#784: The Widening Stain (1942) by W. Bolingbroke Johnson [a.p.a. by Morris Bishop]

Widening Stain

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To Miss Gilda Gorham, Chief Cataloguer of an unnamed American university’s library — a building oft-expanded, and now an “architectural emetic” — the death of one colleague amongst the stacks may be regarded as a misfortune; the death of two, however, added to the disappearance of a staggeringly rare and expensive mansucript, has the air of carelessness about it. Who among the amicable staff of the university could have perpetrated such acts? And why? So, for ill-defined reasons, she puts any discomfiture aside and launches an investigation of her own. Naturally, it is not too long before all manner of clandestine activites begin to creep out…

Nicholas Basbane’s introduction — best read afterwards, since he names the second victim who dies well into the second half of the book — tells how Morris Bishop, before publishing this under a nom de plume, commented that the mystery of his first draft of The Widening Stain (1942) “would not deceive an intelligent chimpanzee”. In this final draft he has fixed this problem by making the key to the mystery so damn esoteric that none but the most obscurely-read stand a hope in hell of getting the who or the why with any more than a lucky guess. The finer end of the mystery genre always felt as if it belonged to the epicure, but Bishop’s tastes are refined to the point of abstraction. Taken as a mystery, then, this falls a little flat — the motive feels about ten years too early, if you get my meaning — which is a shame, because elsewhere the book is a delight.

Firstly, it is very funny. While I’m not convinced that anyone has quite the level of erudition in their repartee that some characters are invested with here (“Amour! That’s what she wants. And remember that ‘amour,’ as used in the works of Alfred de Musset, is not exactly translated by the word ‘love’ as it appears in the works of Longfellow.”), there’s a keen eye skewering the niceties of what is essentially a working environment: poor Professor Sparhawk creating a terrible first impression by dint of simply getting an unpleasant duty done quickly, say, or having to get one’s hands grubby when trying to investigate two murders and thus relying on the infelicities of others:

“You shouldn’t listen to private conversations, Cameron.”

“No. And you shouldn’t listen to me when I repeat them to you, either.”

It’s a shame that so little of the detail Bishop provides pertains to his central mystery, because he — a Cornell man for a number of decades — knows his setting perfectly and melds Gilda’s rather scattershot investigation effortlessly into the life of the university. The colourful types who abound as suspects — the limerick-spouting Professor Parry, the lofty academic titan Professor Belknap, the new boy Professor Casti, the avuncular if incautious with his hands Professr Hyett — have about them the life of real people rather than simply the touchstone quality of bodies thrown in the way for obfuscation, and the various group discussion held on murder and detection are entertaining and resonate with playful intelligence. And petty squabbles invade these working relationships, too: Casti dismissed as “excellent on phonetics, no doubt, but he’s never had any proper cultural background”, say, or Gilda’s despair at the low standards of the young women working alongside her.

Historically, too, this is fascinating. Not just the unavailablity of French vermouth on account of the war raging in Europe, or Gilda’s (purposefully?) naive reflection that “there are few who dare to refrain when the world is applauding. Hence the universality of the Nazi salute, in the Dark Continent” but also for attitudes and facets of life that could easily slip by were attention to called to them. That not all the staff at the university would qualify for a pension, for instance, is used to explain the important knowledge of one character, and the cavalier attitude of the coroner when considering the verdict of an inquest is, while no doubt played for laughs, probably closer to the truth than any number of novels of the time would like to have you believe.

There’s a very interesting prescience, too, in the discussion had about society’s attitudes to women, such as the following discussion about the dropping of two of the female students from the university for “spots on their morals”:

“What gripes me,” said Professor Coffman of Psychology warmly, “is that they don’t drop the young men who are presumably involved. Why take it out on the poor girls? It probably isn’t their fault.”

“It has always been presumed to be their fault,” said Professor Belknap. “The lawgivers, and society too, have always said that the woman is to blame. If a man attacks and a woman yields, the woman is to be punished for yielding, while the man becomes a kind of hero.”

