The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I really loved this book on first read—the atmospheric bookshop, the eccentric proprietor, the silly love-story, and the espionage plot shoe-horned in throughout. What’s not to like? Recently when I was skimming through it in search of a quotation, I got caught on so many parts that made me smile, read a page or two here or there, that I gave in to the realisation that I wanted to re-read it. When I did, at first I was predictably enthralled once again, but as the story got further along and the plot thickened I became a little bit indifferent.
So much of the beginning is just unabashed book-enthusiasm, discussions of authors, books, literary traditions, innovators, pop culture, and theories of literature and reading in general. And that’s the part I liked. Once the plot got going, I just didn’t really care. The author himself admits in his preface that he “began merely in the hope of saying something further of the adventures of ROGER MIFFLIN… But then came Miss Titania Chapman, and my young advertising man fell in love with her, and the two of them rather ran away with the tale.” They did indeed run away with the tale, and never quite brought it back. Not that I disliked either of them—the pragmatic advertising man, Aubrey, is a foil to the dreamy, passionate bookseller Roger Mifflin, and Titania is just a nice individual who isn’t obnoxiously “not-like-other-girls,” but still subverts expectations repeatedly and in believable ways. But with them, the narrative does seem to run away uncontrollably into the realm of melodrama.
Then, six pages in, we are made aware of “the terrific catastrophe of the war” and from there on, the references keep coming. It is in the forefront of Mr. Mifflin’s mind, as it probably was in Christopher Morley’s and the minds of many other people who lived through the Great War. Initially, the observations take the form of naturally arising from considerations of the altered economic state, culture, and lifestyles, while of course talking about the great ideas in books as influences for good or ill in humanity. Some of these ideas are genuinely interesting points for consideration, but they may also strike the reader, even one who knows little about the history of war, as overly simplistic. They certainly did me, and I would be as willing as anyone to uphold books as the answer to world peace if I could do it without being disingenuous. So, right off the bat, we have our minds dragged from a quiet second-hand bookshop to the trenches of Europe and the cataclysm of opposing ideologies (if you can count two monarchies at odds as “opposing ideologies”)—nothing wrong with that, it just feels jarring to me, and doesn’t fit with what I want out of this type of book.
But this preoccupation with the most recent calamity to befall large portions of the world infiltrates the book and emerges as a sinister, rather stereotypical, German spy plot centred on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. It’s not even that it isn’t done well—at least as well as any other British-American literature of the time, with their caricatured international villains belying their lip-service to understanding of and magnanimity for their “enemy.” (That’s a whole different criticism.) The mystery as it unravels is intense enough for a book of this length, keeps you guessing (or at least second-guessing), and there are some moments of genuine peril and intensity. Aubrey is an entertaining unlikely hero, fuelled by his ridiculously chivalric drive to keep Titania safe. His aforementioned practicality stands him in good stead as he takes some calculated risks, only broaching the extremes of heroism by his burning passion for Titania.
But insta-love is always questionable, not less so when it produces such violently possessive feelings in the man (or woman, for that matter) that he decides to keep the object of his affections under surveillance. Stalking. That’s the word. I almost couldn’t think of it, it so seldom comes up in romance books. <cough, cough> The way it is handled is mostly benign, and it seems the characters (including Aubrey in his moments of lucidity) are aware that it is a) unsolicited, b) unauthorized, and c) invasive. If at the end when all is well, Titania graciously frames it in a more positive light because of its outcome, it still doesn’t really try and excuse Aubrey’s acting like he had the right to “protect” her that way in the first place, so that’s a good thing. But there’s this one mind-blowing moment that I can’t just close my eyes and pretend isn’t there—after Aubrey meets Titania for the first time and is reviewing their meeting, the narration says, “Her face… made him angry with its unnecessary surplus of enchantment… ‘Damn it,’ he cried, ‘what right has any girl to be as pretty as that? Why—why, I’d like to beat her!’” Um. Excuse me? It is framed as frustration with how “unattainable” she seems (she is of course the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen or dreamed of by wide margins—and that’s somehow her fault) and how irrationally emotional he’s getting over her. And that provokes violent response for some reason. But his sudden desire to assault her never recurs. If I were to be cynical I would suggest the sole reason it doesn’t is because he finds a convenient outlet for his rage in the form of the German spies. Regardless, Aubrey’s “vacillations of rage and worship,” are interrupted by a bean on the back of the head and him nearly getting pitched off a bridge: an effective remedy for anyone contemplating physically abusing the object of their affections. Anyway, it is this murder attempt and his connecting it to the bookshop where Titania works that leads to his surveillance of it, and discovery of the plot.
His heroism is dampened to more believable lengths by the mistakes of the villains he is in opposition to, so it’s not even that the whole scenario beggars belief. Instead, it just seems so at odds with the tone and setup of the book—a book in which characters notably, repeatedly drag Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books and the silent films as cheap entertainment. To have the container itself turn into a thriller-y, adventure novel just seems un-self-aware. Or maybe it’s a clever meta-commentary. But probably not. The villains are cut-and-paste Germanics, whose very “Teutonic” physiognomy is associated with their villainy. (This seems familiar. Didn’t I read another book recently with a cardboard cutout villain? Oh no, that one was World War II—totally different. No stereotypes carried over, there.) In fact, one of the most nefarious and unexpectedly villainous characters comes in the form of Mrs. J. F. Smith, fellow-lodger with Aubrey who takes baths at all hours just when one wants to use the bathroom oneself. And we never even meet her.
In my opinion, the strength of the book is held by those seemingly peripheral details—the characters of the boarding house, the opinions of a Brooklyn bookseller, and whatnot. I just feel as though this is two books that somehow got spliced together, as Morley seemed to recognize in his preface. The light flowing commentary of ideas, authors, books, histories, reading, and the theories of Mr. Mifflin on the unique position of bookstores are what draws a significant amount of the interest in the dialogue, to the extent that it almost takes over: Chapter II is accompanied by the footnote that the “latter half of this chapter may be omitted by all readers who are not booksellers.” To me, those parts are the spice of the narrative. Coherent plots to tie things together could easily have been drawn from the interaction of the owners of different types of bookshops, with their different philosophies of commercial responsibility. You don’t have to axe the spies, just give them different goals and motivations: throw in some professional rivalry, some valuable books, and away you go. Aubrey as an advertising man trying to cop the advertising contract for Mifflin’s bookstore could come to a conflict of interest by his representation of another bookstore, or whatever.
But this review has dragged on much longer than the actual length or content of the book really warrants. I just wanted to make sense of why I didn’t like the last part of the book as much as I’d remembered, and ended up over-analysing its entirety. Essentially, I still like it, for all its faults: the writing is enjoyable, the book commentary is great, and there are golden moments of humour, like in Aubrey’s thinking in terms of advertising jingles throughout the most random ponderings. The ending is full of satisfactory explanations and more believable developments than initially promised. It is really a cozy, fluffy read for lovers of books and bookshops, with a campy adventure plot thrown in for free.
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The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley