Thursday, August 10, 2017

I Have a Bone to Pick with Christopher Morley

Read/Watch 'em In Order #84

Christopher Morley's sequel to his delightful 1917 novel Parnassus on Wheels was written in 1919. By this time, the U.S. had fought in the Great War and Germany had been defeated. This is a factor in The Haunted Bookshop, which is still drips with a love of good books, but also adds a really nifty mystery to the plot.

Roger and Helen Mifflin have given up their travelling book wagon and opened a second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn ("that borough of superb sunsets and magnificent vistas of husband-propelled baby carriages"), where they have just taken in a young lady named Titania Chapman as a clerk. A young man named Aubrey Gilbert, an advertising man looking to get Mifflin's business, also enters the story. In fact, Aubrey soon takes over as the main character.

Aubrey quickly falls in love with the charming Titania. At the same time, he realizes there's a mystery afoot. A certain book keeps appearing and disappearing from the shop. This inexplicably ties in with a German pharmacist whose shop is nearby and a German cook who works at a local hotel. Aubrey has no clear idea what's going on, but he fears that Titania might be in danger. In fact, his best guess is that Mifflin is working with the Germans to kidnap her for ransom (Titania's father is wealthy).

Aubrey is, though, an amateur detective. The bad guys almost manage to do him in at least once and he makes several mistakes and comes to several erroneous conclusions. But overall, Aubrey does pretty well and it is he that saves Titania and the Mifflins during a literally explosive conclusion.

The mystery is a good one, while Morley's prose is full of wit & gentle humor, while his characters are all immensely likable. Seeded throughout the mystery plot are opportunities for Roger Mifflin to talk about books, the importance of reading and refining one's taste in books. Morley does this skillfully, both through his honest passion about this subject and in fitting it into the story without usually slowing down the A plot.

Morley even uses Mifflin to fit in his opinions about the then-upcoming peace conference in Paris. It's really too bad that the world leaders weren't given a copy of The Haunted Bookshop at Versailles. His prescient urging of something like the post-World War 2 Marshall Plan would have been a vast improvement over the disastrous Treaty of Versailles.

But I do have a particular bone to pick with Christopher Morley. Presuming Mifflin is a mouthpiece for Morley's own opinions, then I do take issue with his slightly snobbish dismissal of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Gee whiz, Chris, if Burroughs' style didn't appeal to you, then that's fine. But a complete failure to recognize Burroughs as the enormously skilled storyteller he was is disappointing. You hear that, Morley? I'm very disappointed in you.

Both Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop are truly wonderful books and, leaving aside the lack of respect for Tarzan, both books share Morley's love of literature and reading. What's not to like?


  1. I've heard of "The Haunted Bookshop" before, but never knew it was a sequel. It sounds like a fascinating read. Great article.

    Thanks for continuing to expand my horizons.

    1. You're welcome. Both of Morley's books are well worth reading.


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