a helicopter propellor on top; your definition may vary. This silly silly contraption passes entirely without notice. It was just part of the 1930s' industrial clutter.
And now there were electric broughams? Who knew? So far I haven't learned much about this alternative-fuel vehicle except that it's an antique in 1933 and it doesn't have much oomph to it. (p. 57: "Amanda blushed ... '[I]t's really very useful, and not at all bad, considering that I bought it off a higgler for a pound...There's only one thing against it; you can't go more than five miles in it. Two and a half miles out and two and a half miles back: then the batteries have to be recharged.'") And also that its interior seems to have been based on ships and rudders rather than anything practical on land. (p.60: "Amanda, breathless and crimson with exertion, clung to the brougham's archaic steering arm ...")
More details as I winkle them out. But just the phrase "steering arm" has made my whole day.