Dan Rhodes – When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow
A broad farce focusing on an irascible character by the name of Richard Dawkins
Dan Rhodes provides several reasons as to why this, his sixth novel, is his first to be self-published. Mainly, it’s a case of speed – going down the traditional route would involve a year-long delay between completion and publication; now we can enjoy the fruits of his labour a mere seven weeks after he’s finished. He also notes, half seriously, that ‘no publisher would dare to touch it for fear of being sued’ – perhaps something to do with the titular Professor being named Richard Dawkins.
The eminent evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist is on his way to deliver a speech in a middle-English region known as The Bottoms when he and his male secretary, Smee, are stranded in a blizzard. What follows is a broad Midsomer farce: Smee and the irascible Dawkins are forced to take shelter in the home of a retired vicar, suffering a series of escalating misadventures as they attempt to fulfil the Professor’s engagement.
There are scattered splashes of brilliance throughout When the Professor...: the ‘thrice-divorced’ Dawkins is so scientifically minded he refers to his wives by number; he makes frequent and hilarious references to his ‘good friends’ Martin Amis, Lynne Truss and AC Grayling; and there’s a beautifully absurd, typically Rhodesian episode involving Smee, his ex-wife and a snotty nose. Sadly, for every moment of wit, there’s also an over-abundance of Are You Being Served?-style innuendo – The Bottoms are repeatedly plundered for puerile puns (‘we must reach Upper Bottom’), while one tediously overlong scene involves a cross purposes conversation about houseplants and genitalia.
It’s tempting to give Rhodes the benefit of the doubt and view When the Professor... as a pastiche of bawdy British sensibilities; indeed, if you read between the lines, you can sense a deep familiarity with (and affection for) quintessentially British elements: silly placenames, ITV game shows, village pubs, holidays ruined by bad weather and a fundamentally blithe and upbeat elderly rural class. That said, if references to Mrs Slocombe’s pussy make you wince instead of giggle, this one’s probably not for you.