Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell: Part 3

Come Away, Death (1937) and Faintley Speaking (1954), by Gladys Mitchell

This experiment is starting to pall. I’ve recalled the feelings I used to have 30 years ago when I would set aside Mitchell’s books not to return. But I have been diligently reading away in my spare moments; I’m going to be less verbose so I can talk about more titles in a single post.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about these novels and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read these novels, they will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read these books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Come Away, Death by Gladys Mitchell (1937)

22703921Sir Rudri Hopkinson, an archaeologist and scholar, drags various of his family, friends, and employees (including Mrs. Bradley) around Greece in order to do some original research by re-enacting the Mysteries (rituals) of various Greek gods. Since Sir Rudri has recently been the victim of a practical joke that may have a deleterious impact upon his professional life, and (to paraphrase his long-suffering wife) he’s nearly off his rocker, you might expect that things don’t go well. They do not, mostly because someone who was in on the joke is on the expedition and seems determined to cause more trouble. It will not exercise the reader’s mind overmuch to predict who gets murdered.

There are a number of big problems with this book. The murder is long, LONG overdue by the time it arrives, two-thirds of the way through the book, and quite a bit of the padding is bumph about landscape description and/or Greek history. It would have been possible to cut quite a bit of verbiage from this large book without sacrificing any actual plot developments. So, quite over-written.

30139008Mitchell is here somewhat incoherent in her writing, as I both recall from my earlier experiences and have heard it said by others, and I was paying close attention in an attempt to figure out precisely how. I can say I found a couple of instances where she begins a conversation between two people by not identifying one of them, except obliquely. Yes, I should have been paying sufficient attention to know who it was, but three pages later I did not and had to go back and guarantee I knew who was talking.  Places are sparely or not described, things are hinted at and not said in words … if you’re not following like a hawk every minute, you’ll lose your way.  That counts for me as incoherent. I’ve described this in the past as a book being “under-written”; that’s an idiosyncratic definition I use when it’s clear to me that the author knows what is going on but has not managed to communicate it to the reader in words, so you have to figure things out from hints. It’s unpleasant and annoying and I’m sure it contributes to people setting Mitchell’s books aside and not picking them up again.

The same paradox has probably already occurred to you; it is quite, quite unusual that a book can be over- and under-written at the same time. It takes an exceptional inattention to balance within the writing process. Whenever anything is important to the plot, you have to move into full analytical mode or you’ll miss what’s going on. But if it’s NOT important to the plot, it goes on for pages of excelsior. It’s maddening, like having to sprint furiously for a bit and then wade through glue, over and over.

UnknownThere are other issues. The depiction of Greek citizens, especially the peasantry, is meant to be amusing but indeed just set my teeth on edge. One of the largest problems for me was that, once Mrs. Bradley figures out whodunit and all the rest — nothing happens. Yes, the murderer is a sympathetic person. But I just don’t think it’s a very good idea to let murderers off scot-free, and Mrs. Bradley ought to know better. That’s not how I expect Golden Age mysteries to end.

Another thing I disliked was that … well, I’m not a classical scholar by any means, but I have read quite a bit about the classical elements mentioned in this novel, and not all of it in the course of fiction. I could not get over the feeling that there was an entire level of material here that was like an overlay over the plot, if only I had a better classical background; something to do with the Mysteries of the gods, and which god was being mentioned at the time, and what they were saying, and what Sir Rudri was hoping would happen as opposed to what did happen. What they used to talk about in school about novels that had a sub-surface level of meaning, so that Moby Dick is not just a whale but Something Else. “Here, if you’re talking about Demeter, who in the group has Demeteresque qualities?” the reader must ask himself, “and what does this mean?”

Being able to discern any deeper meanings might have added to my enjoyment if only Mitchell had just bloody said what she meant instead of merely hinting that This Is A Metaphor for Something Else.  It might be that Mitchell was addressing an audience of 1937 whom she felt had been much better educated in the classics than I; nowadays there needs to be much, much more that’s explained or else the reader is just lost and annoyed.  I’m fairly sure there actually was NOT such a level of meaning (or if there is, I am not smart enough to grasp it), and that the occasional trumpetings of a deeper significance in events were just so much hoo-hah. But it was annoying to not be certain. At the end, I was sufficiently grumpy to suspect she’d just copied it all out of a guidebook holus-bolus.

