efandrich (efandrich) wrote,

Four Frightened People by E. Arnot Robertson

Dedicated to LizzieD who read this book because I wanted to discuss it with someone...

Poll for anyone who has read this novel:

  a. This is a rollicking adventure story!
  b. This is the worst book published in the Virago Modern Classics catalog.
  c. This HAS to be a satire or a spoof of rollicking adventure stories!

Once upon a time a ship was sailing down the east coast of the Malayan Peninsula bearing our stalwart heroine and her heroes to Palimban where they will connect with the vessels to carry them to their final European destinations.  And these characters are:

Judy Corder, a 26-year-old doctor, who doesn't let anyone know she is a doctor because she just hates to be asked for free medical advice while she is on holiday.  She keeps her secret even when she sees the ship's doctor being tossed overboard in the middle of the  night...but I am getting ahead of the story.

Stewart Corder, Judy's cousin, a newsman and sometimes writer whose work is not appreciated.  For good reason.  He is a really bad writer.

Arnold Ainger
,  a government functionary, whose wife pays more attention to her children than her husband.


Mrs Mardick, a relentlessly cheerful woman who never stops talking and giving advice where it is not appreciated.  Oddly, her advice is almost always right and that is what is so irritating about her, I guess.  Think Cosmo Topper's wife and you will have a good idea of how the character acts except that Mrs Topper is really flighty and Mrs...oh, never mind.

THE PLOT (more or less, actually less than more, because there is a lot of plot, most of which makes little sense unless you chose answer a from the poll.)

Our four characters are sailing the mysterious South Pacific seas, not humming Bali Hai because Rogers and Hammerstein haven't written the song yet.  Anyhow, clever Arnold discovers two things.  One, Judy is a doctor.  He deduces this from the way she hands her cousin a scissors to slit some book pages.  (Tidbit for youngsters ...This is a time when book pages have to be slit apart.  If you go into a library and find an old book with unslit pages you know the book hasn't been read, no matter how many times it may have been checked out.  But I digress ....). Apparently Judy slapped the scissors into her cousin's hand the way a surgeon would.  And clever Arnold concluded Judy was not a surgical nurse because she looked more like a doctor.  Okay.....      The second thing Arnold discovered was that  "THERE  WAS  PLAGUE ON THE SHIP."   Now, to give Judy some credit here, she noticed that bodies were being dropped overboard after dark and thought something was odd, especially since some of the bodies, including the doctor, weren't  really, most sincerely dead.  Besides, a rat dramatically  expires at the entrance to the dining room.  Most of the passengers just figured it had eaten some of their dinner.

WHAT TO DO!!!!  Should Judy reveal she is a doctor and come to the aid of the passengers who are becoming sick??? Not our Judy!! Screw the Hippocratic Oath!  Let's get off this damn ship! So Judy and the two heroes plan their escape when the ship docks at a small village.  They have to sneak off the ship because there is a cholera epidemic in the village so passengers can't disembark!  (Talk about the headache and upset stomach dilemna....plague or cholera, maybe even both!)  Quietly, Judy prepares.  She takes some quinine, lots of money, and dresses in her prettiest outfit with silk stockings and lovely dancing  slippers. Then they hail a passing canoe and climb aboard, only to be discovered by Mrs. Mardick.  Afraid she will blow the whistle on their escape and thwart them (neat word, thwart), they force her into the canoe.  Didn't think to tie her up and stuff her in a life  boat where she would be discovered the next morning.  Nope, much better to bring her along.

