“Love Insurance” by Earl Derr Biggers

Having said that I would read “Ecocide” after “Walking the Woods and the Water”, I realised that I needed a bit of a break from the apocalypse, and found myself at the counter in Blackwell’s buying “Love Insurance” before I knew what I was about.

If you like classic Hollywood movies; absurd capers; dodgy disguises; a steady flow of bons mots; and the certainty that love will conquer all, then you are sure to have a ball with this book. This is one of the earliest novels of Earl Derr Biggers (what a name!), an author who started out as a journalist before moving to fiction just before the first world war. The underlying premise is simple and brilliant – a young English nobleman called Lord Harrowby approaches Lloyds of London’s New York office with an extraordinary proposition; he is due to marry an exquisite young heiress called Cynthia Meyrick in two weeks’ time, and he wants the arrangement to be insured by one of Lloyds’ underwriters. If the marriage goes ahead then Lloyds are off the hook, but if Cynthia jilts him and he loses her fortune (as well as her affections), the insurers must pay up. The preposterousness of the offer tickles Owen Jephson and he accepts the challenge on behalf of Lloyds – but not before he deciding to despatch his trusty junior officer, Dick Minot, to Florida to make sure that the wedding goes ahead. Inevitably, Dick stumbles across Cynthia on his way to San Marco, and falls desperately in love. However he is a man of his word, and for the remainder of the novel finds himself extracting Lord Harrowby from an increasingly absurd series of scrapes in order to ensure that the wedding goes off as planned.

This is essentially the literary equivalent of tucking yourself up on the sofa with a gin cocktail and watching an old school double-act like Fred and Ginger, Grant and Hepburn or Gable and Colbert do their thing. It revels in its ludicrous plot and offers the reader a series of one-liners that could rival Maggie Smith in Downton:

“We are hardly kind to our sex,” she said, “but I must say that I agree with you. And the extravagance of women! Half the women of my acquaintance wear gorgeous rings on their fingers – while their husbands wear blue rings about their eyes.”

Most of all, it is an unashamedly happy book – other than the inevitable woes caused by the bumpy road to true love, there is no latent tragedy here, nor any profound insight into the human condition. It is simply enormous fun, very much of its time, and gave me a lot of pleasure. It must be said that there is also a great deal of skill to this kind of writing – the plot is pacey and satisfyingly knotty, the characters are all vivid and likeable, and the dialogue is as zingy as anything to be found in the screwball comedies of the early twentieth century. There is also a lovely meta quality to the story – more than once a character says something like, “Oh, it’s one of those books in which the hero and heroine are forever “gazing into each other’s eyes”“, or “There was less action here than in a Henry James novel.” I wish there were more novels like this floating about, waiting to be rediscovered – my thanks to Hesperus Press for reviving this one.

Love-Insurance

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