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Men of Letters

Men of Letters

By Scriptorius - 1 Review


Men Of Letters

Another frosty February morning. It was a good time for reflection before spring stormed in – and Judge Embert Wimple was reflecting more than somewhat. Uppermost in his mind was the thought that the point was approaching when he would have to call it a day. He did not believe that his powers were waning. However, being both introspective and objective, he had noted within himself an increasing tendency to regard his cases with a degree of light-heartedness not entirely commensurate with the gravitas they deserved. Perhaps more important was the fact that he was getting increasingly lucid glimpses of the mysteries of particle physics. Only yesterday, he had commented to Esmeralda that the oddities of human nature were of ever decreasing interest to him and that quarks were more important than quirks.

With only the vaguest impression of what awaited him today, the judge assumed his position and looked over his papers. Ah, yes, Daniels versus Parkinson, a squabble in the publishing world. Well, with any luck it might be better than humdrum. The advocates were old warriors. Desmond Oddley-Staggers was to represent the prosecution, the defence being in the hands of Liam McGillivray, making one of his rare appearances before Judge Wimple. Satisfied that he was as au fait as necessary, the judge nodded to Oddley-Staggers. “Very well, Mr Osmond, let us begin.”

Prosecuting counsel tucked his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets in a gesture familiar to the judge. He bowed. “May it please Your Honour, this matter is less simple than some that find their way to court. My client, Sidney Daniels, is a literary agent with a flourishing practice close to the centre of this city. Early in August last year, he received from the defendant a manuscript. As Your Honour is doubtless aware, the artistic world is somewhat crowded and this is nowhere more apparent than in the field of books.”

“True,” said the judge. “A short time ago I was asked to read a manuscript produced by a distant relation” – the man concerned was the judge’s brother-in-law – “and I managed no more than thirty pages of turgid twaddle. It was an adventure novel and quite painful. However, I am stealing your thunder, Mr Oldroyd. Please continue.”

“Thank you. The work concerned was titled ‘Lions of Liberty’ and described the rise of organised labour, from the time of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the present. Now, far more work is submitted to publishers and literary agents than they can reasonably evaluate. There is always a backlog. Authors, especially new ones, are usually apprised of this from the outset of their endeavours to get into print. My client placed the manuscript concerned in his pending file, having informed the defendant by telephone that it might be some time before he could reply fully.

“Towards the end of October, Mr Parkinson began to conduct an offensive action against my client, designed to force him to respond. First there was a number telephone calls in quick succession, then several letters. Finally, the defendant appeared at my client’s office, where Mr Daniels was in sole charge, his secretary being on holiday. Mr Parkinson’s behaviour was aggressive and caused Mr Daniels considerable alarm. So furious was the verbal onslaught that my client was in fear for his safety.”

“Yes, yes,” said the judge. “I note that the defendant was forthright. Can we get to the upshot?”

“We can, Your Honour. In a state of some anxiety, my client waved a hand at his pile of outstanding manuscripts, asking Mr Parkinson to try to understand the position. The defendant did not reply, but pushed my client aside, descended upon the heap of files, selected a blue folder familiar to him and left. Three days later Mr Daniels discovered that he was short of a manuscript from one of his most successful authors, a gentleman who has written a string of popular novels set in the Wild West.”

The judge’s eyes lit up. His mind had wandered so far that his notes that his notes comprised efforts to devise an anagram for a ten-letter word that had popped into his mind. Now, suddenly, he was on full alert. Embert Wimple had been brought up on the work of Zane Grey and like many men the world over, he was at heart a rider of the purple sage. He leaned forwards. “Westerns, you say. Who is the author?”

“His name is Gilbert Merrydew.”

“I don’t recall hearing it.”

“You would not have. Mr Merrydew writes under the pseudonym of Dick Trapp.”

“Ah, I see. No doubt he considers that punchier than his real name. You were saying . . .”

“Mr Daniels was distraught, especially as Mr Merrydew telephoned him a day later, asking about his latest work. My client was obliged to admit that he could not find the manuscript. He was acutely embarrassed.”

The judge raised a hand. “Just a moment. Did Mr Merrydew not have a copy of the work?”

