Percy Pilbeam

Created by P.G. Wodehouse
(1881-1975)

P.G. Wodehouse wrote nearly 100 books, almost all of them comic novels. He’s best known, of course, for creating the characters of Jeeves, the ultimate valet (or as he would have it, the ultimate “gentleman’s gentleman”) and perennial upper class twit, Bertie Wooster, as well as other memorable figures such as the charmingly foppish Psmith, get-rich-quick schemer Ukridge, the loquacious Mr. Mulliner, and the various cloth-headed denizens of Blandings Castle and the Drones’ Club.

But the genial Wodehouse certainly never wrote a genuine hard-boiled detective story in his life in fact, some would say he was patently incapable of such a thing so what is he doing here? Well, virtually every one of Wodehouse’s many stories and novels takes place in the same interconnected little world, and given Wodehouse’s continued reliance on farcical plots involving impersonations, mistaken identities and stolen heirlooms, it’s only natural that a private detective would be called in to sort out at least some of the strange goings-on. And indeed, it turns out that several desperate characters in the Wodehouse canon employed the services of private detective PERCY FROBISHER PILBEAM over the years.

Although the unscrupulous Pilbeam is never the lead character in any of Wodehouse’s novels, he’s often the funniest. His best showcase is probably Frozen Assets (1964), Wodehouse’s last great farce, in which the private detective gets a meaty supporting role and a laugh-out-loud subplot wherein he lives to regret selling his pants to his ex-boss.

But when we first meet Pilbeam in 1924’s Bill the Conqueror, he’s basically the low man at Stafford’s International Investigation Bureau, in the Strand,actually the gung-ho assistant editor of Society Spice, a sordid tell-all scandal sheet based in London. A man with a natural talent for exposing people’s most embarrassing secrets, Pilbeam later rises to the position of Society Spice‘s editor, in Sam the Sudden (1925), before finding his true calling as an actual private eye by the time of 1929’s Summer Lightning, one of Wodehouses most popular novels. It was even filmed (as a comedy) in 1933, while the novel was named one of the “One Hundred Classics of the Genre” by the members of the International Thriller Writers organization, nominated by R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series.

Not that Percy was the main character or anything — like most of Wodehouse’s detective characters, he was more often just one of the moving parts in the machinery. The plot, as far as it goes, revolves around a man stealing a prize pig in order to return it to a Lord and claim his daughter. Or something.

After Summer Lightning, Percy — or ‘P. Frobisher Pilbeam’ as his nameplate would have you believe — heads up London’s Argus Private Enquiry Agency. Along with his staff, he’s both willing and able to undertake any case, no matter how dubious, lurid or extralegal provided, of course, that the fee is right.

Once he establishes himself as a successful P.I., however, Percy cuts a memorable, if not exactly likable figure. Stoutish and squat, Pilbeam has marcelled hair and what is variously described as a “revolting”, “appalling” or “unfortunate” mustache. He also favours a brown, pink and white wardrobe that makes him look like a large ambulatory brick of Neapolitan ice cream. Nonetheless, this doesn’t dissuade him from chasing pretty girls, or crushing on the stenographer in his office, or yearning to one day live in Italy and write poetry.

Still, he packs a formidable reputation as an excellent, if underhanded, snoop. His twin Achilles’ heels, however, are his vanity and his love of money, and these character flaws often lead to his comic downfall in the various novels in which he appears.

NOVELS

  • Bill The Conqueror (1924, serialized in The Saturday Evening Post)
  • Sam in the Suburbs (1925, serialized in The Saturday Evening Post; aka ‘Sam The Sudden”)
  • Summer Lightning (1929, serialized in Colliers; aka “Fish Preferred”)
  • Heavy Weather (1933, serialized in The Saturday Evening Post)
  • Something Fishy (1956, serialized in Colliers, aka “The Butler Did It”)
  • Frozen Assets (1964, Playboy; aka “Biffen’s Millions”)

FILMS

  • SUMMER LIGHTNING
    (1933,
    Based on the novel by P.G. Wodehouse
    Screenplay by Miles Malleson
    Directed by Maclean Rogers
    Starring Ralph Lynn, Winifred Shotter, Chili Bouchier, Horace Hodges, Helen Ferrers, Esme Percy, Miles Malleson, Joe Monkhouse
    and Gordon James as PERCY PILBEAM

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Rudyard Kennedy. And a tip of the chapeau to James Fulford for the lead on the illustration.

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