Monday, March 20th, 2023

Samuel Steward’s Stein-Toklas mysteries

Besides publishing his letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (Dear Sammy, 1977), their protégé, Samuel M. Steward (1909-93) also portrayed their relationship somewhat peripherally in Parisian Lives (1984), which is primarily a fictional version of another of their protégés British painter Sir Francis Rose, and centrally in two mysteries in which the pair together figure out murders. I read the second one, The Caravaggio Smile (1989),set in Paris, first, then read the first one, with the Steinian but not altogether accurate title Murder Is Murder Is Murder (1985), set in their summer house at Biligin in Ain province.

Having just read Stein’s exceedingly narcissistic Everybody’s Autobiography, I can say that Steward’s novel, set around the time she was writing that book (1938; the book was published the year before) fits almost perfectly with what Stein wrote about her life at the time. The one exception is that she only played the white keys on the piano, and Steward inexplicable has her only playing the black keys.

He portrays the dogs (the large poodle Basket and the chihuaha Pepe), the daily routine, and some elaborate breakfasts Toklas prepared for Stein and, in the middle of the book, Steward’s character whom he named Johnny Actaeon McAndrews, aided the investigation, which included splitting up the businesses in the village of Belly to inquire about what their neighbor Grand Paul bought the morning that he disappeared. “Jump-Up” Johnny does less leg work for the amateur sleuths than in Shawl, but beds a hunky policeman in both. In Murder, he also beds the couple’s Chinese houseboy, but none of the local peasants.

The deaf-mute Petit Paul, who is larger than his father, very muscular, and often semi-nude working in the Stein-Toklas under Alice’s directions attracts Johnny, but he knows better than to try to seduce him. A drunken Petit Paul was raped by their despised neighbor Debat, which enraged Grand Paul.

Alice spotted Grand Paul approaching Debat at the end of a field bordering a woods. Knowing that Gertrude would enjoy watching a confrontation, Alice puts down her telescope and calls Gertrude to come with her binoculars. By the time the partially deaf, large and sluggish older woman lumbers down to join Alice, only Debat is visible, however, so Alice is the only one who saw Grand Paul

After waiting two days for Grand Paul to return, the women go to the local police and suggest there has been a murder. Johnny, Gertrued and Pepe find the bag with most of Grand Paul’s purchases. They infer that he ate the bread and butter he bought and put some other things into his pockets rather than his bag.

The police arrest Debat, but are about to release him when the women return the next April and solve the case, not only determining who committed the crime of murder but who instigated it.

Some mystery mavens have found the whodunit predictable. My view is that the book is not a whodunit. As in Simenon’s Maigret novels, the whydunit is more important than the whodunit. Both are subordinate to invoking what life was like in the Toklas household. In both mysteries, Toklas is the prime mover of detection and the dominant force in the relationship (whatever their roles in sex may have been). There’s even a comic touch of S&M.

In Steward’s more action-packed The Caravggio Shawl (1989) his character is also called Johnny, a Chicago Catholic university English professor who beds many men and has more than passing interest in s&m. Visiting Paris, he aids Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, ca. 1938, to solve a murder and theft from the Louvre, climaxing atop the Arc de Triomphe. Toklas knits the titular scarf with a shade of pink from the Caravaggio painting of Orpheus, and also proves to be a crack shot with a derringer given to her father for her by the Emperor Norton. BTW, the only thing close to pink I see in Carvaggio’s Orpheus is his violin, but that seems more reddish than pink. Both books subtly show the competence and importance to Stein of Miss Toklas.

©2019, Stephen P. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.