The more I think about this book, the more I feel the misfortune of having the murders and theft intrude on what would otherwise be a fascinating examination of culture and society at a very unusual place and time. Every time Bishop tries to steer us towards the murder, the background overwhelms him — case in point, the discovery of the first body is dramatically followed up by…three pages about the history of the library. It’s almost impossible to want to drub a novel which describes a man sitting at his desk with “his morning mail lay[ing] before him untouched, like a bad child’s breakfast”, but something written as a mystery should have more interest in its, er, mysterious elements, no?

In blending the fatuous with the gallant, and the fustian with the brusque, Bishop has written a very humorous murder story that sits alongside the likes of Edmund Crispin’s works in bringing us both grubby-handed murder and ivory tower erudition with a light touch. That the erudition outshines the murder, despite the minatory qualities of both, is perhaps not unexpected and, since this is his only published detective fiction, he’s not a talent the genre need lament losing. But The Widening Stain is a fun time for those of us who know this setting but slightly — falling somewhere between Crispin’s Gervase Fen novels and Home Sweet Homicide (1944) by Craig Rice, this is not as successful as either but retains the charm that will make it very appealing to fans of that sort of thing.

In the final instance, however, years from now I shall remember this book for two reasons. First, what must be the oddest jumping-off point for a romance in the genre’s history, and second the description on page 158 of the noise made by a motor. That could surely have been amended, no? Spat my tea everywhere when I read that, I did…

8 thoughts on “#784: The Widening Stain (1942) by W. Bolingbroke Johnson [a.p.a. by Morris Bishop]

  1. Happy to see this suddenly pop up on the feed! I was interested to read your thoughts on it because I made several efforts to start this one but never managed to get very far with it as it never seemed to grab me. Wittiness aside, I think I need something more to hang onto so based on your assessment of the complete product, I may push this a little further down the TBR pile and give it a chance when it better matches my mood.

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    • Yeah, while I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading this — it’s charming, easy to read, and goes about its job well — I can’t really recommend in any but the most mild terms. There’s nothing offensive about it, and the world is wonderful and crying out for a sequel…but you can delay on this, I’d suggest, without missing too much.

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  2. Thanks for the review, and I’m glad to see you’re back in action. 🙂 I was a little concerned by your absence – but saw that you were still replying on other blogs.

    I read this novel sometime last year, and recall finding it slightly tedious in its pacing – it went on for longer than I thought it needed to. Then again, I don’t think I quite enjoyed the ‘blending [of] the fatuous with the gallant, and the fustian with the brusque’ as much as you did. 😬

    For a moment, when I read it out of context, I thought your phrase, ‘the oddest jumping-off point’, referred to the murder itself. Then I realised my mistake. 😜

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    • Rest assured, if I ever pack this in entirely I’ll be sure to announce it. The eight people who’d notice would be upset, otherwise 😄

      This certainly goes on for longer than it needed to, and the best solution to this is to cut out all the stuff about the murder and leave behind a charming novel of life on university campus at the (Amercian) start of WW2. Kingsley Amis, eat your heart out!

      And, yes, as a jumping off point for the murder I thin we can agree that the perfect spot is chosen. That romance, though…that’s never going to last 😄😄

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  3. Welcome back from your break!

    I read the Rue Morgue Press reprint of The Widening Stain, but only remember finding it amusing and being intrigued by the second novel listed, The Jelly-Like Mass. But there was big asterisk after it saying, “or so he says.”

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    • I’d’ve been intrigued to see how Johnson/Bishop’s writing progressed fom here — perhaps his mysteries would have become more mystery-heavy — but the non-appearance of The Jelly-Like Mass doesn’t fill me with regret.

      Upon reflection, I’ve realised that this book reminds me of The Dartmouth Murders by Clifford Orr: not just the college setting, but the overlapping of the professional and personal interests of the people therein. I can do nothing with this observation, except say that the genre managed just fine without two people writing books like Clifford Orr 🙂

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  4. Great to see you back! Really interesting about Bishop’s going straight from the elementary to the abstruse—achieving the surprising-yet-inevitable middle path does seem to defeat so many of these character and setting driven efforts. But it still sounds like a moderately fun read.

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    • Oh, it’s plenty of fun. Calling it a Mystery Classic does — as with a lot of these endeavours — raise one’s expectations perhaps unreasonably, but I’ve read far, far worse books and would hate to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy it.

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