Part 1: The Worsted Viper, by Gladys Mitchell (1943)
When you accumulate a really significant number of books — let’s say five digits’ worth — you do things that seem incomprehensible to people whose accumulated books consist of a shelf of dusty college textbooks, three Stephen King paperbacks with beach sand between their pages, and a coffee table book about Lady Di. This story starts a few weeks ago when I was in my local thrift shop and picked up a 1986 Canadian paperback edition of one of the final few Gladys Mitchell mysteries for $2.
“That looks interesting,” said my companion, “Is she any good?” Dangerous words to a book reviewer. I imagine that many of my readers have faced a similar problem. It is certainly quite all right to admire the work of … let’s say any Golden Age of Detection author who is not one of the Big Four. The problem comes when you try to answer the question of “good”. All these books have relative merits and accompanying drawbacks and it’s likely that your inquisitor has never heard of any other GAD author to whose work you might draw a comparison. Finally I decided that utility was the best guide for my response. My companion would not be likely to invest the time to finish the novel I was holding (Uncoffin’d Clay from 1980) and was unlikely to pursue the issue at a library. “She wrote this one when she was quite elderly,” I said, “You probably wouldn’t find it amusing. She wrote a shitload of mysteries over a long career, but I’ve never personally been enthusiastic about most of them. She has a kind of … incoherent quality that is not easy to get over.”
“Oh,” said my companion, “Okay, guess I won’t borrow that one.” And the talk turned to other things. But over the next few days, my mind kept returning to Gladys Mitchell. She’s on my list of authors whose books I will always buy, even if I’m not planning on reading them immediately, because (a) she’s always been scarce and hard to get, and (b) I know that people will always want them. A great part of Mitchell’s output, probably two-thirds of it, has never been published in paperback in North America; in my long experience constantly dealing in such things, I’ve never had more than half her books go through my hands in any affordable format. A Canadian publisher named PaperJacks did a handful of Mitchell’s last few books in small-format paperback (with a linking photo illustration of someone who reminds me more of Jessica Fletcher than Mrs. Bradley). I expect they were inexpensive to license, and no one else seems to have wanted to publish them in paperback, so they’ve become more valuable than their appearance promises. My $2 investment may pay off with $5 or even $10 in the future. So I’ll buy them, but as I now recalled, I very rarely bother to read one.
It occurred to me that if I were to actually form a taste for Gladys Mitchell, I would have some 50 or 60 titles to read. I’m always crabbing about having too many books on my To Be Read pile, but truthfully much of my reading these days is more dutiful than pleasurable. If I can find an author who’s got a big backlist whose work I enjoy, so much the better. So I looked on-line. My readers will, I’m sure, have already anticipated what I found; a clever publisher (Thomas & Mercer of Seattle, WA) has made the Gladys Mitchell mysteries available through Amazon Publishing. All of them. And if you have Kindle Unlimited, they’re free.
So I got them all.
There’s really no justification. All I can say is, for years and years I was vaguely aware that Gladys Mitchell had written a hell of a lot of novels that I’d never seen, and I guess I panicked. I’ll have to go back and check to make certain that, like Pokemon, I have them all, but presently my e-reader is stuffed to the gun’l’s with obscure Gladys Mitchell novels.
My readers can probably expect that, over the next while, like a python digesting a pig, I’ll have more to say about Gladys Mitchell en masse; I’ll certainly be trying to tease out linking themes and threads from her work on a larger scale. But when an unabashed bibliophile comes home with a large haul, the temptation is to savour a few choice bonbons off the top, as it were. So I’ll first give you a few initial reactions, since I’ve read a handful of these over the past week. You will be amused to know that I dipped into these based entirely upon their titles; what sounded interesting? Here’s the first of my finds.
Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
The Worsted Viper by Gladys Mitchell (1943)
This made me think of a couple of other books; it’s 50% Witch Miss Seeton by Heron Carvic, and 50% E. Phillips Oppenheim (or some other early practitioner of the desultory thriller). Essentially Mrs. Bradley confronts a witchcraft cult that is killing “women of the streets” and leaving a linking device on the bodies; a worsted viper. Mrs. Bradley musters the aid of the police and a small group of personal friends and solves the crime in a book that has many of the features of the 1910s/1920s thriller; at one point she’s shot at with a poisoned dart. If it had been “sinister Orientals” instead of “sinister witchcraft practitioners”, it would have been perfectly 50% Carvic and 50% Sax Rohmer.
