June 15: “The Case of the Disappearing Ingenue” by Melissa Pritchard

Hello, Story366! Writing to you from the road today, as the fam and I are heading up to Chicago for some family visiting and so I can get in some beer vending at Wrigley. We’re at the Drury Inn in Collinsville, Illinois, a hotel we’ve stayed at five times now. It has a pool. It has free breakfast and dinner. It has free popcorn and fountain Pepsi products. Almost halfway to my mom’s house, it’s a nice way to break up the trip when I have the kids with me. Bunny and kitty are in capable hands back at the abode, so get ready for a week of Chicago-themed posts—I can smell the Dogzillas from here.

Today I’m reading from the wonderful Melissa Pritchard‘s wonderful collection, Disappearing Ingenue: The Misadventures of Eleanor Stoddard from Doubleday. It’s a book I had when it first came out, then loaned it to my friend, Alicia, who recently found it during a move and mailed it back to me. I never noticed this really nice note inside from Alicia, which she stuffed in the front when she mailed it back to me a few years ago. In the age of texts and FB and implied good will, it’s nice to find a surprise to find an actual written letter—in cursive!—from a friend, from years ago. How lovely.

I’m a fan of Pritchard’s work, and I remember before lending this book out to Alicia, enjoying the first few stories. But that was … fourteen years ago?! God damn it, Alicia. But anyway, I was able to jump right back in today, focusing on the (mostly) title story, “The Case of the Disappearing Ingenue.”

As you might guess, Disappearing Ingenue: The Misadventures of Eleanor Stoddard is a book of related stories, Eleanor a character that Pritchard obviously loves, and for good reason. Eleanor Stoddard is a wistful woman, full of energy, hope, and good will. She’s ambitious, but somewhat limited by her surroundings—Chicago’s more affluent suburbs—and her trust in her life, in the people in it. “The Case of the Disappearing Ingenue” places Eleanor in a pickle, as she’s discovered a clue (yes, this is language from Eleanor’s lexicon, “pickle” and “clue”), a love song penned by her faithful (?) husband Neil to some blonde. Eleanor can’t be sure it’s cheating—it’s just a few lines scribbled on a page found inside an old book—but the context of the song, and the fact that Eleanor’s not blonde, gets her thinking.

From there, Eleanor starts to imagine herself as a detective, as she’ll need to find out the truth about Neil. She incites a hero of hers, Nancy Drew, and Pritchard goes so far as to quote Nancy Drew mysteries several times throughout the story, including as her epigraph and as the closing lines. At one point, she even has Eleanor make a chart of Nancy Drew characters, comparing them to people in her own life—the lists are surprisingly similar, even if Eleanor is fudging a little. Have I read a story this year where a grown woman uses Nancy Drew as the basis for her own life, in the wake of finding out her husband’s cheating? No. No, I have not. I loved reading this story as it might be the most fun I’ve had reading a story in a long time.

Before Eleanor can engage the Neil mystery, she wants a practice run. It just so happens that Eleanor’s daughter is taking riding lessons at the local stables, and in the crowd of parents during a competition, Eleanor overhears another one of the moms bring up the Helen Brach disappearance. This is a famous case around Chicago, as the candy heiress—Brach’s is a brand of candy (they make these, e.g.)—disappeared in 1977. I immediately recognized this case, as a student of both candy and Chicago history. What I didn’t know is that Richard Bailey, a stable owner who was convicted of defrauding Brach, was also accused of her murder, but never convicted due to lack of evidence. I found that out after reading the story (you should really click on this link), so I didn’t know that the Richard Bailey in Pritchard’s story was not only a real person, but the accused and probable killer—Pritchard has Eleanor congressing with diabolical historical characters! Like I said, could this be more fun?

Eleanor decides she’s going to solve the Helen Brach disappearance/murder, because that’s a good warm-up for solving the Neil infidelity case. How’s Eleanor, an upper-class suburban housewife with a toddler daughter and no police experience, going to pull this off? Nancy Drew style, of course! Eleanor concocts a plot where she poses as a wealthy heiress (like Brach) and confronts Richard Bailey in disguise. This meeting goes better than Eleanor imagined, Richard not only agreeing to sell her a horse (this was his scam, how he knew and took advantage of Brach), asking Eleanor out to dinner. Ah-ha! Now she can spend a night with him, plenty of opportunity to garner more clues, to lay her (yet unformed) trap, which may or may not include dropping a package of Brach’s butter mint creams (which are heaven, by the way) in front of Richard, just to see how he reacts, all Hamlet-at-the-murder-reenactment-play style.

I’ll stop here, but this story just gets better before it ends. This is truly one of my favorite stories I’ve read this year, and I’m so glad Alicia sent me back my Disappearing Ingenue. Melissa Pritchard is simply one of our great writers, someone you should get to as soon as you can.

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