The Trouble With Harry is a well crafted comic piece of writing by English writer Jack Trevor Story. It’s a memorable and amusing novella and also perhaps the best thing Jack Trevor Story wrote.
In truth I haven’t read or at least finished much else by him over the years because I’ve always felt his work was a little overwrought, over colourful and just straining too hard - he was a prolific writer and wrote many of the most prized novels in the Sexton Blake Library series, along with numerous film and television scripts. Harry, however, is a very precise little book. It is set in the woods and outskirts of a small English town and concerns itself with various modes of eccentricity and the quaintness of murder.
For this very reason, when Alfred Hitchcock made the movie of it, with Shirley Maclaine and John Forsythe in the lead roles and transposed the setting to Vermont, it was always unlikely to work and it doesn’t much, although it is a little eccentric.
I suspect this was a novel Jack just ‘threw’ off and never thought about all that much, except to complain of, and grouse about how little he’d been paid for the rights. Michael Moorcock, in the introduction to a new edition of the book, explains that Hitchcock promised a better deal for Jack on his next book, which ‘Hitch’ then conspicuously failed to film. Moorcock, rightly in my opinion, argues the novella is ‘considerably subtler than the film’ and praises Jack for his celebration of life and his delight in ‘the strangeness of ordinary people.’
I knew Jack briefly, when I worked for a local history museum in Buckinghamshire and he, believe it or not, lived on the premises. Only half pulling his friend’s leg, Jack once told Moorcock that he, ‘lived over a stable as part of the permanent exhibit of the Rural Museum’.
In this period of decline, I would pass him in the courtyard (of what was indeed the old farm house) and he was invariably unshaven, bleary eyed and looking hung-over. Moorcock, obviously a long time friend and affectionate mate, reports that Jack went on to have a nervous breakdown and even lived rough for a while.
I was working as a cataloguer in the museum and it must have been around the time of ‘Glasnost’ in the USSR, during the mid-nineteen eighties, because he once asked me how to spell ‘Perestroika’. Apart from this stray enquiry I don’t recall much else of what we talked about. Though I do wish I’d had more chats with him because he was a great raconteur and had obviously put a lot of colour into his and other people’s life.
He had three wives – as far as he could tell – eight children and a thousand tall stories about his sexual and literary exploits. Many of the stories ended up in the column he wrote in The Guardian which ran for many years.
What with his knack for going out with women much younger than himself and his general philandering - much of which, I now suspect, was more imagined than real - I was quite judgemental about him back then (as the poem I wrote about him at the time, and reproduced below, reflects).
Fortunately, he died exactly where he should have, at his desk. He’d returned to health and his flat in Milton Keynes but eventually, at aged seventy-four, he’d had a fatal heart attack. He had literally just typed ‘The End’ to his last novel, which he’d told his friends was his masterpiece, the autobiographical Shabby Weddings.
He certainly left a lasting impression. For me, as someone aspiring to be a writer, that impression was the living embodiment of an archetype: the down trodden, underpaid and underappreciated man of letters. He was not quite the Grub Street hack, more the over industrious, sometimes inspired, wordsmith. As happy-go-lucky, as he was cynical, and as exuberant and cheerful one moment, as he was world weary the next.