Originally published in 1942, The Widening Stain is a mystery that flirts heavily with satire. W. Bolingbroke Johnson (the pseudonym for Morris Bishop) spends just as much time creating eccentric academics as he does planting clues for the murders of two professors at an unnamed American university. Our detective is Gilda Gorham, a cataloger, is part of what drew me to this book. I can’t resist a mystery investigated by a librarian.
Gilda’s life as a mid-twentieth century library catalog looks a little bit different from mine as a twenty-first century life as a reference and instruction librarian. We both spend a lot of time diving for sources (although databases make this part of my job a lot easier). We both deal with the sometimes obnoxious requests from faculty to bend the rules. We spend a lot of time listening to people talking at length about their areas of expertise. That said, there is a lot more casual sexism in Gilda’s library. Also, a lot more murder.
After introducing us to her library and its university, having a date with a limerick-telling professor, and following up on some suspicious activity, Gilda finds the body of Lucie, one of the French professors. A police lieutenant who has a very small bag of tricks is dispatched to investigate, but the death is ruled an accident by a brief coroner’s court that follows the less-than-thorough investigation. Gilda is sure something more sinister is afoot—a suspicion that is confirmed when another professor is found strangled in a very much locked book vault.
Gilda follows her suspicions and hunches while the lieutenant shouts at people and thrusts evidence in the faces of his interviewees. It was a little hard to keep up with the clues, but only because the author created such hilarious characters. I got caught up in the skewering of academics who research things that no one cares about and have strange habits to the extent that I had a hard time focusing on the more serious side of the novel. I blame the author a bit on this because it’s clear that Bishop was often more interested in poking fun than he was in building dramatic tension. That said, The Widening Stain was a fun read with a plausible mystery. I wish there were more books featuring Gilda Gorham out there; I love a strong woman who has no time for men’s nonsense, except for the moments when she enjoys the flattery.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.