--Spectator review of Primitive Hearts in the Pyrenees, by Ruth Sawtell Otis/Ida Treat
"Ah, Mademoiselle," a gleam rose to the blue eyes bright in the old face. "You also? You already love this country of mine? And what do you love? Ruined towers, ghosts, caves?
--Blood from a Stone (1945), by Ruth Sawtell Wallis
|a step back in time|
Wallis's deep knowledge of the French Pyrenees (the southernmost region of France, separated from Spain by a rugged mountain chain) is one of the great strengths of Blood from a Stone, but happily the novel's mystery plot and its characters (whether American, British, Russian or French) are strong assets as well.
The novel is set back ten years to the summer of 1935, in the valley of St. Fiacre, not far from the actual commune of Foix, located between the city of Toulouse and the Spanish border. In it Wallis paints an interesting portrait of culture clash, as red-haired anthropological researcher Susan Kent shocks the traditionalist natives by residing with another woman in a house, locally dubbed La Catine ("The House of a Woman of Bad Habits"), and intrepidly venturing forth, with only a male assistant in tow, into ancient mountain caves to dig in the hard rock and earth for bones, flints and shards.
|It walks by night....|
Beware la dame blanche!
At the beginning of Blood from a Stone Susan Kent is even mistaken (?) by a nightcrawling group young boys for an ominous supernatural dame blanche/dama blanca (white lady), presaging the miasma of animus and suspicion that later envelops her, as dead bodies--recently slain ones--start to turn up in the most unexpected corners of Saint Fiacre. Susan knows that she is not the source of the menace--but just who is, and what could be his/her motive for this mayhem?
|woman's best friend|
Susan's lovely house servant Moise
the local priest, Father Bigorre
the schoolteacher and his wife, Monsieur and Madame Dumas
members of the gentry, the elderly Comte de l'Arize and his aloof son, Marc
earthy Madame 'Ri and her offspring, Jean-Marie, who moonlights as Susan's assistant
dilettante scholar and textbook correct Englishman Sir Cyril Brooks-Brooks
|Murder! But by whose hand? French cave painting|
I found Blood from a Stone an immensely enjoyable crime novel--well and fairly plotted, atmospheric and suspenseful and peopled with intriguingly ambiguous characters. The lead character, Susan, is nicely fleshed out and given even to sounding the occasional feminist note, as on one occasion when she explains why she needs to locate another scholar, a man, to verify her findings, even though she herself is clearly rather more than capable in her own:
|American hardcover edition (Dodd, Mead)|
Arguably Blood from a Stone is an even better book than Wallis's previous one, No Bones About It. In the New York Times Book Review it was raved by the esteemed reviewer Anthony Boucher as "a honey" of a book on account of its "[f]ine emotional tensions, well-conceived characters and locale, fascinating scientific dividend and superlative economy of narration," while the Saturday Review praised the novel as "expertly mixed" mystery story with "some exceptionally shivery scenes." I can't disagree! Highly recommended.