Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Little Murder Tour in France 2: Blood from a Stone (1945), by Ruth Sawtell Wallis

[The authors] discovered, owing to the experience of the husband of one of the ladies, M. Paul Vaillant-Coutourier, who contributes to the book over a hundred pen-and-ink drawings, a cave containing relics of prehistoric man.  This was situated at Montardit, on a limestone ridge of the Plantaurel, five miles from the famous caves of Les Trois Freres.  They lived close by in a peasant's cottage, and worked all of the summer.  Their discoveries read like a romance.  The book contains, too, some admirable descriptions of other caves in France, and thrills the reader again and again as he reads of the exploration of the haunts of prehistoric man.

--Spectator review of Primitive Hearts in the Pyrenees, by Ruth Sawtell Otis/Ida Treat

"Ah, Mademoiselle," a gleam rose to the blue eyes bright in the old face.  "You also?  You already love this country of mine?  And what do you love?  Ruined towers, ghosts, caves?

--Blood from a Stone (1945), by Ruth Sawtell Wallis

a step back in time
Foix, France
When anthropologist Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978) wrote her third mystery novel, Blood from a Stone,  she drew heavily on Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees, a popular work she had published eighteen years earlier with her then work colleague, the paleontologist (and future journalist and Vassar professor) Ida Treat (1889-1978).

Wallis's deep knowledge of the French Pyrenees (the southernmost region of France, separated from Spain by a rugged mountain chain) is one of the great strengths of Blood from a Stone, but happily the novel's mystery plot and its characters (whether American, British, Russian or French) are strong assets as well.

The novel is set back ten years to the summer of 1935, in the valley of St. Fiacre, not far from the actual commune of Foix, located between the city of Toulouse and the Spanish border.  In it Wallis paints an interesting portrait of culture clash, as the red-haired, young and single anthropological researcher Susan Kent shocks the traditionalist natives by residing with another young, single woman in a house, locally dubbed La Catine ("The House of a Woman of Bad Habits"), and intrepidly venturing forth, with only a male assistant in tow, into ancient mountain caves to dig in the hard rock and earth for bones, flints and shards.

It walks by night....
Beware la dame blanche!
Blood from a Stone is steeped in history and legend, reminding me of the tale of the impossible murder that takes place on top of a ruined medieval French tower in John Dickson Carr's splendid--and splendidly eerie--detective novel He Who Whispers, which appeared a year after Blood from a Stone. Could Carr have read it in 1945, I wonder, though I believe, recalling Doug Greene's biography, that a source of inspiration for Carr's novel was his own early tale "Vampire Tower."

At the beginning of Blood from a Stone Susan Kent is even mistaken (?) by a nightcrawling group young boys for an ominous supernatural dame blanche/dama blanca (white lady), presaging the miasma of animus and suspicion that later envelops her, as dead bodies--recently slain ones--start to turn up in the most unexpected corners of Saint Fiacre.  Susan knows that she is not the source of the menace--but just who is, and what could be his/her motive for this perpetrating this mayhem?

woman's best friend
Suspicious characters abound, including even Susan's sumptuous friend and housemate, the Latvian (of white Russian heritage) Neva Borodin, who is exceedingly free in her behavior and outspoken on all matters, including sexual ones. (This is one of the few crime novels of the day where I have seen the word abortion uttered, especially without any explicit condemnation.) Then there are:

Susan's lovely house servant Moise

the local priest, Father Bigorre

the schoolteacher and his wife, Monsieur and Madame Dumas

members of the gentry, the elderly Comte de l'Arize and his aloof son, Marc

earthy Madame 'Ri and her offspring, Jean-Marie, who moonlights as Susan's assistant

dilettante scholar and textbook correct Englishman Sir Cyril Brooks-Brooks

In this bewildering nailbighter only Susan's feisty pet dachshund, Seppel, seems unquestionably above suspicion--and even he has taken to behaving oddly, as when he simply will not let go of that primitive ochre-painted stone Susan brings back with her from the cave to La Catine....

Murder!  But by whose hand? French cave painting

I found Blood from a Stone an immensely enjoyable crime novel--well and fairly plotted, atmospheric and suspenseful and peopled with intriguingly ambiguous characters. The lead character, Susan, is nicely fleshed out and given even to sounding the occasional feminist note, as on one occasion when she explains why she needs to locate another scholar, a man, to verify her findings, even though she herself is clearly rather more than capable in her own:

American hardcover edition (Dodd, Mead)
It's the custom of my profession.  When you find something important, you call in another to check your findings.  Particularly if you are young.  And a woman."

Arguably Blood from a Stone is an even better book than Wallis's previous one, No Bones About It. It was raved by the esteemed Anthony Boucher as "a honey" of a book on account of its "[f]ine emotional tensions, well-conceived characters and locale, fascinating scientific dividend and superlative economy of narration," while the Saturday Review praised the novel as "expertly mixed" mystery story with "some exceptionally shivery scenes." I can't disagree!  Highly recommended.

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