The Mystery of a Turkish BathSeptember 4, 2013
So, has anyone read anything by Rita, AKA E.M. Gollan, AKA Eliza Humphreys, etc.? Because I read The Mystery of a Turkish Bath over the weekend, and it’s super weird. It’s not actually a mystery story, really — the subject of the title is a woman — so much as a tangle of spa society and occultism.
We start with the sort of limited third-person point of view of Mrs. Ray Jefferson, a wealthy and fashionable American woman who is at an unfashionable English spa for her suppressed gout. In the Turkish baths one day, she meets a strikingly beautiful foreign woman, somewhat in the mode of the Lady from Three Weeks, and they begin a discussion on philosophy and religion and things.
The beautiful stranger turns out to be Princess Zairoff. It’s unclear where she came from originally, but she’s spent time in India and her dead husband was Russian — and apparently not the nicest guy, as the Three Weeks parallels continue to hold. She’s also well acquainted with one of the other spa guests, Colonel Julian Estcourt; he’s sort of her childhood sweetheart, and they were both given the same…spiritual training, I guess, in their youth. I think they’re intended to be Buddhists, but it’s hard to tell. The princess is dismissive of the world’s vanities, but dresses in silk and fur, and lolls around on bear rugs. She appears to practice astral projection, and there are numerous references to some kind of higher authority giving her orders — this, apparently, is why she married Zairoff instead of Colonel Estcourt.
The utility of Mrs. Jefferson’s point of view is limited, since we also get scenes from Princess Zairoff’s and Colonel Estcourt’s points of view, but she’s considerably more likable and down to earth than they are, even with her superstitions and affectations. Utility clearly isn’t what Rita is going for, anyway; she wants to give her readers an atmosphere of mystery and romance and the supernatural, and isn’t terribly worried about what kind of structure it rests on. We never learn why the princess felt compelled to marry the Russian, what specific kind of pseudo-Buddhist occult training she and Estcourt had, or anything about the mechanics of The Princess’ and Estcourt’s supernatural feats. The Mystery of a Turkish Bath is a sloppy book — as is to be expected from a woman who wrote 120 books — but I don’t usually mind that.
Rita pretty much succeeds at getting the atmosphere she’s going for, but that’s really the only thing she succeeds at.The book ends sadly for the characters, but as a reader it’s hard to care. And that’s fine, I guess. It is what it is, and I can’t decide whether the fact that I didn’t feel like I wanted more from it meant Rita did well in meeting expectations or did badly in not capturing my imagination at any point. The book is sort of crazy and prosaic at the same time, and I suspect I’ll be reading at least one more of the 120 to find out whether that holds true for Rita’s other books.