Sunday, April 2, 2017

Academic Annihilation: Murder at Midyears (1953), by Marion Mainwaring

"This room--it's nothing but prufrock on the surface.  But one of these nice cultured people sipping tea killed a man three days ago." theory one knew perfectly well that Auden's borough of murder was not a locality in space, that no realm was exempt, that academic squabbles could breed evil as well as international intrigue. Everywhere we lie in death's lap and sleep in his outer chambers....But that was not Auden, it was Jeremy Taylor.

"I'd like to see Mersey's own questionnaire, by the way.  Rank: Professor.  Publications: notorious....Special interests: uglification, megalomania and tortures.  His confessions would read like a chapter from the Marquis de Sade."

Jill shivered.  "I hate this place.  All the neuroses in the canon and a few besides."

                                                 --Murder at Midyears (1953), by Marion Mainwaring

Today Marion Mainwaring (1922-2015) is best known as the independent scholar who controversially completed American author Edith Wharton's final, unfinished novel, The Buccaneers, in 1993.  Since then, "completions" and "continuations" seemingly have become commonplaces in the world of mystery fiction, where publishers seek to wrest additional sums out of vintage crime fiction fans by offering them new works inspired by Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Raymond Chandler, etc., which have been completed or entirely composed by living writers, sometimes with decidedly mixed results.

Yet four decades before before completing the final novel by Edith Wharton (herself no stranger to the criminous in fiction), Marion Mainwaring demonstrated great skill as a pastichist in a detective novel entitled, appropriately enough, Murder in Pastiche, originally published in the US 1954 and the UK in 1955 and reprinted in over half-a-dozen editions between 1961 and 1989.  (It's currently available in an eBook edition too.)

Murder in Pastiche was much praised by the influential American critic Anthony Boucher, who pronounced that so far as his "fairly compendious memory" stretched "the brilliance of Miss Mainwaring's achievement is....unmatched in the history of the detective story" and that the novel would stand as "a permanent addition--both as criticism and as entertainment--to the detective bookshelf."

Boucher was more equivocal in his review of Mainwaring's far scarcer first detective novel, an academic mystery entitled Murder at Midyears, which was published the previous year, 1953.

Following rave notices of Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying (soon to win an Edgar award for best first mystery novel) and Charles Einstein's The Bloody Spur (another first novel, reviewed by me here), Boucher declared that Mainwaring's Midyears looked "a bit pallid" by comparison, chiefly because "Miss M. has not yet learned that the modern suspense novel demands some forward plot movement in addition to a lengthy series of plot interrogations to solve a murder."  Yet he declared that author's "understanding of department politics...and of the various types of academic personalities is first rate--as are the allusive donnish wit and the ability to create a school complete with a century of history and tradition."

I agree fully with Boucher in his praise for Murder at Midyears.  I dissent somewhat from his criticism.  Midyears is no "suspense novel," however much that term was in fashion with publishers  in the Fifties, but rather, a true detective novel--most decidedly so--and I fail to see why it should be judged by an alien standard. Surely today, when classic crime revivals seem to be taking place every week, we can dispense with the regrettable "modern" tendency to dismiss classic detection for not being sufficiently rapid.

no trumpet for this Gabriel
the late, unlamented Gabriel Mersey
To the classic crime fiction devotee Mainwaring's novel is most pleasingly classical in form.  There is a horrendous individual, English department chairman Gabriel Mersey, who is poisoned early in the novel (though not before giving numerous people at the staid New England women's college at which the novel is set reasons of varying degrees of magnitude to desire his hasty departure from life); there is, yes, the series of interrogations, followed by an attack on the heroine (love interest is present but subtly and adroitly handled) and another murder, appallingly violent yet fastidiously described at second-hand; and there is a devious, mechanically clever solution like something out of a work by a youthful John Dickson Carr.(The skull placed beside the dead professor's body reminded me as well of PD James.)

