“Are you familiar with the work of the Master?” was the first question Hugh Massingberd used to ask aspiring obituarists, by which he meant not Henry James but P. G. Wodehouse. I can think of no more congenial or reassuring inquiry from a prospective employer. In the context of death notices, though, it isn’t quite what one expects to hear. And yet Massingberd, during his 1986–1994 tenure as obituaries editor for The Daily Telegraph, applied a Wodehousian aesthetic—call it the Blandings sublime—to such good effect that the once-ignored column attracted a cult following and spawned no less than five bestselling anthologies, of which the current volume purportedly represents la crème de la crème.

What then, in obituary terms, does the lesson of the Master dictate? Above all, a preponderance of subjects who are—to use Massingberd’s habitual epithet—fruity. Not fame or...

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