“No. He writes his stories using pen and paper and usually calls on my client to hand in his latest work. More distressingly, he does not supply a covering note to identify himself. Mr Daniels is familiar with the handwriting, as the two men are old friends.”

“This seems a little casual,” the judge said.

“We are speaking of the arts, Your Honour. Mundane considerations are not always uppermost in the minds of those concerned.”

“Perhaps not. I suppose I must try to understand such laxity, though I can hardly condone it. Now, you are meandering towards a point. Do you think we might reach it?”

“I am sorry if Your Honour’s patience has been tried. The defendant had violated my client’s filing system and seized what he thought was the folder containing his manuscript. As it happened, Mr Merrydew had coincidentally enclosed his novel in the same kind of light-blue folder as the defendant had used. Mr Parkinson took the wrong file and a potential best-seller disappeared. Mr Merrydew had laboured for ten months over his work and must now must do it all again, assuming that he can do so, which is a large assumption, artistic inspiration being in some cases a transient phenomenon. Furthermore, Mr Merrydew may not wish to entrust any further work to Mr Daniels. The loss of commission income to my client might be regarded as incalculable, but as the story in question was Mr Merrydew’s latest and best novel, Mr Daniels puts the figure at a minimum of ten thousand pounds.”

“Enough,” groaned the judge. “You have made your point with hammer and nails.” He turned appealing eyes to McGillivray. “Let us hear from you, Mr McGillicuddy.”

The big, bluff Irishman offered neither bow nor any other evidence of grovelling. “I am obliged to Your Honour. There is no disagreement about the original submission of my client’s manuscript. Having worked long and hard over his seminal work on the rise of the trade union movement, Mr Parkinson came upon the name of the plaintiff by referring to a writers’ reference book. Being an innocent in these matters, he naturally assumed that he was dealing with an upright businessman. That he was not doing so became apparent to him only after he had demonstrated great restraint in the face of extremely bad manners.”

“Yes, yes. I have just heard that. Tell us something new.”

Far from feeling rebuked, the quick-thinking Celt smiled and ploughed on. My client was frustrated by the plaintiff’s unethical business methods. The catalyst for his later behaviour was the last of his telephone calls to Mr Daniels’ office. He spoke with a young lady, who asked him to wait until she had consulted her employer. Mr Daniels was in the office at the time and Mr Parkinson heard the lady call out to tell him who was on the line. He also heard the reply, which was: ‘It’s in the slush pile with the other drivel.’ This was hardly conducive to my client’s peace of mind. He was angry and decided to act, hence his appearance at Mr Daniels’ office.”

“I understand,” said the judge. “Do you concur with the prosecution’s version of what happened when the litigants met?”

“To some extent, Your Honour. There was an argument, though the plaintiff was not pushed aside. No violence was intended or contemplated by Mr Parkinson. He simply sought justice, which is ironic, since he is now, in a manner of speaking, at the wrong end of it. When he was invited to retrieve his manuscript, he saw piles of papers atop Mr Daniels’ filing cabinets. Seeing what he thought was his own work, he took the blue folder. On leaving the office, he felt a need to relax and called in at a nearby public house. It was there that the Merrydew manuscript disappeared.”

“Disappeared?” said the judge. “How?”

“We do not know. Shortly after my client departed from the hostelry, he realised that he had left the folder on a seat there. He hurried back, only to find that the item had vanished. The landlord was unable to help. It seems that the folder had been taken by a party or parties unknown. Nothing more has been heard of it, which is not surprising, since there wasn’t anything in it to identify either the author or the agent.”

“I see,” said the judge. “As a matter of interest, how long did Mr Parkinson spend in the public house? If you are not sure, we could check.”

A nasty one, that. Judge Wimple had been known to act in the way he was implying.

“He entered at about twelve-fifteen and left at shortly after three.”

“Hmn, closing time. And what about Mr Parkinson’s manuscript? Was it still with Mr Daniels?”

