Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell: game over

Really, I must apologize. I was completely determined to read my way through Gladys Mitchell’s enormous backlist of detective fiction (60-plus volumes). I had visions of a long series of posts in which I would discern Mitchell’s central themes, report back on her preoccupations, and present a picture of Mrs. Bradley (her series detective).

research-buried-in-booksI just can’t do it.

I have the electronic equivalent of a teetering To Be Read pile filled with her works, greater and lesser. I keep dipping into one and then another, hoping to find something that sets off a spark of interest. And you know, I’m sure it’s my failure as a human being, but I just can’t manage it.  I don’t like her writing style, I don’t like her characters. Most of her story hooks seem contrived and pedestrian; the mystery-oriented sections of her plots mostly don’t bear up under scrutiny. Half the books have something to do with boats and boating, and I am like Hercule Poirot, preferring to remain safely on shore. The stories are occasionally incoherent and I wake up a few minutes later, thinking, “Just who the hell is she talking to at this point?” Mrs. Bradley herself is mostly a collection of mannerisms wrapped in yellow skin; Mrs. Bradley’s hearty associate Laura Menzies is ghastly, like the girls’ school prefect from hell. I must have dipped into about 30 of them and put them all aside thinking, “Oh, lordy, maybe there’s a better one somewhere in the pile.” I haven’t found one.

And here let me specifically apologize to the erudite readers who paid me the courtesy of being interested in my opinions about Gladys Mitchell. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s clear that you like her writing more than I do, and I respect that; I don’t think you have poor taste, it’s pretty clear that I do. There’s something about Gladys Mitchell, or me, and the two of us are immiscible. I have decided to do you all the favour of not beating the topic to death in a vain attempt to keep my promise — it was mostly made to justify my acquisition of so many e-books at one fell swoop.

21839047I will leaven this damning with some faint praise. There are a couple of titles that I liked; had this effort continued, I might have written about St. Peter’s Finger, Death at the Opera and Laurels are Poison with approval. The cores of these mystery novels are capably-constructed detective plots, which is something I pretty much require in a mystery, and while they are not superb, they are very well done.

There is at least one novel that will probably be an entry in my “100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read” series, the completely insane Sunset Over Soho.  It contains a paragraph that attempts to communicate that two characters are having sex which is one of the most unintentionally hilarious things I have ever seen in print; like someone describing how to participate in an activity that they’d never actually experienced but only been told about.

Unknown-1Mitchell, indeed, seems to have been more forthright about sexuality than most of her contemporaries; people have sex in or out of wedlock, which I expect would have shocked most of the Humdrums, and if they’re married they enjoy it. I have to praise her for being ahead of her contemporaries in this respect; the pure puzzle mystery is not known for sexual realism and she moved the sub-genre forward bravely.

Conversely, Mitchell was somewhat philosophical, with a bent to what we would today call the right — her views on eugenics are very abhorrent to today’s readers and were rather shocking to the contemporaneous ones, I suspect. Her unpleasant attitude towards a character with Down’s syndrome certainly shocked me. To her credit she doesn’t stop the action for two characters to have a discussion about her political views; she buries them, like she buries her observations on class and class structure, in the background and subtext. Lots of small moments added up to a picture of a writer who wouldn’t have dined at my table and remained philosophically unscathed.

But I think it’s better to leave off Gladys Mitchell; if I can’t do the research, I shouldn’t shoot my mouth off based on an incomplete reading. I admit that pile of unread e-books will bother me, but so would forcing myself to continue.

And so I shall return to something more to my taste, again with apologies to both Mitchell and her fans, who are many.  I do have a major piece on a Rex Stout novel about Nero Wolfe (And Be A Villain) coming up, in conjunction with my friend JJ whose GAD blog at The Invisible Event is constantly a pleasure. We’ll be doing a full-of-spoilers analysis, so be warned. (One day later, I’ve edited this for accuracy, see the comments below.) In the meantime, to clear my palate, I think I need something of the zero-characterization, all-puzzle style. Where’s that Rupert Penny novel I was looking at idly a few weeks back?

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24 thoughts on “Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell: game over

  1. haha I don’t blame you for giving up on Mitchell. So many of her books are fairly middling or worse. I too have read ones where I have no idea what is going on as the narrative slips into madness. She has a lot of unusual ideas but cannot always execute them very well.

