Cover Image: The Widening Stain

The Widening Stain

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Member Reviews

1942 After a university President's party, Chief Cataloguer Gilda Gorham discovers a body in the library. Later another body is discovered in a locked room. Is there a connection, what could be the motives, and who is the guilty party. Gilda seems determined to find the answer.
Overall an enjoyable tongue-in-cheek murder mystery, with its likeable characters and a cast of suspects.
ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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I always find myself enjoying classic crime novels, and this one was right up my street! Set on an American university campus, with the action focussing on the library, it reminded me a lot of the British Library Crime Classic series. I really liked the dynamics between the characters, and all the knowing comments about academia.
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3.5 stars

This mystery was originally published in 1942 and it offers a humorous glimpse and sendup of academic life and its pretensions.

Library cataloger Gilda Gorham discovers the body of a female professor at the library. Did she fall or was she pushed? In a methodical way, Gilda sets out to collect information and so we get a summary of the main characters involved. Affectionate fun is poked at some of the egos in the various departments and administration. 

The novel is old enough that it feels more historical and retro than dated. Nice to read an older novel that pre-supposes that the reader is intelligent.  Thanks to the publisher and to Net Galley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review.
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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.
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Thank you NetGalley and Penzler Publishers for providing me with this book. Very happy to provide an honest review.
What a shame that this is the authors only novel, as he mainly published in the non-fiction genre.
A really good book, although a bit dated since it originally was published in the Interwar years, and some of the stuff is downright silly, but the plot is great, the cast of characters is good and from page 1 it really kept my attention. We end up with not one but two murders at a college library, along with missing valuable books and we have a good cast of characters to choose from. College professors, librarians, night watchmen, etc. Very good effort and a good read. If you get a chance this one is a really enjoyable way to spend your evenings!
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A charming mystery featuring an attractive and perceptive college librarian with a good sense of humor as the protagonist. The setting at a large college in the late 1930or early 1940s is fun and the writing is solid
The only letdown is that the mystery isn’t that engaging or mysterious
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That "W. Bolingbroke Johnson" wrote only this one work of fiction is a shame.  I loved the glimpse into the dynamic of professorial relationships and how they influenced friendships and competition.  This book is not sensational in the over-the-top meaning of the word, but it is a quiet, cerebral mystery that I enjoyed reading.  I definitely recommend this to fans of classic mystery and fans of bookish related reading.  Very glad I got the opportunity to read this book that quite frankly wouldn't be on my radar was it not being republished.
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A delectable mystery novel that was originally penned by Morris Gilbert Bishop whom wrote under a pseudonym of W. Bolingbroke Johnson. The background of this novel in itself was very fascinating. The author Morris Gilbert Bishop was originally a professor and scholar at Cornell University. His specialty was in Romance Languages. Reading the introduction to this novel is utmost essential to be able to appreciate the story more. The story takes place at a university library when a murder occurs and our protagonist Gilda Gorham, the university cataloger attempts to solve the mystery. The descriptions on all of the characters and the library setting felt so real and alive. This is why I point out that reading the introduction is essential as I was able to connect the author's background and possibly many of his influences for this story from his personal academic experience. This book was originally written around 1940's and this is more of a reissue. A story full of humor and satire. It provides a glimpse of an academic life and setting adding a twist of romance and murder.

Thank you to Net Galley and Penzler Publishers for this amazing ARC!
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When The Widening Stain was released in 1942, the author was identified as one W. Bolingbroke Johnson, described as a middlebrow from Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, and a graduate of the Okmulgee Agricultural and Mechanical Institute. Now Rabbit Hash, Kentucky is a real place, and Okmulgee A&M is now part of Oklahoma State, but there was no W. Bolingbroke Johnson. The author was actually a Cornell University Romance language and classics professor and scholar named Morris Bishop, who never admitted that he penned this novel. Sadly, this was Bishop’s only mystery, although he did grace the world with many, many scholarly books, journal articles, comic poetry — and limericks, many in The New Yorker. Saturday Evening Post and Life magazines.

In The Widening Stain, 30-something librarian Gilda Gorham finds herself drawn into unobtrusively investigating what the police deemed an accidental death; however, Miss Gorham has her doubts. Clever and insightful, Miss Gorham realizes the murderer before the police — and what a thrilling ending!

Whether or not Bishop based these characters on real Cornell fixtures, you can judge; they seemed pretty true to life to me, having worked at the University of Miami. And the description of the university library is based on Cornell’s. Perhaps that’s why Bishop couldn’t admit to writing it! Too many angry colleagues! Or perhaps he thought it would lower his standing in academia. Either way, it’s a pity he didn’t give us more adventures with the intrepid Miss Gorham. I am grateful to Penzler Publishers and American Mysteries Classics for reissuing this fine mystery, even if it will be the only one by Bishop

In the interest of full disclosure, I received this book from NetGalley, Penzler Publishers and American Mysteries Classics in exchange for an honest review.
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Thanks very much to Penzler for introducing this great piece of classic crime to me! I loved it so much that I scoured Abe Books for an ex-Library copy, and am about to start featuring it on my @bodiesinthelibrary Instagram (from 10 April), which is a place I share pictures and quotes from my reading on a project examining crime set in libraries. 

The introduction is really helpful, and although I’ll be sharing quotations from my second-hand copy, I’ll flag the new edition and recommend it to people who want to read the book - as well as being a better price, Brasbanes’ essay sets the scene, and certainly for those of us outside North America, it is tremendously useful to read about Bishop aka Johnson and, indeed, the inspiration he drew from Cornell and it’s University Library. 

I’ll also point to the book from my @BeginningCataloguing Instagram and Twitter accounts, and from my personal (locked) @AnneWelsh Twitter, as I think former students, colleagues and friends will be interested in the catalogue room itself and, of course, the marvellous Gilda Gorham. I am astonished that I had not heard of her and The Widening Stain before in my three decades of learning, practising, teaching and researching Cataloguing and its history. This would have been great fun to highlight to students when I was full-time iSchool faculty, and I hall certainly drop Gilda into my future trainings and articles. Bishop must himself have known the Cornell cataloguers well to create such a fun mix of common stereotypes and actual, real-life women working at an often-overlooked task at the heart of the library. 

The story itself is tremendous fun. Some of the attitudes are of their time, so misogynistic, but that is to be expected and I am sure all of us who like the classic crime genre are aware of such issues. (The titling of Christie’s Ten Little Indians over the years is, of course, the most frequently-cited example of this kind). 

In short, I am really delighted to have found this book, thanks to Penzler, and am grateful to them and NetGalley for the ARC.
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