“That was our assumption, Your Honour. Unfortunately, Mr Daniels has failed to produce it. He confirms that there were two identical blue folders in his pending material and that Mr Parkinson took the wrong one. For reasons beyond our comprehension, he seems to be unable to find Mr Parkinson’s work. Because of this, my client would, were he of a litigious nature, be justified in taking action against the plaintiff. However, I have no instructions to that effect. Our submission is that Mr Parkinson has no case to answer. Any strong words he used during his talk with Mr Daniels arose from perfectly reasonable agitation at the plaintiff’s obstructive attitude. Had Mr Daniels behaved in a businesslike manner, there would have been no problem.”

“Very well,” said the judge. “Did Mr Parkinson have a copy of his text?”

“He did not. Like Mr Merrydew, he writes with pen and paper and has no convenient access to copying facilities. Unless the file is recovered, my client has lost two years of work.”

The judge nodded. “Thank you. Now, if you are both willing to accept my verdict, I will give it.”

There was the usual assent, and Judge Wimple abandoned his attempt to produce the anagram he had been seeking. Rustling his papers and doffing his glasses, he emitted a prodigious sigh before summing up: “This an unusually complex matter. Mr Parkinson put his work into the evidently unreliable hands of Mr Daniels, assuming that it was in a secure place and would be either used or returned to him, since it was his intellectual property. I am also mindful that the prosecution has not disputed the defendant’s claim that he repeatedly tried to recover his work.”

This was no comfort to Oddley-Staggers, whose face fell as the judge continued: “As to what occurred in Mr Daniels’ office, we shall never know, as there were no witnesses, so it is the word of one party against that of the other. Even as a judge, I do not wish to be too judgmental, if that is not a contradiction in terms. Still, I am bound to wonder what might have happened in the mind Mr Parkinson, who clearly was in an excited state, and spend three hours in a pub, leaving only when required by law to do so. Also, there is no doubt that having failed to retrieve his own file, he lost the one belonging to Mr Merrydew.”

The judge paused here, but for once disdained the watering that usually characterised such a break. Taking a deep breath, he went on: “With regard to the plaintiff, I am concerned about two points. First, he seems to be no better than the defendant at retaining material, having apparently mislaid Mr Parkinson’s folder. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he did so on a tit-for-tat basis. The defendant had taken one of his files and he – it might be thought conveniently – lost Mr Parkinson’s work. With regard to the estimated financial consequences, I must introduce a personal note. Some years ago, I visited a friend in hospital and was obliged to wait a long time to see him. I had nothing to do but found one of Dick Trapp’s books on the table. I got through about fifty pages, all flailing fists and flying bullets. I thought it was a very ordinary effort. Bearing in mind the usual selling price and circulation of what I can only call pulp westerns and the usual commission paid to agents, I cannot believe that Mr Daniels was deprived of anything like ten thousand pounds of income.”

The summary was approaching mammoth proportions and the judge paused again, this time taking a long drink. “Now,” he continued, “I must say that I have some sympathy with the unfortunate Mr Merrydew, or Dick Trapp, whose prose may or may not ring down the centuries, but who is an innocent loser here. I don’t want to make too much of this, as I find it hard to believe that he truly spent ten months over the novel concerned. I remember listening to an interview with Mr Mickey Spillane, who writes hard-boiled detective stories. When asked what he felt about possible rejection, he replied to the effect that if his publisher did not like his latest effort, he threw it away and produced another, which occupied him for, I believe he said, three weeks or so. Now, I believe that Mr Spillane sells in the millions and if he can produce a popular story in the time he mentioned, I am not disposed to dwell on the supposedly deathless writing of Mr Merrydew.

“On the whole, I am impelled to feel for the defendant. The plaintiff lost a run of the mill Western, which the unfortunate Mr Merrydew will, I assume re-write – and despite what we have heard, will probably submit to his usual agent. So, Mr Daniels will wind up no worse off than before, apart from any interest he may lose by not getting his commission as early as he might have wished. As to Mr Parkinson, notwithstanding his negligence in losing the Merrydew manuscript, the greatest misfortune here falls upon him, as he is obviously a beginner in the literary world and will, I suspect, have an onerous task in recreating his work. All things considered, I feel bound to dismiss the charge. Proceedings concluded.”

* * *

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22 Aug, 2018
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