Commentary
11:26 am
Fri May 28, 2010

Uncommon Mystery - The Haunted Bookshop - a review

Murray, KY – This uncommon mystery was written by Christopher Morley, born 120 years ago this month. Don't fear digging through the library stacks for this one, The Haunted Bookshop is available online for free and there's more to its name than frightening ghosts.

Christopher Morley was a newspaper reporter and an essayist in the grand days of the personal and literary essay, when every newspaper and magazine featured them. Morley will be familiar to Sherlock Holmes fans as the man who wrote the introduction to the standard Doubleday edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. He worked for a while as an editor at Doubleday. Altogether Morley wrote more than a hundred books of essays, poems, and fiction. The Haunted Bookshop was published in 1919 and combines Morley's passion for books with his love of mystery.

Roger and Helen Mifflin own "Parnassus at Home," a Brooklyn used-book store on Gissing Avenue (all the proper names in the book, by the way, have literary origins and come from the names of authors or characters or publishers ). Roger and Helen are visited by an enthusiastic young advertising writer named Aubrey Gilbert. Then the prune magnate George Chapman gets them to hire his pretty daughter Titania as a live-in clerk. Meanwhile a mystery develops concerning disappearing and reappearing copies of a collection of Oliver Cromwell's letters and speeches.

Aubrey comes back to see the Mifflins and of course falls in love with Titania. He is waylaid on his way home, after finding the cover of the Cromwell book in a drugstore. He begins to keep a watch on the bookstore, taking a room across the street, and he hears the ruffians who attacked him trying to get in the back yard of the bookstore.

When we find out that the Cromwell book is one of Woodrow Wilson's favorites, we begin to put together the fact that Wilson is about to leave for a peace conference, that three cooks from a nearby Brooklyn hotel have been hired to accompany him, and that one of the cooks advertised the loss of the Cromwell book and was seen with it. The intrigue surrounding the bookshop has to do with various international concerns at the end of the First World War: among them opposition to Wilson's proposed League of Nations, German nationalism and resentment at the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and the threat of anarchists and revolutionary Bolsheviks.

Aubrey first suspects that Roger Mifflin is involved with some of these elements when he sees a man use a key to go into the bookshop in the middle of the night and recognizes him as the druggist from the shop where the Cromwell book keeps disappearing and reappearing. Eventually Gilbert rescues Titania and Roger from a bomb-throwing villain.

The bookshop is haunted, not by any frightening ghosts, but by the spirits of writers and their works. The story is dated, and in its treatment of Titania and her romance with Gilbert, more than a little twee, but those are precisely its charms. And it is old enough to be in the public domain, so you can download The Haunted Bookshop for free from various sites on the web.

Read The Haunted Bookshop online here (Project Gutenberg).

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