#992: Little Fictions – Four Corners, Volume 2: ‘Stay As Sweet As You Are’ (1939) by Theodore Roscoe

It had to happen eventually, eh?

My enthusiasm for the work of Theodore Roscoe isn’t simply a case of me having to present a contented face to the world since Bold Venture Press were kind enough to respond to my enquiries about his work by republishing Murder on the Way! (1935) and I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936). I present an enthused aspect when discussing Roscoe because — hey — I find his work genuinely enthuse-about-able. The guy has a talent with both concise description and long, meandering mood writing that is wonderful to behold, and his plots are tight and well-focussed, bringing in several events you may have overlooked to conclusions that are often surprising, typically entertaining, and frequently unexpected. The guy could really write, and that goes a long way with me.

But it stands to reason that I’m not going to love everything he produced, just as there will be books or stories by any beloved author that don’t land with readers, and ‘Stay As Sweet As You Are’ (1939), his ninth story set in the fictional upper New York state township of Four Corners, is the first one I struggle to find much to get excited about. Hell, Roscoe didn’t return to Four Corners for two years following this, so maybe he realised things were getting a little thin, who knows? The man’s imagination positively o’erflowed with wonderful ideas, so it could simply be that he was off writing scenarios he found more interesting (or more remunerative)…but, well, I’d be surprised if even he thought this was up there with the quality this series has produced before.

“Burn the heretic!”

Seen again through the eyes of young Bud Whittier, son of the sheriff of Four Corners, this is another example of a boy’s view on the world not quite marrying up with what the adults around him know to be going on. Except, well, here the adults all seem very sure about what’s going on, and Bud seems to grasp the concept more quickly than elsewhere: the Angevine sisters who run the town candy store are notably different in personality, and this is clearly going to be a cause of dissent. The acidulous older sister Melina guards the front of shop with an iron disposition and noted intolerance for any young children who come in to purchase the sweets that the charming, pleasant younger sister Belle concocts in the kitchen out back.

Jealous of so much as a free crumb, Melina deprived us of even a pleasurable stare. Belle, at her candy-making, became for us a priestess of mystic rites. Her kitchen was a place of enchantment; there were mysteries behind those windows covered with wax paper.

Melina has adopted from her mother a mistrust of any medicine and doctoring, so when Stick Hilton comes to the town and opens a pharmacy across the way from the Angevines’ candy shop, and when Hilton himself begins making romantic overtures to Belle, things can only get ugly. And here’s the thing. There’s nothing terribly surprising about what falls out, given that even by this stage in the game of crime fiction the setup here was hoary and the gradual reversals of expectation don’t carry anything like the weight they might have done 20 years earlier. And so of course Melina does her utmost to obstruct Stick Hilton’s intentions, and of course Stick Hilton is too charming and easy-going a man to let that deter him, and so of course his attentions are diverted to Melina to the shock of the entire town…and of course there’s a big surprise coming where it turns out that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on how people might appear.

I’m not going to deny that the writing is as charming as always, and that Roscoe is clearly comfortable enough in his fictional milieu to give some magnificent portraits of the minor figures who decorate the edges of his tales, like the hard-of-hearing Mabel Watters, who “[a]lthough strategically situated as wife of our postmaster” finds her notices on the town’s gossip “relegated to the second page” on account of her “acoustic deficiency”…and who is delighted to be able to offer a fresh morsel of information about the situation “with the pride of a gazetteer trumpeting an unheralded scoop”. Equally, Roscoe conjures up some affecting sympathy for Belle, clearly struggling under a situation that is unbearable for her and yet with no way out:

[A]s I crept from the yard she was still there in the doorway. Face in her apron. Weeping.

To a certain extent, it’s a shame that he felt the need to turn this into a criminal plot at all, because it’s actually very enjoyable just spending time with the denizens of Four Corners, shaking your head at the petty-mindedness of some folk and feeling relieved when others step up to put them in their place. The town’s not on any map, but Roscoe captures the mores of smalltown life so acutely that you feel you could walk down its high street now, some 80 years later, and identify the places where certain events had taken place, or pick out the building which had once been the candy shop despite the fact that it would now probably sell kitchen flooring or have been converted into an art gallery no-one visits.

“Burn him!”

And yet, when the criminous aspect of this does finally intervene, it’s not entirely without interest. Roscoe takes a genre standfast — the sisters run a candy shop, remember — and provides at least some intriguing considerations regarding the murder method that potentially throws some preconceptions about the genre as a whole into question (yeah, I’m being vague; you’ll figure it out if you ever read this story). That’s quite good fun, but it feels more like the basis of a John Rhode or Freeman Wills Crofts plot than it does the eventual end point of this sort of gently meandering tale told by an old timer in his rocking chair on his front porch, such schemes failing to slot neatly into the reminiscent tone we’ve been caught up in to date.

And then the answers fall out, and you’re told the precise reasons behind what anyone with even moderate genre coverage has been expecting this entire time, and stuff me if they don’t make a lick of sense. Roscoe does a lot of dancing to try to join up the various points — it reminded me of the denouement of a novel Erle Stanley Gardner might have let get a little too far away from him, perhaps unfairly to both men — and you can obviously take into account the ignorance of the age…but, yeah, nah, when this eventually fell out I was left with the distinct impression that the final line was what had been on Roscoe’s mind the whole time and to hell with the core reason for most of what happened not making sense.

We’re a long way from bad, and — yeesh — don’t let one slightly damp squib of a story put you off this collection, but also don’t read this in isolation and take it as emblematic of the magnificent work Roscoe has done elsewhere in this series. Given the sheer range of narrators and perspectives take in the first tranche of these stories, it’s difficult not to wonder if there was only so much ground that could be covered from young Bud Whittier’s perspective and if this tale might have been more successful if seen through the eyes of someone who was able to keep pace with the reader’s understanding and expectations. It’s never a fun experience to know that you’re too far ahead of an author when they’re going to such pains to tell you a story in so studied a way, but hindsight — especially externally — is always 20/20 vision, eh?

One story left; I’m sure it’s a good ‘un.

~

See also

James Scott Byrnside: We’re told early on that a poisoning takes place (I’m not spoiling anything). The fact that a drugstore is across from a candy shop is like some wonderful play on Chekhov’s gun. But of course, we don’t know who poisoned whom or how. The way the poisoning ultimately plays out is extremely satisfying. There’s a whirlwind of shifting guilt and innocence that acts like a detective story. Even though that’s not what we got at the beginning of the story, it doesn’t feel tacked on or shoehorned in. It feels like a naturally complex way to wrap things up.

~

The Four Corners stories by Theodore Roscoe

Volume 1:

Volume 2:

‘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)

3 thoughts on “#992: Little Fictions – Four Corners, Volume 2: ‘Stay As Sweet As You Are’ (1939) by Theodore Roscoe

  1. Pingback: “Stay as Sweet as you Are” from Four Corners Vol II – James Scott Byrnside

  2. I don’t recall too much about this one, in particular how things turn out at the end. I recall lumping this in with There Are Smiles That Make You Happy. Similar point of view from a child’s eyes, any mystery reader will predict where things are headed, and yet there’s some satisfying twist in the end. Not a huge success, but it has all of the charm of a Four Corners story, and that’s really all that you need.

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    • I wonder if I would have judged it less harshly had the surrounding stories not been of such a high quality…stands to reason that not everything can be of the same high standard, and even a slight dip in quality is going to feel large in this company.

      Like

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