I never for a moment felt bored with the novel, because in addition to the author's successful presentation of an intriguing problem, her writing is hugely enjoyable: witty, pointed, learned (without getting heavy-handed), sometimes bitingly satirical, as one expects from first-class academic mysteries.

In a short but remarkable opening chapter Mainwaring even gives an ironic and highly amusing account of the history of Collins College: the indulged child, if you will, of three determined spinster sisters, Hortensia, Lucretia and Sophonisba.

These names, the author notes, suggest "classical proclivities" on the part of the good women's father: the Reverend Mr. Tertius Collins, "a congregational clergyman ministering to the village of Dunham."  ("Miss Venable, the official chronicler of the college, has traced a relationship to the poet William Collins; others have rejoiced to connect him with a still more celebrated cleric: the Reverend Mr. Collins of Jane Austen's history.  The date of his death, even, is uncertain.  He seems to have faded duskily away as his children rose to glory".)

Surely this is a book of which the late Amanda Cross, not to mention Dorothy L. Sayers herself, would have approved. Speaking of which, at one point in the novel students passingly discuss the difference between detection in books and in real life (as presented by this book):

    "I always thought...if I was in a place where there was a murder I'd beat the police to the solution.  It's so easy in the books, but the dean would have me suspended is I went poking into things.  I guess you have to have a detective in love with you, like Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey."
    "Or a father who's chief of police, like Ellery Queen."

You will not be surprised to learn (if you have not already read the novel) that Ellery Queen and Lord Peter Wimsey both feature prominently in Murder in Pastiche.

Midyear's smart, charming, and new thinking heroine, English professor Jill Carey, herself is a classic detective fiction fan, thinking at one point:

    It was as if she was usurping the role of some personage in a novel, one of those heroines who discover bodies at house parties and answer faked telephone messages and are rescued by resourceful, intrepid young men....

I really do love the writing in the book.  Here's Mainwaring on the Anglophile English professor, familiar as well to me from my undergraduate days, four decades after Mainwaring's. She knows how to set a scene:

a tweedy professor
Before he had been two minutes in Palfrey's study, Sampson understood the sobriquet Dane had given him.  Palfrey was white-haired and pink-cheeked; he wore shabby corduroy and tweeds and an old-fashioned vest; he was Santa Claus in black-rimmed glasses.  Sampson felt himself being sucked into the homey bookish atmosphere as into a benevolent quicksand.  Dane or Jill Carey, more experienced academic types, could have abstracted the elements which made up this Victorian Anglophiliac comfort: the roll-top desk; the fringed lampshade; the darkened prints of the Birth of Venus and Views of the Oxford Colleges; the shelves of Scott and Trollope; the black umbrella; the sherry bottle and glasses on a lacquer tray.  Palfrey smoked a pipe, and within a couple of minutes was addressing his visitor as "my boy" while he deplored the death of Mersey.

And here's Mainwairing memorably skewering the pompous college president, Orville Holiday, "a square short man with a florid face, sleek as a platitude":

"Well," said the president judiciously.  "You know how it is, Lieutenant.  In any business people have their little differences, and that's as true in a college as anywhere else.  Even in a quiet friendly little town like this.  He stopped to examine this prohemium and found it good.  "Mr. Mersey was a--a--crotchety old fellow.  Perhaps not the easiest person in the world to get along with--till you knew him.  A great scholar.  This Bibliography, you know.  And a real character, you know, peppery temper, but a heart of gold!"  Afraid, perhaps, of draining his thesaurus of cliches, he paused again. Dane looked at him in admiration.  The gap between the real malignancy of Gabriel Mersey and this pseudo-Dickensian creature of Holiday's wishful imagining was unfathomable.
no Mersey

Holiday and his sycophantic entourage attempt to fob suspicion of the murder onto a convenient--from the college administration perspective--Italian maintenance man, providing Mainwaring an opportunity to depict and condemn still present WASPish prejudices of the day. (She also goes after anti-Semitism, when the chief suspect becomes the English department's one Jewish professor--and it's not the police who are anti-Semitic but certain members of the faculty.)

