The Merry Millionaire Duology (second book Pomp & Circumstance)
By John Wells
These books, thick and detailed follow the antics and adventures of society gent Captain Ronald Fry and his crush and working class sidekick Mervyn Watson as they travel around the world of the pre Second World War years.
This is a story of privilege and indulgence, of luxury and secrets of seeming to be one thing, but being another and it’s also a story of white privilege in last days of imperial exploitation and indulgence of the European (and particular British) elites of the time and a story of gay love and sex lived without shame or restraint, but in a discreet way forced by the mores of the time.
Well’s prose is heavy with detail and he crafts his words richly, to ensure the background, weather, smells and colour are fully described so we feel immersed in his representations of these luxurious and often secret worlds.
His narrative follows the adventures of Fry and Watson on cruise ships, hotels, gentlemen’s clubs and many other places across the word and he is particularly good on his descriptions of Cairo and Egypt. It’s a kind of gay Great Gatsby and has that same slightly repugnant edge of ever-so immoral people whose cares are beyond mere money and who can buy themselves out of (and into) trouble, and do so with little affect on their conscience.
In the context of it’s time the books work but there’s some uncomfortable reflections from our modern social norms, but such was the behaviours of these people at the time. The early part of the books follow the development of Fry’s mentoring of Watson, after the ravages of the first world war and its impact on the British social structure. Fry’s largess is spread all across Watson’s family and he then partners up with Fry to begin their travels. Fry as the bent gent and benefactor, Watson as the erotic enabler. It’s a curious mix but works if you like a tub thumping shirt ripper of a yarn.
Well’s relishes geographic descriptions and the books, although pretty hefty and thick have an enjoyable narrative tempo about them. His vivid and careful crafted descriptions of the seemingly endless places that Watson and Fry find themselves are evocatively suggested.
He suggests that the books are based on true events and actual people, now all dead, who’s names have been changed to preserve their anonymity and although I find this a stretch too far on the incredulous scale there’s no doubt that men like these would have existed, travelled and thrived (indeed they still do) and Wells does a good job of keeping us interested and absorbed in characters who are not always such likeable people.
Pomp and Circumstance, which is book two of The Merry Millionaire follows these two gay gents and their further adventures, back in a sumptuous described Egypt again but with an edge of murder mystery and the macabre about it, but still with a focus on the shadow and glamour of this shady gay pair as they exploit their privilege, money and raw male beauty, along with the gun-boat diplomacy of their Britishness and Empire connections to explore the more secret and gay focused places during the gilded days of the end of the Jazz age.