  The plan was to hire a fishing boat to sail  up the coast 30 miles to a port  where they can get connections to Europe.  They will  be on their way home before their passenger ship gets out of quarantine.  Now they face their first major obstacle.  The village fishermen won't sail them up the coast because they are "fighting" with the fishermen up the coast.  Now, considering this is a very, very poor village and that our heroes'  pockets are stuffed with money, wouldn't it be sensible to "rent" or even "buy" one of the little fishing boats?  It would probably be more money than the villagers saw in a lifetime and both Judy and Stewart are world-class sailors..  Noooo...  There would be no novel if this happened.  Instead, they hire a guide who speaks a sort of English and head into the jungle!!!!!  Let me stress, THERE IS NO REASON TO HEAD INTO THE JUNGLE!!!   So our  six adventurers..   ..Deotlan the faithful Indian companion,  the faithful guide and his beautiful native girlfriend Wan Nau......and our four Europeans head into the deep, dark, dank, dim, dismal,  damp and dangerous  jungle.  (Guess which two do not survive, bearing in mind that "white is right".)

THE JUNGLE The jungle is full of all kinds of dangers.  Killer ants, wounded killer panther-like animals, killer plants, mosquitoes, bogs, screeching birds, screeching other things, mysterious eyes (these last attached to the dumbest natives ever written, but they do have poisonous arrows! )  Now we come to the FEMINIST angle.  Judy has to decide which of the two men, Stewart or Arnold, will eventually be her lover.  Why would either want to bed her?  Well, because IT'S THE LAW OF THE JUNGLE where males become overheated and want to ravage females.  She, being a modern girl, will be the one who decides the ravager.  (I digress again.  Why would insect bites, sweat, rashes, ingrained dirt, scratches, swollen ankles make anyone attractive to the opposite sex.  Well, maybe stinky is an aphrodisiac).  Judy also hints that she has PMS, really!  That is why she is irritable.  Unfortunately, she neglects to mention how she is going to handle the lack of sanitary supplies.  I really was curious.... 

(By the way Arnold is the ravager.  But he makes it clear that it is only while he and Judy are in the jungle because his wife, although she cares more for his children than for  him,  still  adores him and would be devastated by any infidelity.  Arnold does not like his children at all.  Apparently, they are boring conversationalists. Stewart pretends not to notice the noise coming from behind the bushes when the ravager and ravagee are ravaging.)

Our six wander in the jungle, meet the natives who are awed by the Europeans.   These sublinguil  inhabitants  only attack them sneakily, not face to face like real men!  Brave Judy goes into a village to get supplies from the women while Arnold and Stewart fend off the men outside the village.  Judy is amazing at pantomime so she gets what she wants and even bargains for it.  What a woman! 

Wander through the jungle...get caught in bogs...get menaced by snakes...native girl who has lived in the area forever gets bitten by poisonous snake and dies a horrible death.... faithful Indian companion guide gets hauled off by natives and is never seen again....AND have you forgotten about Mrs.Mardick?  She who is unfailingly cheerful, does not complain about bad food and enjoys a tasty monkey , isn't bothered by her insect bites, and talks happy talk all the time?  What happens to her?  She gets on their last nerve, so Judy and Arnold and Stewart wake up early one morning and sneak off.  LEAVING HER ASLEEP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE JUNGLE!!!!  That's right, just abandoning her.....oh, well.

More slogging ... broken ankle... stumbled out of jungle onto  beach  ... see boat... hail it... rescued. Back home Stewart loses his job and will become a serious writer. I suspect he will die of starvation .  Arnold's  wife dumps him when he confesses his ravaging  in the jungle.  She is apparently ticked off that he used his manhood to  ravage someone else;  even though she didn't care much  for his manhood , it was her property , damn it! (Thanks, LD, for pointing this out; I had forgotten)   Judy and Arnold  are free to marry and bore everyone with their story of the Malayan jungle adventure.

That is an outline of this book.

Racist?  You bet!
Feminist? Well there was the PMS  thing and Judy choosing her lover.
Authentic?  The best descriptions of the Malayan jungle the National Geographic,  the Royal Geographic Society lectures and Cooks Tours brochures  could supply.

So is it a really bad book?  A good adventure story?  Or did Robertson sit herself down and deliberately put every adventure story cliche into a novel, mix it with some sex, add a sprinkle of jingoism,  and hope the recipe  would make her money?  And was it her cynical little joke that, even if she made her characters absolutely awful with no redeeming qualities, she knew  the public was gullible enough to buy it?

It was a huge best-seller. 


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