T51ZRHleowOL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_here is a great deal of activity in the book about re-enacting the Greek Mysteries, and wandering around Greece, and various ceremonies, and everyone seems constantly uncomfortable and in conflict. It’s not a pleasant experience for anyone, and to be honest they should all have made for home about day 4. If you take a moment and think about this from the point of view of a sensible person — none of these people have any reason to do what they’re doing, and the only explanation is that Sir Rudri is a bloody loony and has swept everyone up in his nutty scheme, and that lunacy is never truly addressed. Mrs. Bradley is a psychiatrist and Rudri’s actions have led directly to murder, and she is content to solve it rather than stop it (because the victim “deserved it”, it seems). None of this makes sense.

There are three male pre-teenage children in this book, which here I find an unpleasant addition. I have to say that Mitchell depicts them as children and does an excellent job of catching the tone of their conversation and the motivations for their actions.  I believed in these children and they were well-created. I just didn’t want them involved in this nasty murder and I don’t like reading about them in a murderous context if they are, as here, supernumeraries.  Children get scarred mentally when events like this happen, and no one seems to care much in this book.

Summing up: a long, LONG book that maunders and meanders and eventually goes nowhere.  Characters acting against their own best interests, incomprehensible events, very much underwritten, and lots of annoyances. Not much that I took any pleasure in and much I would have rather avoided.

Faintley Speaking, by Gladys Mitchell (1954)

519J5Sd5lTL._SY346_This one was primarily an annoyance. The plot is ridiculous; it’s based around a coded exchange of information among members of a criminal gang that is so stupid and incomprehensible, to say nothing about not actually communicating anything in specifics, that no criminal in her right mind would undertake it. Without going into details, criminals communicate with each other by using the botanical names of ferns that are meant to suggest … activities and warnings. Asplenium Septentrionale, the Forked Spleenwort, indicates that “two attempts at something are to be made”, because “forked”. So you have to be a pteridologist to join this gang or else you never learn where the meetings are LOL. It is such an asinine concept that the entire criminal scheme falls apart immediately when someone not involved with the gang intercepts one of these stupid communications and one of the criminals, a schoolteacher named Miss Faintley, is killed by the gang.

Unknown-1Mrs. Bradley’s secretary and Amazon-at-large Laura Menzies temporarily replaces the deceased schoolteacher. “Oh good!” I thought. “Now we’ll get some interesting stuff, since Mitchell herself spent a lifetime in schools.” No, not in the slightest, unless you count quite a bit of slander, illegality, and back-stabbing among the staff. We don’t see any actual school being taught, and the whole experience is primarily a waste of time; the criminals are absolutely obvious and all that remains is to follow them around a bit to crack the gang and end the story.

I was resolute and finished this one, although I honestly didn’t want to. Everything worked out entirely as expected and the obvious criminals were in fact the guilty parties.    One of the criminals has an unpleasant alcoholic wife who is painted in black strokes; regrettable. I kept expecting there to be more to the criminal plot, but no — just some squalid people doing stupid things to get easy money in a transparently obvious way. Hardly worth Mrs. Bradley’s time, and certainly not worth yours.

***

I seem to have struck a sequence of annoying Mitchell titles and I’m wondering if anyone has a specific book that they’d care to recommend to keep me at this. I remember approving of St. Peter’s Finger some years ago; are there any others that my readers feel might cheer me up?

 

 

 

 

15 thoughts on “Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell: Part 3

  1. Nick Fuller says:

    I’ve been reading your posts with interest. You’ve read three of Mitchell’s weakest books (Viper, Clay, Faintley) – but also haven’t enjoyed one of her masterpieces.

