Given how much classic (and modern!) crime and detective fiction relies on the concept of Othering — identifying the person who doesn’t ‘fit’ in a situation, and hoping guilt can be pinned on them — it’s interesting to see Theodore Roscoe employ the concept in the story of ‘Frivolous’ Clariselle Allders.
We’re back in Four Corners, a small town somewhere in upstate New York, and the small-mindedness of rural communities is in full force for ‘Frivolous Sal’ (1937):
There’s a bit of the Judge in all of us, so it’s not surprising this should come to the surface in a place as narrow as Four Corner. Not that country towns are the only strongholds of violent bigotry (our world capitols have their whipping posts today) but you hear it more readily in a country town. An explosion, for the quiet of the hills, is louder.
Sal’s crime, it seems, is to have wanted more than the parochial setting and expectations of Four Corners was willing to allow her — to have had “uppity notions about travel and dancing and sending ‘way to Albany after hats and such” in a setting where knowing “how to get milk out of a cow” and marriage by 25 years of age is considered the decent and right thing to do. In the “Gay Nineties, when people were humming waltzes, looking at Gibson Girls and whispering of Suffragets”, Sal spurned a rumoured marriage to ‘good folk’ and ran away to Boston, only to return upon the death of her father and bring some of the City Folk back with her. Thus begins a precipitous fall from grace in the eyes of the honest, hard-workin’ folk of Four Corners, as Sal brass necks it out and everyone else tuts, averts their eyes, and wonders what the world might be coming to.
As an exploration of pettifogging small-mindedness, Roscoe’s examination of the life and rumoured death of Sal Allders is another textbook example of how to write. Witness our nameless narrator giving not just the names of the men who hold forth on Sal’s moral decrepitude but their position in the town, too: everyone is someone, even if they’re someone on account of who used to do their job or live in their house, and the picture of a closed, insular unit with its own communal sense of Right and Wrong couldn’t be more beautifully limned. Crucially, our narrator doesn’t judge, either — arguably, some of Sal’s behaviour is as reprehensible as the desire of those who surround her to impose their own standards upon her — instead simply relating what can be found on both sides of the fence with the objectivity of the outsider who knows he has several decades to go before being considered anything else.
Prison could have been nothing to these past five years in “solitary,” jailed in by the tight lips and averted eyes of her neighbors, committed to banishment by outraged society, exiled by a community’s condemnation.
If the opening stages paint this picture in strokes both broad and minute, you know it’s because Roscoe is going to put this exquisitely-pitched situation to good use:
Mule Lickette shook his head. “The story of that woman’s life would sure make a book.”
Sheriff Vickers, from a back bench among the oldsters, advised sourly, “You can read a couple of chapters, if you’ve a mind, in th’ records over at th’ county jail.”
That book, it seems, might see the light of day after all, as rumours — more rumours, always with the rumours in Four Corners — begin to circulate that Sal, now living as a hermit in a ramshackle cottage in a clearing in the woods at the edge of town, had kept a diary of her life. And, with yet more talk of her approaching demise, there would appear to be people in the town who have reason to fear what Sal might have written in that diary, people who would go to quite some lengths to ensure that diary never saw the light of day. The threat of what disclosures those pages might hold is clearly something too hideous for Four Corners to risk discovering, and before long the dissatisfaction with Sal’s apparently unassailable position — she can’t be kicked out of a home she owns, and has committed no actual crime — begins to foment into something darker.
The situation is an easy one to empathise with, and the parallels with today’s society easy to forge. Gossip and hearsay, once out, can never be taken back, not really, in the same way that lies are easy to spread online in the social media-drenched age in which we find ourselves. Roscoe’s triumph — well, his first triumph, since there are several here — is in utilising the parochial feel of the place, the importance of the position the men hold, as the perfect petridish upon which to breed the virus of discontent and, as discontent moulders, the mob mentality which takes over. Whispers of witchcraft, bizarre acts around the town marked by the presence of Sal’s red hair, and that rising fear and anger at what this isolated woman might be up to are whipped into a frenzy from which there is no backing down.
We’re never actually told what these fears are, and from a narrative perspective that’s the exact right choice: naming a fear makes it a petty, sordid thing that can be grubbed and chafed by the shared experiences of others, whereas isolating each unidentified person in the grip of their own personal terror — especially here in the hive mind of Four Corners — allows the fears to multiply faster, the dread to marinate a little longer, and the opposition to “this outcast in possession of something more evil than Siren sorcery” and the nameless threat she represents to terrifying more than any simple accusation of infidelity or gambling debts ever could.
Goddamn, Roscoe is wonderful.
One of his other triumphs, as this heads towards an ending as inevitable as it is impossible to look away from, is finding not one but two exceptional grace notes with which to furnish his plot. I don’t know how to write about this without giving things away, so I’m not even going to try and hint at what the raft of concluding developments hold, but he packs a one-two-three punch that casts light on events in a way that most authors would struggle to do with ten times the words Roscoe deploys. It’s wonderful, then it’s horrible, then you want to stand up and cheer, then it’ll make you think about crying, and then it twists and becomes something entirely new again…and every time you’re pulled back from the precipice of judgement by the exceptionally neat line that Roscoe walks via his narrator’s outsider status.
What’s particularly pleasing about this is that it shows once more that Roscoe doesn’t need the showy, over-the-top aspects of Big Picture writing — zombies! war! more zombies! — to amaze and surprise you; he’s as in touch with the human elements of his stories just as much as with the broad strokes he draws across this corner of New York, and he’s probably more interesting when dealing with more everyday concerns. It’s now showy, it’s not explosive, it’s not especially thrilling, but it’s wonderful to watch. Bravo, sir, bravo
The Four Corners stories by Theodore Roscoe
‘Ghoul’s Paradise’ (1938)
‘The Man Who Hated Lincoln’ (1939)
‘There Are Smiles That Make You Happy’ (1939)
‘Stay As Sweet As You Are’ (1939)
‘Ghost on Lonesome Hill’ (1941)