Mainwaring herself came from a family of none too remote working class, immigrant origins (comparatively late-coming British arrivals), which perhaps influenced her portrayals of elite, establishment prejudices in Midyears.

On her mother's side of the family her grandfather, Matthew Imrie, worked as a bricklayer in Newcastle, England (his ancestors originally came from Lockerly, Scotland) before moving in middle age with his family to Boston; while her maternal grandmother, Mary Lawson Milburn, was the daughter of a Newcastle butcher. 

Mainwaring's paternal grandfather, Richard James Mainwaring (pronounced "Mannering" when the family resided in England), a Roman Catholic machinist and carriage maker originally from Liverpool, settled in Boston by way of Nova Scotia.  He died from consumption at the age of thirty six months before Marion's father-to-be, Herbert James Mainwaring, was born, leading Herbert's mother to place the infant in a Boston home for destitute children run by the Episcopal Church until a second marriage--to Edward Frost, a stock man at a bookbindery--finally allowed her to recover him when he was ten.

Perhaps developing an interest in the printed word from exposure to his stepfather's occupation, Herbert Mainwaring worked as an advertising copywriter (he also later edited a Cape Cod tourist magazine and was known in his leisure time to compose many a letter to editors of local newspapers, most often addressing Episcopal Church affairs), while his wife, Marion Imrie, who had once worked in a perfume factory, taught embroidery and dressmaking. 

Marion Mainwaring around mid-century
The young Marion Mainwaring grew up with her parents and three siblings in Quincy, a major Boston suburb associated with the distinguished American presidential family. A most alert and able student, she won academic prizes at Simmons College, allowing her to pursue graduate studies at Harvard, where she received her doctorate in English, submitting a dissertation on Matthew Arnold, who gets mention in Midyears.

Mainwaring taught as an instructor at Mount Holyoke college in 1948, but disliked this work and left her employment after a few years.  Like many a restless academic in the day, she turned to writing mysteries, her experiences at Mount Holyoke providing her with sufficient material for a first novel and her own voluminous reading in detective fiction for a second, but sadly for mystery fans she developed writer's block after publishing Murder in Pastiche.

Moving to Europe, Mainwaring freelanced as a researcher and learned French, Greek and Russian.  She translated novellas by the distinguished Russian author Ivan Turgenev and did research for R. W. B. Lewis, whose 1976 biography of Edith Wharton won a Pulitzer Prize. 

In France Mainwaring unearthed new details on Wharton's years in Paris and her passionate mid-life affair with the "singularly attaching" bisexual journalist and author Morton Fullerton"I was fortunate enough to engage the services of Miss Marion Mainwaring, a gifted scholar," allowed Lewis in his book acknowledgments.  Mainwaring was unhappy with Lewis's use of her research, however, and a quarter-century later she published her own take on the Wharton-Fullerton affair (and more) in her 2001 book Mysteries of Paris: The Quest for Morton Fullerton, which, as the title suggests, is something like a detective novel in itself. (As any scholarly researcher knows, researching past lives is detective work.)

Marion Mainwaring was an independent individual to the end of her life.  Returning to the US in the late 1970s to care for her elderly parents, she lived and worked after their deaths in a Framlingham, Massachusetts apartment until in 2015 she suffered what was a soon-to-be fatal stroke at the age of 93. 

"Marion is an elitist in the best sense of the word," a novelist friend once recalled of her.  "She is very quick to detect pomposity and loose thinking.  She lives in a kind of cultural attic, or garret, all by herself."  From that cultural garret came two excellent detective novels, the product of a most lively and engaging mind, for which mystery fans should be particularly grateful.  Personally I think Murder at Midyears compares very favorably indeed with other satirical academic mysteries I have reviewed here, such as Morris Bishop's The Widening Stain (1942) and Robert Barnard's Death of an Old Goat (1974).