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…