Tuesday, September 25, 2012


book cover
Original Publication Date: 1922

Genre: mystery, in the loosest sense of the word

Topics: politics, gender, society


Henry Beechtree is a reporter for the British Bolshevist, an early-twentieth century version of Fox News. He's in Geneva covering the meeting of the League of Nations, but delegates keep disappearing. Who could be responsible? Henry thinks he knows.

Mystery at Geneva was not at all what I was expecting. Rose Macaulay opens the novel by stating,
As I have observed among readers and critics a tendency to discern satire where none is intended, I should like to say that this book is simply a straightforward mystery story, devoid of irony, moral or meaning. It has for its setting an imaginary session of the League of Nations Assembly, but it is in no sense a study of, still less a skit on, actual conditions at Geneva, of which indeed I know little, the only connection I have ever had with the League being membership of its Union.
She then proceeds to spend the next 280-ish pages ridiculing nationalism, gender assumptions, religion, politics, reporting, and other aspects of European society, as well as going into extreme detail describing the League of Nations and how it's like a high school full of cliques and hypocrisy.

As for plot, it wouldn't be accurate to say there isn't one, but if you're reading it you will wonder if there is. Only about 10% of the book has anything to do with an actual mystery. This is not a novel of international intrigue; it's a book where guys sit around discussing subjects in such a way as to highlight how ridiculous they are. Occasionally a League delegate disappears and people are like, "Hey, that's upsetting. We should figure out what happened," then they go right back to pointless talking. Metaphor much?

This sounds exactly like the sort of thing that would normally drive me crazy--I HATE mysteries that aren't mysterious--yet somehow I actually enjoyed myself. Macaulay is funny, and it's kind of fascinating to me how the more things change, the more they stay the same. She could just as easily be pointing out the failings of the UN and modern journalism. Plus, her tangents against gender assumptions are pretty awesome. Here's one passage I thought was interesting:
It may be observed that there are in this world mental females, mental males, and mental neutrals. You may know them by their conversation. The mental females, or womanly women, are apt to talk about clothes, children, domestics, the prices of household commodities, love affairs, or personal gossip. Theirs is rather a difficult type of conversation to join in, as it is above one's head. Mental males, or manly men, talk about sport, finance, business, animals, crops, or how things are made. Theirs is also a difficult type of conversation to join in, being also above one's head. Male men as a rule, like female women, and vice versa; they do not converse, but each supplies the other with something they lack, so they gravitate together and make happy marriages. In between these is the No-Man's Land, filled with mental neutrals of both sexes. They talk about all the other things, such as books, jokes, politics, love (as distinct from love affairs), people, places, religion (in which, though they talk more about it, they do not, as a rule, believe so unquestioningly as do the males and the females, who have never thought about it and are rather shocked if it is mentioned), plays, music, current fads and scandals, public persons and events, newspapers, life, and anything else which turns up. Their conversation is easy to join in, as it is not above one's head.
Wow, that was a long thought! Now you have an idea of what I mean about the characters going on and on about things. Here's another excerpt that I liked:
Deeply Henry, going about his secret and private business, intent and absorbed, pondered this question of News, what it is and what it is not. Crime is News; divorce is News; girl mothers are News; fabric gloves and dolls' eyes are, for some unaccountable reason, News; centenaries of famous men are, for some still stranger reason, News; railway accidents are News; the wrong-doing of clergymen is News; strangest of all, women are, inherently and with no activities on their part, News, in a way that men are not... To be News in oneself, without taking any preliminary action—that was very exciting for women... All sorts of articles and letters appear in the papers about women. Profound questions are raised concerning them. Should they smoke? Should they work? Vote? Take Orders? Marry? Exist?
All this discussion about gender becomes very pertinent by the end of the book, and The Mystery at Geneva has an ending I honestly didn't see coming. On one hand, I thought it was a great twist. On the other, I'm not sure it effectively supports the point Macaulay was trying to make about gender definitions being total bull crap.

Mystery at Geneva is no Riddle of the Sands (review here)--this is not an international spy thriller. It's social commentary. If I had been reading it, I might have started to lose patience; but since I was listening to it on audio, I kind of just let it go and enjoyed the exquisite irony of Macaulay's writing. That being said, I can see why this novel is a forgotten classic: it's obscure, a bit preachy, long-winded, and the plot is literally a joke. But weirdly I had fun with it.

Get Mystery at Geneva: An Improbable Tale of Singular Happenings by Dame Rose Macaulay at Librivox|Project Gutenberg|Internet Archive