There are six rather remarkable stories that are related by the friend of Basil Grant (the celebrated London judge who apparently went rather mad). Besides a few nicknames in the beginning, his name is merely, “I”. The introduction to the members of the Club of Queer Trades began when “I” was having a glass of Basil’s gorgeous Burgundy with him, and his brother, Inspector Rupert came to him with the strange case of Major Brown. Major Brown, formerly with the British army in India, had retired, and one day while walking, he saw, over the alley wall, a garden of pansies which spelled “Death to Major Brown.” A man invited him in to the house, enjoining him to avoid mentioning jackals.  Inside he found a fearful woman who was only permitted to look outside until 6pm and who was frightend of many mysterious events she kept mentioning. At 6pm, a man from the coal cellar started asking “Major Brown, where does the jackal dwell?” Despite the protests from the woman about the imminence of their deaths, he goes to the coal cellar, and struggle ensues, with the Major left holding the coat of the fleeing man. There is a name on a message in the coat, and Inspector Rupert insists on visiting the location (with a revolver). When they find the man mentioned in the message, they discover that he runs a organization that writes, acts, and produces adventures for people whose lives are two boring, on a subscription basis. Due to a confusion of names, when the Major moved into his current place, they assumed that he was the same person. The Major, having already had real adventures in India did not think so highly of them, canceled the subscription. But he did marry the actress he had attempted to rescue; she said that she had not seen anyone go into the coal cellar knowing there was murderer before.

Some time later, Basil and “I” were riding on the top of a bus, and Basil saw a man whose face was clearly evil. “I” protested that he was judging on the basis of no information, so Basil, followed by “myself” chase the man from a seedy area of London to the fashionable home of Lord Beaumont, a friend of Basil’s from his days on the court. Basil notes that Lord Beaumont is afflicted with the nonsensical notion that anything new must be better, so his home has a parade of novelty idea peddlers. Basil introduces the two of them to the Lord Beaumont, and they are treated to a display of the cutting wit of Mr. Wimpole, a newly arisen modern wit. Wimpole has a skill with turning the words of a certain Lord Cholmondeliegh against him. After a bit, they leave, waiting for Wimpole to leave. As it transpires, both Wimpole and Lord Cholmondeliegh leave together, and they chase them down, following Lord Cholmondeliegh and eventually pinned him down. One of Basil’s friends arrived and said that Wimpole had not said a thing at the dinner party where people had come especially to hear him. It turns out that Lord Cholmondeliegh is not a Lord at all, but someone who makes his living being the brunt of pre-arranged jokes that make the person who hired him look like a charming wit.

Another day, as “I” was preparing to go to a dinner party along with Basil to meet a Captain Fraser, a vicar came and asked his assistance in a strange and deadly matter that he had just been caught up in. He had been invited to a Dorcas Society meeting by some ladies in his church, but it turned out that they were all actually men, and forced him to dress up as a the mother of a man they wanted rob (and possibly kill). However, he acted so drunk in front of a police officer they met, that the other “women” were forced to let him take her away. In order to not embarrass his name as a vicar by having to tell the policeman the truth (plus, it would be difficult to believe), he runs away as soon as possible, coming to “my” house. “I” recommended that he see Basil, who would have just about arrived back from the dinner party that “I” had missed. Basil listens to the story, then asked if he knew Captain Fraser. After answering in the negative, Basil requested his moustache, and when this was refused, a short tussle ensued. Eventually it was discovered that Basil had not gone to the dinner party, either, having been detained by an identical vicar with identical story, in order that Captain Fraser would have time alone with the woman he loved (the host of the party) before sailing to Africa the next day. The two men were professional Detainers: for a small fee, they will detain someone and prevent them from going to a dinner party. Since they had to detain gentlemen from the request of a lady, it had to be something pretty urgent.

One day Basil, Inspector Rupert, and “I” were talking about Lieutenant Keith, a man whose storied history consisted of countless incredible tales, and Rupert and “myself” (along with a good many others) found them completely unbelievable. Basil, who had some familiarity with Keith, said he was entirely truthful, perhaps too much so for his own good. At that moment, Keith came in to ask for a loan from Basil, who promptly wrote out a cheque. It turned out that Keith was going about some “business” with his house-agent, and Rupert asked to come along. Keith was rather put out, but obliged. There house-agent had a rather unusual fondness of strange animals, and the conversation was unusual as well, ending with the fact that if Keith wanted the house to be inconspicuous he should paint it green. Arrangements were abruptly concluded with Keith out the door rather before Rupert expected. Shortly afterwards they saw Keith involved in a scuffle and requested the policeman follow him. The policeman had his address: “The Elms, Buxton Common, Purley, Surrey,” however he was unable to locate any houses there and reported that the address was incorrect. Basil assured them that it was most definitely correct. Rupert was convinced otherwise, so they visited the location, finding merely a common, with no houses to be seen. Basil, however, starts climbing the tree. They follow him and discover that the address was literally correct: Lieutant Keith had procured a tree house, and the house-agent was in the business of selling tree houses. The moral is, that if you put “The Elms” in front of a bland brick with no trees, in a bald-faced lie, people will believe you, but should you tell the literal truth, they will not.