I got off onto a long track of delightfully useless internet research about what precisely Mitchell meant by “worsted viper”. I had rather thought it was like a handmade stuffie that blocks draughts at the bottom of a door, made to look like a metre-long snake but along the lines of a sock monkey. (There’s a P.D. James mystery in which such an object plays a part; “Hissing Sid”.) But Chapter 5 tells us this:
“… was a toy snake made or worsted in the way that children make woollen reins on a cotton reel with four tin-tacks, so that its body was solid and circular. Some beads had been sewn on here and there, and its head, which was made of two pieces of soft leather stuck together with thin glue, was horribly and cleverly an imitation of the flat broad head of the English viper, which is without the head-shield common to most specimens of poisonous snakes.”
I’m still not sure what’s meant precisely about how this is made — some kind of small-scale macrame with fine wool? I believe “or” in the first sentence to be a typo; “worsted” is “a fine smooth yarn” so this snake was made OF worsted. At first I considered that there might be a process akin to tatting called “worsting” but I think it’s just a typo. And that is how one wastes 90 minutes on the internet, by the way. 😉
Anyway — quite a bit of the book is told through the POV of three young women, one of whom is Laura Menzies. Laura, as I recall, appears quite a bit throughout Mrs. Bradley’s oeuvre as being a “jolly hockey sticks” young athlete who manages the strenuous bits that Mrs. Bradley could not reasonably be expected to undertake. Here, she and her faithful chums Kitty and Alice are expert boat-women on holiday who touch on the periphery of the murders, and most of the action of the book takes place on or near the water. Mrs. Bradley’s niece-in-law Deborah performs a very similar “hearty young athlete” role in other books (I’ll have to confirm this) and does so here as well.
There is a lot about this book that didn’t live up to reasonable expectations. For some reason I kept expecting the witchcraft plot to be a fraud, rather like a Scooby-Doo outing where there’s really a smuggling plot going on in the background. But no, it’s witchcraft all the way. I was rather disappointed that one central issue of the book was clued with something that I recognized instantly, but which apparently was meant to be a major reveal at the climax; it was so obvious to me (I speak a particular foreign language) that I thought it must be a red herring. But no, it’s flat-out what it looks like. There are long passages told by characters who discover various deceased prostitutes; these people never appear again and there’s no real reason for them to be in the book.
There are also a couple of very odd things about this book and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about them. One is that there is a really interesting focus upon female sexuality, to such an extent that I thought, “Whoa, there’s more sex here than in half the Golden Age.” There are some perfectly reasonable observations about sexuality in the book, at least for the context of the 1940s when this book was published. There’s some quite frank talk about what the body of a prostitute reveals about her occupation, and the above-noted niece-in-law Deborah has sex with her husband twice in Chapter 10 when they’re alone on a boat. This is certainly referred to in oblique and obfuscatory terms, but they’re definitely Doing It; the only thing missing is a row of asterisks.
As to why this is so odd — well, it’s a kind of trick. We wouldn’t blanch at finding a passage in a 1940s private eye novel that indicates that married couples or prostitutes actually have sex. Here it seems shocking because so much of the language and style of this book are based in the 1920s; we are led to expect the prudery of, say, Dorothy L. Sayers trying to shock her readers with Lord Peter saying “Hell!” and we get a much less unbridled sexuality. The other odd part is that as I understand it Miss Mitchell remained an unmarried teacher for all her long life and yet seems to have quite an understanding of, specifically from Chapter 10, the languorous afterglow after vigorous sexual activity. She does not, however, have an accurate view of — and I’m kind of guessing here as to what precisely she’s talking about — the idea that you can identify a sex worker’s trade by examining her body. Check this out, and remember that Mrs. Bradley is not only a psychiatrist but of necessity a medical doctor:
“Mrs. Bradley looked at the cheap and tawdry clothing, the worthless jewellery, the almost complete absence of underclothing, the high-heeled shoes and cobweb stockings, and then turned to look at the body from which these poor lendings had come. … [Mrs. Bradley says:] “Not much doubt how she made her living, either, Inspector. There are various indications ….”
