Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Stone of Chastity, for Margery Sharp Day

When I chose The Stone of Chastity to read for this year's celebration of Margery Sharp, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, I knew nothing about it. The American edition I found on-line has a very decorative cover:

But it has no dust jacket, so there was no synopsis to tell me anything about the story. I wasn't expecting something along of the lines of a mystery story in a rural village. There is an investigation, interviews with local residents, even a type of trial. But rather than murder, the hunt is for the Stone of the title, and the stories about it.

The person directing the investigation is Professor Isaac Pounce, a specialist in folklore and magic. Some months earlier, while visiting friends, he went rooting around in their attics ("while his hosts were looking for him to play bridge"), and found a diary with a very intriguing entry from 1803:
Mr. C. back from Gillenham. I thank God in my striped India muslin, rose-colour sash. Mr. C. entertaining as ever; tells us an odd strange legend, that in the stream there is a certain stepping-stone, on which if a Miss who should by rights have quitted that Title, or a wife unfaithful, set her foot, the poor creature infallibly stumbles and is muddied for all to see. 'Tis called the Stone of Chastity. Mamma shocked.
There was a further account of a young maidservant, "challenged by her mistress to make trial of the S. of C., did so out of brazenness in her Sunday print, white stockings, fine black shoes, green garters. All ruined by the stinking mud. She now the mother of a fine boy."

The Professor immediately decided he had to investigate this further.

I love stories that begin with an archival discovery. I'd like to have read more of the diary, actually - which the Professor calmly pockets, by the way, stealing it from his friends without a word or a qualm. He quickly locates the village in question, leases a house there, and arrives to carry out his research. He brings his nephew Nicholas as his secretary. Also in the household is Nicholas's mother, the Professor's widowed sister-in-law, and Carmen, a striking young woman whose position there is ambiguous to say the least.

With Nicholas's reluctant help, Professor Pounce prepares a questionnaire for the residents of Gillenham, asking what they know about the Stone of Chastity, and about the maidservant who failed the challenge back in 1803. When one of the villagers turns out to have the Stone itself (embedded in her scullery floor), he plans a public trial of it for the local women. He never stops to consider whether the residents might find his questions about their virtue - and the entire topic of chastity - inappropriate and offensive. He is magnificently self-absorbed, intent only on the research. His unwilling assistant does realize that trouble is brewing, but he is distracted himself by Carmen and then by his pursuit of another young woman.

I enjoyed this funny, fast-moving story very much. It felt a little different from the other books of Margery Sharp that I have read, which have focused on a central female character, telling her story. Nicholas plays something of that role here, and we see must of the action from his point of view. In his own way, he is nearly as self-absorbed as his uncle. He has recently taken his degree, but he has no plans, no ambition, other than to become a man of the world. I found him a little bit tiresome, yet he at least realizes the trouble that his uncle's research is creating, and he is a kind son.

There are many funny scenes in this book. My favorite came late in the story, as the Professor plans to cap his research with a public trial of the Stone. He forces the reluctant Nicholas to draw a poster inviting the local women to take part, which he posts (over Nicholas's objections) on the church door.
   By two o'clock that afternoon there were nineteen names on the Professor's list: those of Mrs. Jim, Mrs. Ada Thirkettle, Sally Thirkettle, Grace Uffley, Violet and Mabel Brain, Mrs. Jack Fletcher (all in the handwriting of the first), and twelve Boy Scouts.
   By three o'clock the poster had been torn down. There was no evidence as to who had done this, except that it was Mrs. Crowner's day for cleaning the church brasses. Fortunately the Professor had already visited the poster once and made a note of the first seven signatures. (The dozen Boy Scouts he rightly ignored.)
The Boy Scouts made me laugh out loud. On the day of the Trial, they are "turned out in full force, hopefully bringing their stretcher with them."

Thank you to Jane for introducing me to Margery Sharp, and for hosting this annual celebration of her books. I see that she has posted about this book as well. I'm looking forward to seeing what others have read, which I'm sure will add to my Margery Sharp collection - or at least my wish list, since some of her books are still out of print.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Real Motive, by Dorothy Canfield

The topic of "comfort reading" comes up often in book discussions. Ever since the presidential election in November, I have drawn comfort from the books of Dorothy Canfield Fisher. On election night itself, sick in body with what turned out to be a sinus infection, but also sick in heart and soul at the results, I had the strongest urge to read something of hers. I chose Hillsboro People, published in 1915. It is a collection of stories set around the town of the title, which perhaps stands for her own hometown of Arlington, Vermont. As Inauguration Day approached this week, I felt the same urge toward her books. This time I chose The Real Motive, another short story collection, published in 1916.

I've been trying to figure out what it is in her books that calls me so strongly right now. I think it is in part the balance, the humanity, the compassion that I find in her writing. Her characters are not all paragons. They can be weak and fragile, they can make bad choices and do harmful things. She shows us these things, but she wants us to understand the people who do them. And they can grow, learn, change their minds, sometimes. There is a basic human decency, a strength of character, an unshowy goodness in so many of them. Maybe it's also how clearly Canfield Fisher's stories express her values, her beliefs. She is not the most subtle of writers, and I know that some people find her overly didactic, too much the preacher. I don't. I feel like her fiction reflects the writer, the person that I came to know through reading an excellent collection of her letters a couple of years ago.