  2. Bev Hankins says:

    I do Mitchell only is small batches and I have to say she isn’t really on my “Have to Have” list–save for a couple of titles that have academic connections (you know how I am about academic mysteries). I will say that having told us that Sunset over Soho is a “Die Before You Read Book” and then telling us about the unintentionally hilarious paragraph about sex…well you have my curiosity…aroused, shall we say? Even if we shan’t…I did. 🙂

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I think you will like Laurels Are Poison, then. There are some wonderful ghastly moments in Sunset Over Soho but honestly, you won’t be able to take it. It’s like your garrulous uncle telling you a shaggy dog story and not remembering the punch line.

  3. realthog says:

    I’m with you on Mitchell. I’ve read a couple of her books, with a period of decades between first taste and second, and I loathed the experience both times. I keep meaning to give her a third chance, and probably will; and if I do I’ll try to remember that Laurels Are Poison is a (relative) goodie. Mind you, like Bev, I’m feeling strangely drawn to Sunset Over Soho . . .

  4. Christophe says:

    This post is hilarious. It made me laugh out loud once, and chuckle a few times more. I admire your humor and writing style. Thank you!

  5. nickfuller says:

    I was wondering what happened to your Gladys Mitchell series! Ah, well, can’t win ’em all. Mitchell’s an acquired taste.

    Were The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop, The Saltmarsh Murders, Brazen Tongue, Merlin’s Furlong, or The Twenty-third Man among the thirty you tried?

    Sunset over Soho is a book to read twice. The first time, I didn’t enjoy it at all; I read it again eighteen months later, and it all clicked into place.

    Mitchell never struck me as a particularly right-wing writer. She voted Conservative towards the end of her life, but was socially liberal: against colour prejudice and the death penalty, in favour of women’s equality and sexual tolerance, and always questioning and satirising. (Of course, there’s no reason conservative politics and social liberalism shouldn’t go together.) Her family, like Christopher Bush’s, was working class.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I felt so guilty and tried and tried, but I couldn’t stick it long enough to acquire the taste. I liked Butcher’s Shop — where she definitely pushed the envelope — and Saltmarsh is the classic style I do enjoy. I didn’t read the other three, just at random, but I’m still ready to try.
      I actually DID read Sunset over Soho twice — just to make sure I hadn’t been hallucinating!! LOL. You know who I thought of? John Buchan. The book is like a John Buchan peripatetic adventure, but on drugs.
      I’ll grant you I was probably wrong about the right-wing attitudes; I think I conflated the eugenics with her occasional observations about class and came up with “right-wing”, and I merely need more study to figure it all out from what you say. I imagine she must have been quite ferocious in real life, full of gusty enthusiasms.

      • nickfuller says:

        No need to feel guilty; Mitchell is an acquired taste. She’s a very British writer, and one who leans more in the direction of the fantastical and the straight novel than in the orthodox detective story. She was also prolific, and many of the books from the last 30 years of her writing career (roughly 1956 to 1984) are average at best.

        Good on you for reading Sunset over Soho twice! It’s one of Mitchell’s strangest novels, and can be offputting – it’s part Odyssey, part magical realism, part WWII novel – and, as you point out, with the boats and skulduggery, like John Buchan. Here are my thoughts, from when I was 19: http://www.geocities.ws/hacklehorn/mitchell/1943b.htm

  6. Brad says:

    In honor of both you and Sunset Over Soho, Noah, when it comes to Gladys Mitchell, I will remain a virgin. I suppose if someone really pressures me to read her, I will have to take vows or something! 🙂

  7. I agree about OPERA but have found no reason to persevere with Mitchell – thanks for taking one for the team 😀

  8. JJ says:

    Three things:

    1) I, too, have struggled hugely with Mitchell over the years — Saltmarsh, Twenty-Third Man, Butcher’s Shop, Watson’s Choice, others — and understand exactly where you’re coming from in every single point above. It happens, sometimes something doesn’t work out. Some people out there find Christie unreadable. Life is too short to not enjoy your reading.

    2) Our ABaV post will be spoiler-heavy, not spoiler-free. At least, that was what I thought…!

