The Efficiency Expert by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs is not an author I’ve ever considered reading; neither his Tarzan series nor his John Carter of Mars books have ever appealed and I hadn’t thought to look into what else he had written. The Efficiency Expert was suggested by one of my blog readers (thank you, Cheryl!) and it proved to be an excellent recommendation. The book was published in 1921 and seems to be one of only a few novels Burroughs wrote about ordinary people leading ordinary lives.

Jimmy Torrance is in his final year at university when he discovers that, having devoted his time to football, baseball and boxing instead of his studies, he is now in danger of failing his course. After working hard for the rest of the semester, he manages to get his diploma and ‘would have graduated at the head of his class had the list been turned upside down’. Unimpressed, his father orders him to come home before he can acquire any more debt, but Jimmy heads for Chicago instead, determined to get a good job and make his father proud of him.

Arriving in Chicago, Jimmy begins to look for work but soon finds that his college education counts for nothing without any experience. Forced to accept that nobody is going to employ him as an office boy, let alone the general manager’s position he had hoped for, he embarks on a series of increasingly embarrassing jobs including selling ladies’ hosiery in a department store and working as a waiter in a disreputable nightclub. Eventually, just as he reaches his lowest ebb, he is offered the position of ‘efficiency expert’ in a factory. Things seem to be looking up at last – but when he notices a discrepancy in the company’s accounts, he must decide whether to act and risk losing the only good job he’s ever had.

The first half of the book is entertaining and quite amusing as Jimmy stumbles from one disastrous job to another, while repeatedly encountering two young women who are mystified to find him serving at tables one day and driving a milk wagon the next. Jimmy is very naïve when he first arrives in Chicago, assuming that as a graduate he will be able to walk straight into any job, and his story will resonate with other young people who have had to work their way up from the bottom. I admired him for not asking his rich family and friends for help, which would have made things easier for him, but it’s this same sense of pride and integrity that results in him losing or leaving job after job.

Jimmy makes two new friends in Chicago – a pickpocket and safe-breaker known as the Lizard, and Little Eva, a prostitute he meets during his nightclub job – both of whom become better people due to their association with Jimmy. There’s a clear message here that decent people can be found in all walks of life and nobody is beyond redemption if they are only given a chance. The more privileged characters in the book (or some of them anyway) are not shown in such a good light! There’s a romantic element to the story too, with Jimmy having three possible love interests. The one he ends up with is neither the one I’d hoped for nor the one I’d expected, but at least that means the book isn’t completely predictable!

After Jimmy starts working as an efficiency expert, the story takes a different turn and the book becomes more of a thriller than the light comedy it had seemed at the beginning. It’s exciting for a while, but I thought it fell apart slightly at the end, with characters who had become inconvenient to the plot being too easily disposed of and loose ends tied up too neatly. Still, this book was fun to read and although I’m still not drawn to Tarzan or the science fiction novels, I’m pleased to have found an Edgar Rice Burroughs book that I did want to read and did enjoy.

If you have trouble finding a copy of this book, it’s available through Project Gutenberg.

15 thoughts on “The Efficiency Expert by Edgar Rice Burroughs

  1. Calmgrove says:

    I kind of knew at the back of my mind that ERB wrote in genres other than his Tarzan and Martian novels but had never explored elsewhere, so this was very enlightening, thank you! And what a great title, one which seems to have nothing to do with the cover illustration – definitely intriguing.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve only ever associated ERB with Tarzan and science fiction, so I was surprised to find that he had written a book like this, which had nothing to do with apemen or martians!

  2. Cyberkitten says:

    Interesting! I’ve never read any of ERB’s Tarzan series but I’ve read a fair bit of his other stuff (back in my 20’s mostly) and enjoyed them by and large. Its amazing how prolific some of these authors were and the spread of their output. I guess they needed a lot of output back then to pay the bills!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, he seems to have written a lot more books than I’d realised! I wish there were more like this one, but his Tarzan and science fiction books were so successful it’s understandable that he would concentrate on those.

  3. Lark says:

    I’m glad you found an Edgar Rice Burroughs book you could enjoy. I’ve dipped into both his Tarzan and Mars series and thought they were equally fun, though I’ve only read a couple of books in each.

  4. Cheryl Turtle says:

    What surprised me the most about The Efficiency Expert is that Helen found time to read it; those 220 pages (paperback) didn’t even count toward a challenge!

    Edgar Rice Burroughs may have been a pulp fiction hack, but I was hooked when I read Tarzan of the Apes 40 years ago. If there were other authors speculating about life on Mars and Venus, they’ve been forgotten in his wake. Burroughs’ imaginative stories gave readers an escape from both World Wars during his lifetime, and their popularity continues to this day.

    The author’s sympathy for less reputable characters like Little Eva (who’s more escort than prostitute) and the Lizard is obvious. After all, Burroughs was down on his luck until he was first published at 36 years old. He also wrote strong female characters into The Girl from Farris’s, The Girl from Hollywood, and The Oakdale Affair. They’re all true to life stories like The Efficiency Expert.

    • Helen says:

      I’m surprised I found time to read it too – although I’m slowly catching up with my to-be-read piles, so should have more time for spontaneous reading choices from now on.

      That’s a good point about Burroughs’ books providing escapism from the wars. I think there’s always a need for books like those, as their popularity shows, even if they are sometimes dismissed as pulp. Thanks for recommending this one. I might try one of the others you mention at some point!

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