There may not be a lot on which one may still count in the book business nowadays. Terms change. Publishers merge. Books go out of print. That first customer of the day? Just came in to use the phone. Ain’t always easy, pushing literature. That’s why, I suspect so many of us still cling to our traditions and find reassurance in the tried and true, like great customer service, staff recommendations, movie-cross-promotions, Jane Austen.
The calendar and the seasons remind us that there will always be another Christmas, and “big books” we shouldn’t have bet on, inappropriate Valentine’s Day gift-returns, and mark-downs the last day of the Garden Show. It’s true, not everything we’ve come to recognize as inevitable is a good thing. We do the best we can, don’t we? And yet, come what may in the ever changing world of books and retail, there will always be “the bug.”
What is more reliable than the common cold? Every winter, it turns up again like the proverbial bad penny. (Might be where we catch it, all that filthy money we’re glad to handle. I can’t be the only one to have someone sneeze on their proffered form of payment before handing it to me at the cash register without so much as an “Oopsy.” And yes, yes I will take that damp twenty and say, “thank you.” Times is hard.) Perhaps I should have said the annual “uncommon cold,” because I’m talking here about the bad one, the one that ruins schedules, uses up sick-days, leaves the phones unanswered and works its insidious way through staff from booksellers to baristas, young and old, from Story Time to quittin’ time, from part time to full.
I got my flu shot this year, as I do every year. I got a pneumonia shot this year too. Didn’t know they even made those ’till I got one. Alas, there’s no shot yet for “the bug,” or so it seems. I got a little smug this time, watching it knocking this one and that one off the sales floor and or Facebook since December, West Coast and East, seemingly giving me a pass. Not so my friends, never so. I may have joined the ward late this year, but now I’m in. I got “the bug” and I got it bad. How could it have been otherwise? (They say you never see the sneeze that takes you out.)
And so to bed, surrounded by the usual comforts and cliches. Rest, fluids, tissues, soup in a cup—and I am disappointed yet again to find that daytime TV, which I never otherwise see, no longer has so much as a single game show to ease me through the mornings. Where’s Wink Martindale when I need him? Who wants to be sick and watch something called “The Doctors”?!
Some things don’t change, however. When I was felled I was reading Robert Browning’s Paracelsus, no easy thing to read at the best of times; requires a certain sharpness of focus, does Browning, early or late. What else? Well, I was finishing up John Buchan’s ripping biography of Cromwell, which is very good by the way, but when one is sick, Civil War and parliamentary intrigues can go a bit cold on the page. Even the charming peril of Fanny Burney’s Evelina proved too hard to follow through the mists of the humidifier. What to do but revert to more childish pleasures. What I needed to make me feel less like dying was a good murder.
Here then my prescription for anyone suffering likewise. I took Mary Roberts Rinehart to bed with me. Most satisfying. (I would have taken Dame Agatha Christie too, but she wasn’t to hand.) If you don’t remember Mrs. Rinehart, she is the author of The Circular Staircase (1908), among other bestsellers, and the inventor therein of the Had-I-But-Known-mystery. Christie, who actually came a bit later, famously perfected the detective story, but dear ol’ Mrs. Rinehart can seldom be bothered much with detectives. Her stories are more usually narrated by some dear old party at least indirectly concerned in a murder, and told by means of retrospection rather than detection. Usually a lady of a certain age, well off, or “leisured,” as they themselves might have said, finds to her considerable irritation that someone’s been most inconveniently bumped off on the garden path.
Friend, relative or upper servant, whoever it was that’s been murdered, it falls to this lady to relate the whole violent tale, after the fact. The suspense, rather brilliantly, is regularly ratcheted up by passing reference to facts not yet in evidence; “Had any of us but known what Daisy meant to do with the hatchet she’d brought in from the cul-de-sac, but all that in due time.” I’ve made that up, but you get the idea. It’s a formula, obviously, and every bit as much one as Christie’s Marple or Poirot missing the one vital clue that might have prevented that inevitable second or third murder that will finally ruin the whole weekend. “If only I’d realized who’s nail-varnish it was on the side of the ship’s hull sooner. Stupid of me, really.” (I made that one up too.)
The popularity of Mary Roberts Rinehart—it’s quite impossible, as it turns out, to ever use less then all her names at once—hasn’t kept on quite so well as Christie’s, though I don’t frankly know why. She’s every bit as fun; unblinkingly snobbish, a most competent plotter, funny, even a bit wicked, and just like Christie, very much aware of the joke. “And here again we had grazed the cheek of truth, touched it and gone on.” That one I didn’t invent, but instead quote from one of the novels I took with me to my sick room this week, The Door. I can recommend it unreservedly.
I’ve just done my third day off work with this damned cold, and my third novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart. As reliably awful as the former has yet again proved to be, so comforting has been the company of the great American mystery writer and her fictional mayhem. I don’t know, but that murder, when one is dripping sick and sipping tea, feels something like revenge on cruel Fate. Fun anyway. I recommend it again, if not the cold that put me here.
We are happy to report that our Doodler has been back on his feet for many good shifts by now. Fact is, this sick bed column was delayed by a week. Why? We had the late-season bug at NWBL, too.