    3) I too have a Rupert Penny book in my sights — The Lucky Policeman may well be my 300th post next week. Great minds…

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Oh, sorry, quite right. To be absolutely clear — we will be revealing the identity of the murderer and everything else in the course of our discussions. We will warn you that that will be happening.
      And yes, I agree, and let me say that this is now on a post-it over my desk — “Life is too short to not enjoy your reading.” Some day I will write a post about how pleasure is an important component of GAD; some authors are trying to provide it and others aren’t especially interested, it seems.

  9. Ron Smyth says:

    Mitchell can be enjoyed
    in small doses but not as a steady diet.

  10. adriandominic says:

    Thank you for a reasoned explanation of why GM does not work for you. It certainly brings into focus why she generally works for me in that I enjoy her not because of the puzzles but because of the asides, Whenever she deals with children and schools (e.g. Tom Brown’s Body and Death at the Opera) I find I can believe in them in the same way as I can believe in the background of DL Sayers Murder Must Advertise. Also the bonkers aspects of her plots and worldview to me are a plus, Speedy Death, Saltmarsh and Butchers are a bit like watching pre-code Hollywood films – I did not know some of these attitudes and plot points were even allowed to be expressed in a genre novel at the time,

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I think we have a lot of points of agreement, frankly. I’m right with you on the “children and schools” thing; this is clearly something she understands on many levels and she has the knack of portraying children as somewhat duplicitous humans.
      And also I’d agree with you that the bonkers aspects of her plots are … well, they’re a feature. She has a weird way with a story hook. But in Speedy Death she comes up with — as you say, something not generally expressed in a genre novel at the time. And after about chapter three, no one ever mentions it again, which to me is incomprehensible. It’s like she wasn’t really serious, just spoofing you to get the story going. I think, though, that you and other of my commenters take more pleasure than I in her imaginative flights, and that’s just fine. I enjoy bonkers as long as it’s explained before the end of the book.

      • nickfuller says:

        Speedy Death I’ve always thought of as clever, but very much a first novel – lots of good ideas, but unrepresentative of Mitchell. I don’t think she really hits her stride until The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935), her first novel to really use English folklore and paganism. The first four books are logical satires of the detective story, testing its boundaries and playing with the form. Butcher’s Shop and Saltmarsh are both ingenious, excellent books, but not quite “Mitchelly”. Death at the Opera is a halway point – excellent characterisation, a clever surprise murderer and motive, a good depiction of schools, and the mystery solved twice (psychologically and materially), but the motive is still a spoof.

        Mitchell sustains the weirdness better in later books; The Echoing Strangers, for instance, or even the late Greenstone Griffins and Here Lies Gloria Mundy.

      • nickfuller says:

        Fully explained? She offers a rational, material solution, but she leaves other things ambiguous. She never says that the murder was committed by a ghost or a witch, but the paranormal (ghosts, dreams, second sight, and witchcraft) all exist in Mitchell’s world.

  11. Ron Smyth says:

    I think of Gladys Mitchell’s books as being surreal. The plots are not the most important parts. I think of them as rather a sustained fantasy, often of black humour (Great Aunt Puddequet zipping around the track in her wheelchair in the middle of the night in THE LONGER BODIES makes me chuckle even now) and folklore with the mystery merely a frame on which to hang a story about some aspect of Englishness that interested or amused her. I cannot take her in large doses but an occasional dip into her world can be rewarding if I’m in the right mood.

  12. nickfuller says:

    I suspect that enjoying Mitchell depends on one’s tolerance (as Ron Smyth and adriandominic suggest) for the fantastical. If someone enjoys (to name but a few) the Goon Show, early Evelyn Waugh, Cold Comfort Farm, Mervyn Peake, The Strange World of Gurney Slade, The Avengers, and pre-1980s Doctor Who, they have a high chance of enjoying Mitchell.

  13. Jeff Flugel says:

    Well, Noah, I appreciate your effort and frankness. As Nick states, Mitchell is (obviously) not for everyone. Some of us enjoy her work and others are put off. Such is the way of life. To paraphrase what JJ wisely said above, life is too short not to read what you enjoy. I do hope Brad and others on the fence about Mitchell at least give her a shot when in the mood for something different and judge for themselves.

    The main disappointment, I suppose, is the money you sunk into buying all those Mrs. Bradley ebooks. Hope it wasn’t too costly. At least they’re not taking up physical space on your bookshelves, anyway.

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