    I’d suggest:
    • The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (orthodox village mystery)
    • The Saltmarsh Murders (unorthodox village mystery)
    • Death at the Opera (school)
    • The Devil at Saxon Wall (witchcraft/paganism in English village)
    • Dead Men’s Morris (English folklore at Christmas)
    • St Peter’s Finger (convent)
    • Brazen Tongue (town in WWII)
    • When Last I Died (murder in the past + fake séances)
    • Sunset over Soho (dream-like and intriguing)
    • The Rising of the Moon (serial killer story told by an adolescent boy)
    • Death and the Maiden (naiad in Winchester)
    • Tom Brown’s Body (school + witchcraft)
    • Groaning Spinney (ghosts at Christmas)
    • The Echoing Strangers
    • Merlin’s Furlong
    • The 23rd Man
    • Dance To Your Daddy

    Re. Come Away, Death:
    SPOILERS
    The title comes from Twelfth Night, and the original verse (‘I am slain by a fair cruel maid’) provides a clue to the murderer’s identity. The chapter heading quotations come from Aristophanes’s Frogs, and the plot involves the mystae, professional rivalry (between two archæologists rather than two poets), a journey through the Underworld, and a judgement scene. The murderess is compared to Iphigenia, sacrificed by her father; to Clytemnestra, who slew Agamemnon in his hubris; and to Artemis, the virgin huntress ‘who carriest the bow of the hunter’, and who punished Actaeon with death for his temerity in desiring her. Of course, Mitchell, an avid reader of The Golden Bough, would have been familiar with Frazer’s argument that Artemis was not a virgin goddess, but a goddess of fertility. The murder weapon, the bow of ibex horns, is both the bow of Artemis, and the bow Odysseus uses to kill the suitors for Penelope’s hand. The victim, Armstrong, is compared to Dionysus (who was also the judge in The Frogs), in his dissolute and unsavoury nature; however, whereas Dionysus caused Pentheus to be torn apart by the Bacchae, here the Bacchae turn upon and rend Dionysus. A young archæologist, in love with Megan, quotes Book XXII of The Iliad, which describes the death of Hector; ‘soon in the dust lay that head once so fair, for Zeus had given him over to his enemies, to suffer shameful treatment in his own native land’. Armstrong is half-Greek, and dies in Greece, and all that is left of him is his severed head, but his character cannot be compared to that of the Worthy Hector!
    NO MORE SPOILERS

    • Nick Fuller says:

      By the way, have you seen Jason Hall’s excellent site: http://www.gladysmitchell.com?

      • Noah Stewart says:

        I have indeed seen Jason Hall’s excellent site, but I have resolved to not look at it for the duration of this exercise. I find if I read the opinions of others while I’m still assessing my own, my opinions tend to be coloured one way or the other. But I do recommend this site; I think I would disagree with his enthusiasm for everything she ever wrote, but he does a very thorough job of assessing it all. As I’m fond of remarking, your mileage may vary, but it’s great to have all this information in one place and I thank him for his effort.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I should probably have asked for suggestions before I started picking books entirely at random — based on what I thought the titles might mean. Thanks for this list and I will be guided by it. although I still may just pick at random every once in a while LOL.
      It’s interesting that you recommended Sunset Over Soho and someone else suggested it as one of her worst. I may have to go back to that one.
      You know, that’s a fascinating paragraph — I assume it’s from Jason Hall, whom I am eschewing for the moment (see below). I really do wish that Mitchell had taken a moment at the end to explain some of these things and make them clear, especially if she hoped to evoke some interest in The Golden Bough. This is the material I sort of dimly discerned and wanted to know more about, but could not grasp because (IMHO) it was not written down for me to understand. (I note again that I may just have been too dumb to grasp what I was being told.)

      • Nick Fuller says:

        I was looking forward to seeing what you made of Sunset over Soho, given your perceptive comments about sex in The Worsted Viper. It’s by no means a straightforward detective story, or a straightforward narrative, but it’s intriguing.

        Few of Mitchell’s books are straightforward detective stories. She’s in the Berkeley/Sayers tradition of the literate detective novel (or novel with detective elements), rather than the Carr/Chesterton fair play puzzle plot tradition. From your comments about “excelsior”, I suspect you lean more to the latter! I’d advise you (as others suggest below) to read Mitchell as fiction, rather than as detective fiction. There are some ingenious plots and clues (the earliest books, St Peter’s Finger, Brazen Tongue, for instance), but you’ll be disappointed if you expect Roger Ackroyd or The Red Widow Murders; few of Mitchell’s books work that way.

        Mitchell does assume an intelligent audience, and often makes the reader work. The plots are often complex, occasionally convoluted (Hangman’s Curfew), but her characterization, dialogue and descriptions are excellent, and her best books are witty and high-spirited.