The stories in The Real Motive are an interesting mix, with some familiar elements. There are a couple set again in Hillsboro, but others in New York and Paris. Two of them take place around small colleges in the Midwest. DCF grew up in a small college town in Kansas, where her father taught at the state university. Perhaps that's where she developed her intolerance of the pretensions, the pettiness sometimes found in academic life. (I was a "faculty brat" myself, growing up in similar small college towns.) "From Across the Hall" is a sweet story of two parents watching their daughter fall in love, with very mixed feelings. "Vignettes from a Life of Two Months," about a new mother and her infant son, discusses breast-feeding with a frankness that I found surprising for 1916. Three of the stories involve immigrants, considering their motives in coming to America, their struggles here and the prejudices they face. I braced myself when one story introduced a "big, black-browed Semite, with the big diamond in his scarf and the big plaids on his protuberant waistcoat." But if his appearance had something of the stereotype, his character and the story didn't. I did cringe when the sole African American character to appear in the stories - a maid, traveling with her employer in France - spoke some of the worst "Gone with the Wind" style dialect ever written.

I realized only after finishing the book that while it was published in 1916, there is no hint of the Great War in it. At the time she was writing these stories, she and her husband John were planning to take their two children to France to work for the war effort.

I have collected and read most of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's novels. I still have her last, Seasoned Timber, on the TBR shelves. I also have A Harvest of Stories, chosen by DCF for this collection published shortly before her death in 1958. I even gave in to temptation and bought a copy of her Memories of Arlington, Vermont, because I wanted to know more about the real "Hillsboro." I think she is an author I will be re-reading for years to come.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Meet Mr. Fortune, by H.C. Bailey

Last year, I lost my blogging voice. I was still reading, voraciously, but I couldn't figure out anything to say about what I was reading - at least not in a blog post. Over the past few weeks, I've had that feeling again, of wanting to share something about what I am reading, both the new books I am discovering and the old favorites I am savoring again. That's why I started this blog in the first place. So here I am again, at least today.

I am not usually a fan of short stories, but I have really enjoyed the collections of mystery stories that Martin Edwards has edited for the British Library Crime Classics series. (I've enjoyed them a lot more than the full-length novels from the series, to be honest.) I've met some familiar and favorite authors, and I've been introduced to many new-to-me writers and their characters. I took an immediate liking to H.C. Bailey's Reginald Fortune, and I wanted to read more. In the introduction to one story, Martin Edwards noted that Agatha Christie was a fan of Fortune, and that she paid homage to Bailey in Partners in Crime, where Tommy and Tuppence channel famous detectives (including Fortune) while running their own agency. Edwards also wrote that Bailey's books fell out of fashion after the Second World War. That unfortunately means that there aren't a lot of copies around now. But I did find this "Reggie Fortune Omnibus," published by The Book League of America in 1942, and designed to introduce Reggie to readers in the United States.

Reggie is a medical doctor who works for the Criminal Investigation Department in London as a scientific expert. He reminded me immediately of Peter Wimsey in his piffling conversation and his constant quotations. His speech is much more mannered than Wimsey's, though. He repeats himself, he moans, he murmurs, and he purrs (he is also a cat person, if that explains the purring). Like Wimsey, he is a demon driver, when he can be bothered to take the wheel. Unlike Wimsey, he is indolent by nature and quite the gourmand - or maybe a glutton - and he is a heavy man, who complains bitterly when he has to walk to a crime scene. I noticed that he doesn't seem to drink alcohol, taking a glass of soda while others are adding whisky to theirs. He is an expert in medical questions but also in general science, particularly natural science. He often spots clues in plants found at the scene of a crime or on a body. In two stories, his identification of moths plays a big part. Throughout the stories, Fortune shows great concern for people caught up in the cases, particularly children and those he believes to be unjustly accused. He takes pleasure in upending cases that his colleagues on the force think neatly solved, particularly when he believes they have ignored evidence in a rush to declare someone guilty. He has a very competent wife named Joan who handles him neatly. She occasionally involves him in cases but is firmly shunted off to the side in investigating them. H.C. Bailey wrote these stories in the 1930s and early 1940s, and his police force has no women constables, even for dealing with women suspects and victims.

The collection starts off with a novella, "The Bishop's Crime," centered around Badon Cathedral, an important medieval pilgrimage site. Its golden image of the Virgin Mary was lost at the time of the Reformation, sunk in a shipwreck on its way to Henry VIII's treasury. It is quite an exciting story, which draws on both the Cathedral's history and its library of rare books. At different points the Bishop and the dean, who have been in conflict over various matters (including the library), both come under suspicion of murder. (The Cathedral politics of course reminded me of Anthony Trollope.) The rest of the book consists of stories originally published in earlier collections. Some are set in London, others in country towns. I particularly enjoyed "The Greek Play," set at the top girls' school in the country.

I am hoping to find copies of at least some of H.C. Bailey's many books of Fortune stories. Two full-length novels have been reprinted by Rue Morgue Press, and they at least are easily available. Bailey's stories are also in two of the Crime Classic collections I still have on the TBR shelves, Capital Crimes and Resorting to Murder (but not in Crimson Snow, which I want to read while it's still technically winter). I would love to see the British Library republish some of his books in addition to the stories.