Indeed. I’ll leave the physiological determination to the reader, but I suggest that Miss Mitchell is talking through her cloche. “Various indications” — pfui.
What interested me is that sexuality is actually a kind of focus of the book, and I’m not sure why. It doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the mystery’s solution. I noticed that every time one of the female characters gets dressed or undressed, particularly when swimming around boats (which happens a lot) there’s a little moment where she’s described as changing. “She explained, pulling on, as she did so, slacks and a sweater over her vest and knickers.” “She slipped off her pyjamas, put on her bathing costume, and went out to test the temperature.” Once I noticed it, I saw it everywhere in the book; women change clothes in front of the reader. We don’t see male characters treated similarly, although to be fair there are very few instances where male characters in the book go swimming. I don’t have enough of Mitchell’s oeuvre in my recent memory yet to be able to say whether this is common or unusual, but I’m going to keep my eyes open as I go through my recent haul.
The other unusual thing I noticed that piqued my interest is that, quite late in the book, an unusual character is introduced. As I noted above, the bodies of prostitutes are being scattered about by the witchcraft cult, and for the most part they are left in yachts and houseboats. The innocent owners of these craft are introduced, discover the body, and then pretty much vanish, but they get a goodly chapter of characterizational writing before they do.
Chapter 19 tells the story of Edgar Copley and his sister Romance, who are on holiday so that “Edgar could sail a boat and Romance find peace and quiet”. The unusual thing is that — well, in modern terms, the young woman has a genetic disorder we call Down syndrome. In 1943, “Romance was what the neighbours called ‘not quite normal’ …” and the way she’s described is frankly shocking to the modern sensibility. “For the first five years after the death of his father … Edgar had hoped that Romance might die; but she did not. She lived on, pallid, large-faced, fleshy, resentful, and childish, until sometimes he wished that he himself could die, if only to be rid of her.” Mitchell refers to her as “the puffy-faced defective”. By the end of the chapter, she has been violently murdered and left aboard their rented yacht.
Now, I keep trying to remind myself that it is unfair to expect that characters created in 1943 should partake of modern attitudes and knowledge; better that they don’t, indeed, so that we don’t forget how short-sighted and prejudiced we used to be. Well and good. What really bothered me about this is that, in narrative terms, the whole chapter serves no real purpose. The characters are not involved further in the narrative — although there is a distinct suggestion that All Is Not What It Seems with regard to Edgar’s innocence, it essentially goes nowhere. Mrs. Bradley says immediately, “To me, the whole thing is too elaborate a framework within which to plan the murder of one poor mental defective.” This in fact is quite clear to the reader because the entire witchcraft plot would then either be unnecessary or partaking of the central premise of Christie’s The ABC Murders, and at this point in the novel those things are impossible to assert; it’s just too late.
So the whole chapter seems to be just Gladys Mitchell writing a lot of unpleasant description about someone with Down syndrome and then having her killed, in a violent and vicious way. I agree that it’s reasonable that this unenlightened point of view would largely go unremarked in 1943; it’s just really unpleasant to see it trotted out for no real reason except to add a bit of background colour. I can only hope that readers of 1943 found this as unkind and unfortunate as I did in 2017.
Summing up overall, I can’t recommend this as a place for someone to start with the Mrs. Bradley novels; there’s a good deal about this novel that is antique, including the plot structure and the central premise, and at least one authorial attitude that is actively unpleasant. Nevertheless I am determined to either find a better one or write them all off; I’ll continue to report back.
In closing, I wanted to mention that, although this novel was published in 1943, you’d hardly know there was a war on; just not part of the narrative. My next random selection from the works of Gladys Mitchell was quite the opposite. Although I chose Sunset Over Soho entirely by its title, it turns out to also be from 1943 and to contain, astoundingly enough, one major character taking some time out of the plot to go and assist with the evacuation of Dunkirk. It begins with a corpse being discovered during an air raid, but this one is in a coffin already. I’ll let you know more as my next entry, perhaps.