        Not sure why you’d assume Jason wrote that paragraph about Greek themes in Come Away, Death! 😉 Frazer is less of an influence here than in The Devil at Saxon Wall and Dead Men’s Morris.

      • Noah Stewart says:

        I do apologize, I’m not sure why I thought you were quoting but upon looking again, it’s unsupportable. Thank you for putting the material so clearly.

  2. Yeah Come Away Death was not one I enjoyed either and I have similar problems with Mitchell as you do. My favourites are Speedy Death, The Saltmarsh Murders and The Mystery of the Butcher’s Shop.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I remember finding Speedy Death incomprehensible because no one ever answers the question — or even seems remotely interested — in why the first victim was (and I’ll see if I can be reasonably spoiler-free here) an eonist. I mean, come ON. It’s a fascinating story hook and a really challenging and advanced theme for 1929, and nobody cares? Mrs. Bradley is a psychiatrist, and SHE doesn’t seem to care. It just sucked all the vitality out of the book for me.
      Saltmarsh has received a number of recommendations, as has Butcher’s Shop, so I’ll definitely try those again.

      • nickfuller says:

        Well, that’s left unexplained – or unstated. There’s a feminist subtext; Mitchell may be suggesting that for a woman to succeed in a man’s world, particularly in such a male profession as exploring, she may have to become a man. Mrs Bradley, of course, is an independent woman, but Eleanor is her father’s dogsbody. I think, reading between the lines, it’s also a case of sapphism. (The TV adaptation, from memory, throws in blackmail.) The body in the bathtub is also, of course, a nod to Sayers.

        Saltmarsh and Butcher’s Shop are both straightforward (for Mitchell) detective stories, but also parodies of genre conventions. They both have maps, Mrs Bradley’s notebook listing clues, and Butcher’s Shop even has a timetable. You’d probably enjoy them. Like most of Mitchell’s books, they do have children, though.

        Most children in Mitchell are intelligent and likeable, although some can be downright hideous (Clement Drashleigh in The 23rd Man, brought up without inhibitions). There are also a few books where children are victims, and even one where a child is the murderer. She doesn’t dwell on details, though. Mitchell’s world is – murder, insanity, and witchcraft aside – fundamentally good-natured and generous; it’s close in tone to both the English comic novel and the fairy-tale, and children fit easily into both of those genres.

  3. Jeff Flugel says:

    Been reading your posts with interest, Noah. I like Mitchell a great deal more than you do, but I can understand many of your complaints. She is not the author to read if you’re of the type that enjoys detective fiction primarily for the puzzle plots. I find her a very interesting if eccentric novelist and (usually, though not always) great fun to read – for her characters and dialogue, sense of place and atmosphere, and bits of esoteric lore. But I will readily admit that her murder plots are often tenuous and sometimes come across a mere afterthoughts.

    Ironically, in light of your post, COME AWAY, DEATH is one of my favorites of her works, though I’m in complete agreement with you re: Mrs. Bradley’s cavalier attitude to the murderer and her lack of bringing them to justice. This happens in several of the Bradley books (and then, in others, Mrs. Croc takes vengeance into her own hands). Many of Mitchell’s novels take their sweet time setting up the central mystery and then seem to wrap things up in abrupt fashion, which can be off-putting.

    I can see what you mean about having young children involved in a murder mystery in real life, but the way Mitchell handles it here, and her undeniable skill at rendering children and young people in realistic ways, keeps it from feeling exploitative.

    But I don’t know…I just find something very unique and enjoyable about her novels, especially the ones written in the mid-50s and earlier. I’m sorry that you’re finding this project increasingly onerous the further you read on…hopefully you’ll encounter a novel more to your taste soon. Nick’s list above is a good guideline.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I think you may well have hit the nail on the head: “She is not the author to read if you’re of the type that enjoys detective fiction primarily for the puzzle plots.” I admit in the past I have been fairly insistent that my detective fiction does contain a good puzzle plot, but I am such a huge fan of Nero Wolfe that I cannot assert that I am rigorous about this. (I’d cheerfully read a Wolfe story that didn’t have a crime in it — reading about his everyday life would be fine with me.) So this gives me something to home in on — “characters, dialogue, sense of place and atmosphere, and bits of esoteric lore.”
      I do agree that Mitchell has undeniable skill at rendering children and young people. She seems to have the underlying assumption that they are emotionally resilient and tough little creatures, at least the boys, and that has not been my experience; but she is certainly very good at making us see them realistically.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Noah: I too have been reading with interest, though–with Nick and Jeff–I’m a definite fan of the Great Gladys. As Jeff put it, and as you quoted, “She is not the author to read if you’re of the type that enjoys detective fiction primarily for the puzzle plots.”

