Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book Review: "The Rector and the Rogue"

The latest installment of the Collins Library, a McSweeney's imprint edited by the inimitable Paul Collins, is The Rector and the Rogue by W.A. Swanberg, first published in 1968 and re-issued in 2011. Collins' instinct for underappreciated gems certainly hasn't failed him here: what a book!

Swanberg's book is the story of what must be one of the most elaborate practical jokes ever undertaken. The unsuspecting rector of New York's Trinity Church was the main victim; over a period of several weeks his home is inundated by a procession of tradesmen and visitors, summoned there by postcards signed by the rector, Morgan Dix. One morning it's more than 25 used-clothing dealers, come to buy Mrs. Dix's wardrobe; another it's fourteen of Dix's fellow clergymen, invited to lunch with a not-actually-visiting English bishop. Eventually Dix goes to the postal authorities and the police, and an investigation reveals that Dix is not the only victim. But the victims seem totally unconnected, and the investigators are absolutely flummoxed as to the prankster's motive (it's presumed to be extortion, but that angle proves nothing but a red herring).

A lucky break leads to the eventual discovery of the mastermind behind the scheme/performance, a curious character who seems at first glance an unlikely conspirator, but whose past record, when explored more carefully, proves anything but spotless. I'll leave it to Swanberg to explain the rest of the story, as he does it very well indeed. Suffice it to say, it wasn't the first time, or even the most serious crime.

The hoakster, E. Fairfax Williamson, had been inspired by a previous practical joker, Theodore Edward Hook, who had carried out a similar scheme against Mrs. Octavia Tottenham in 1809, sending hordes of people thronging to her Berners Street home in London on a single morning. Swanberg explores Hook's work as the precursor to Williamson's even more elaborate persecution of Dix, a most enjoyable tangent to the main story.

Swanberg's writing is lively and humorous, and Collins' afterword, which offers up a fantastic corollary to the Williamson hoax by suggesting that perhaps the joke still hasn't yielded up its last punchline, is brilliant. Highly, highly recommended.

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