Friday 25 June 2021

The Widening Stain

Finished June 16 
The Widening Stain by W. Bolingbroke Johnson

This novel has a very interesting backstory. First published in 1942, the novel takes a humorous stance on academia and librarianship. It was published under a pseudonym that was never officially revealed, but gradually became known as the only work of fiction by Cornell historian and literature professor, and New Yorker regular Morris Gilbert Bishop. The closest he came to acknowledging it was in a limerick. 
The introduction to this new edition, by Nicholas A. Basbanes gives us this background with all its fun and intrigue. Bishop was a well-respected academic with a large body of professional publications and fluency in at least five languages. Much of his work was in the area of Romance languages or history of the Middle Ages. This novel exposes his more whimsical side, and also shows another of his whimsical expressions, that of limerick writing. In The Widening Stain, Professor Parry takes on this skill with limericks. Bishop thought that the serious analysis of poetry and the serious poets had taken away from the enjoyment of the format by the average reader. He celebrated those who wrote "light verse." Bishop never commented publicly on what led him to write this tongue-in-cheek novel. 
The library described in these pages matches that of the Uris Library at Cornell 
The first death in the novel is thought at first to be an accident, but not everyone is convinced, and librarian and chief cataloguer Gilda Gorham is one of the questioners. The second death makes it clear that the first wasn't accidental. 
The Wilmerding Library has recently acquired a new head librarian, Dr. William Sandys. Other players here include several professors, including a number of bachelor professors who lived in a set of apartments on the upper floors of the Faculty Club. These include Assistant Professor Angelo Casti of the Romance Language Department, a young man who seems intent on borrowing a manuscript even though he has a copy of the microfilm; Professor Belknap of History, a tall dour man who often bought books at auction and donated them to the library; Professor Hyett of the Classics Department, an older man who often engages in patter with the young librarians; and Professor Parry of Dramatics who makes suggestive comments and creates limericks for all occasions. Other key characters here are Assistant Professor of French Lucie Coindreau, a young attractive woman with a tendency towards sulkiness and an interest in the art of divining; and the well-travelled and observant janitor Cameron. 
Just after the President's reception Miss Gorham comes upon the first body and soon after she begins making lists and thinking about who and why the victim would be murdered. 
This was a fun read, with lots of humour, and I really enjoyed Gilda, the main character and amateur sleuth. 

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