There was a Professor Chadd, who was a Zulu anthropologist and stereotypical eccentric academic, on the eve of being given a well-paying position with the British Museum. He and Basil were engaged in a academic discussion until late in the evening. He was given the post, but the next morning his spinster sister sent Basil a telegram saying that he had gone mad. They visited and found the professor dancing on the lawn. He refused to say a word, but would only dance. Basil watched a while, then started dancing to. The curator of the Museum came and regretted that he could not give the professor the position in this state (which would mean grave financial difficulties for him and his spinster sisters). Basil said that he need to give him a fairly large salary until he started dancing. The curator balked at this, and Basil eventually explained that he had argued against the professor’s theory that language is fully formed in some and picked up by others, and that the professor was demonstrating the correctness of his theory. The curator ended up supporting the experiment.

The final episode came as Rupert and “I” were walking along a street one evening, and Rupert suspected a milkman. They followed him down to a cellar, and hear a lady trapped in a dark room in the cellar calling out “when shall I get out? Will they ever let me out?” They attempt to get in, but are met by one of the owners and need to invent a reason for being there, and then leave. Basil is nearby, so they find him. He goes in to talk to the owners, says that everything is all right, he had a very cordial discussion with the owners, who are definitely not the sort who would lock up a woman, despite being Darwinists, who, of course, of completely mistaken as to the correctness of their theory, and suggests they go to dinner. Rupert and “I” refuse to go until they see about the woman, so Basil reluctantly introduces them to the owners. In the middle of the conversation, Rupert and “I” attack the owners, some long struggle results, with the owners eventually being subdued. Rupert and “I” attempt to free the woman, who will not leave the room because the owners were forcibly restrained. They return and bring the rest down. The woman has turned off the light, and when it is lit, curtseys to Basil, who says that since she had not left with them when she had the opportunity, she is released.

No explanation for this is given. Rupert and “I” eventually track down the secret location of the Club of Queer Trades, and are rather surprised to find Basil as its acting president for the year. The Club requires for membership that the trade be entirely new, not a derivative of an existing trade, and that the tradesman make his living from it. In his speech to begin the year, they all give an account of their trade, and Basil explains his: he grew tired of being a judge, where he could say no words of importance. He was asked to preside over social matters, and his Voluntary Criminal Court tried cases where people made social life impossible for others.

The Club of Queer Trades is an interesting set of stories. It keeps to the same rough formula as Sherlock Holmes: the mastermind is presented with a problem involving mysterious actions or words, usually by his good hearted, but especially far-seeing friend. The person who considers himself as able to solve problems is repeatedly at a complete loss. However, while Holmes is ruthlessly scientific—the facts will inevitably lead to the conclusion, however unusual—Basil is quite of the opposite bent. Basil makes his determinations based on whether the man or the situation has a criminal feel to it. Having been a brilliant judge for many years, he presumably has a good feel for this. Basil follows the man, instead of the facts, for his answers.

The Sherlock Holmes stories, while set in a very specific time in history have a timeless feel to them, perhaps because the situations are so clearly described. Or perhaps it is simply because of the excellent illustrations giving life to the time. The Basil Grant stories continually felt anachronistic. I knew full well that they were set in the beginning of the 1900s, but details like needing to light the gas lights continually threw me off. Perhaps the time is near enough to the early twentieth century that most things translated, so the ones that didn’t were jarring. Perhaps it is the lack of substantial details, that required me to remember that cabs were driven by horses, hence it is actually possible to follow someone in a cab (with difficulty), since horses were never mentioned. Here, the illustrations help Doyle: one can easily see that the lights are gas and that cabs are driven by horses. I suppose the lesson is that even if you are written Now, fill out the world in such a way that the reader expects all the details as inevitable.

There is one thing that struck me about the Holmes’ clients that shows up a little in these stories as well—Holmes’ clients’ mysteries were usually of a social problem, rather than an actual crime, yet were considered of the utmost concern. Basil Grant and company have a similar outlook, although rather more easy-going. It makes me wonder what kind of society Victorian England was, that appearances were so important. Especially from Chesterton’s stories, it seems that somehow the opinions that one’s peers had of you influenced your life considerably, which is rather difficult for a modern American reader, steeped in individualism and egalitarianism, to understand.

Doyle lived in physical details and the Victorian England of Sherlock Holmes lived in the age of Science. Holmes is a mythic hero of the triumph of Science and Reason. Chesterton, in contrast, is a Christian, and assertive (in his other books) that the Christian worldview is incompatible with the Modernist worldview (namely, that the existance of God, a supernatural being, obviously shows that observation and Reason about the natural world are not sufficient to describe reality). Chesterton’s detail is in the ideas, and Basil is constantly hinting that modern life is running on the wrong assumptions, just as Holmes is constantly saying that the solution is detailed observation and reasoning. One could consider The Club of Queer Trades to be a sort of reactionary Sherlock Holmes, although it is unclear whether that is the case, or whether it is simply Chesterton’s love of detective stories married with his worldview paying homage to Sherlock Holmes. Regardless, the reader will find some queer trades revealed by excellent story-telling.
Review: 9
This book is definitely a 100 year book by definition: it has been about 100 years and people are still enjoying the stories. The writing is excellent, although definitely a bit of a philosophical bent. Unlike the Sherlock Holmes stories, which suggest that it might be possible for the reader to arrive at the correct conclusion before Holmes reveals it, Chesterton offers no pretense. You will find out when the characters find it; it is a mystery. It is refreshing to not think “why did I not see that?”