    I am of that type, but I also enjoy other types of fiction and storytelling, and I find Mitchell just a marvellous writer, someone who is able to bring events and places and people to life.

    That is to say, JJ reviewed Crofts today; I admit to being largely unable to read Crofts (The Cask notwithstanding) because I find most of his work unbearably dull. For all I know, he could be the greatest puzzle-plotter in the world, but I still wouldn’t read his work just because I need something–character, storytelling or writing ability, levity–to keep up interest.

    I’ve not read Faintley Speaking, but Come Away, Death is my favorite Mitchell I’ve read so far: beautifully plotted (which is distinct from puzzle-plotted), beautifully characterized, and gorgeously written. Mythology, both Classical and Norse, was one of my first loves, and I’ve read Frazer and know the references Nick noted. I’d say that much of the padding you noted is in fact the buildup, as we get to understanding these people, what makes them tick, how they respond in this unusual setting–adding something that is so important to detective fiction, the aspect of inevitability.

    Again, with Jeff, I’m sorry that you haven’t found something of Gladys’s that is more to your tastes. I’m not positive you’d like St. Peter’s Finger–it’s more of an orthodox detective story, yes, but it doesn’t have that kind of huge “surprise!” that most are expected at the end, and it delves deeply into psychology–but you may like Death at the Opera: it does have a definite fair-play surprise solution, and it’s another one of GM’s best.

    Karl

  5. Noah Stewart says:

    A couple of my guests commenting above have noted that, as has been quoted multiple times here, “She is not the author to read if you’re of the type that enjoys detective fiction primarily for the puzzle plots.” I’m sorry to say I’m not sure how to include everyone in my response to that, so I’ll just put it here. My apologies for my usual verbosity.
    To begin, let me quote a comment above by Nick Fuller:
    “She’s in the Berkeley/Sayers tradition of the literate detective novel (or novel with detective elements), rather than the Carr/Chesterton fair play puzzle plot tradition. From your comments about “excelsior”, I suspect you lean more to the latter!”
    I could probably blether on all day about whether or not there is such a thing as the “literate detective” novel, and what that looks like, and why I think you should probably switch the names Berkeley and Chesterton in that sentence. But what it boils down to for me is this. Gladys Mitchell is known as a writer of detective fiction and I’m here to assess her work as detective fiction qua detective fiction. I don’t require that detective fiction contains a “puzzle plot”, although that’s my personal preference. But I do require detective fiction to have a crime that is detected by a detective and I will base my assessment primarily on how well that task is accomplished. Characterization, larger social themes (what I have elsewhere called indoctrination), other ideas — all good, and I respect the gentlemen above who enjoy the things that they enjoy about Mitchell’s writing. I’d even consider a guest column refuting my comments. But I’m all about the detective material. If that means I’m being unfair to Mitchell’s work and potentially overlooking its merits, I’ll have to live with that.

    • Jeff Flugel says:

      Thanks for the explanation above, Noah, though I don’t think it’s necessary for you to defend your views. This is your blog, after all, and one can’t argue with your opinion of any given author because, well, that’s your opinion! I don’t think that any of us who have commented above expect you to change your mind, or judge these books in any different way than you judge any other authors on this site. I imagine that those of us who are fans are just happy to see someone in the GAD blogosphere covering Ms. Mitchell’s work in a detailed way, and can’t help coming to her defense just a wee bit.

      At any rate, I hope all this feedback hasn’t soured you on this Mrs. Bradley project. Hopefully you’ll find one of her works that you enjoy, but it’s quite possible that none of them will be to your taste…and that’s fine. No one can say you haven’t given her a fair shake.

      • Noah Stewart says:

        I’ve actually found one that I enjoyed and I hope to bring you that review later today. I may give myself a break here and there, but I hope to keep going with all these Gladys Mitchell novels.

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