Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr (1966)

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr: X1587, Berkeley Medallion (1968): First paperback edition

Panic in Box C
 (1966) is the twenty-third in a series of 24 mystery novels about Dr. Gideon Fell, by John Dickson Carr (JDC). The adventures of Dr. Fell frequently centre around locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes; this book would probably be considered an impossible crime story. It is certainly a difficult puzzle mystery and contains many elements that will be familiar to JDC’s many fans (of which group I have been a member for decades).

Previously I have discussed specific JDC books here and here and JDC in general here and here  and here.  If you do a search on my blog for John Dickson Carr or Carter Dickson, his major pseudonym, you’ll also find links to other bloggers’ work about JDC and I think you’ll find them of interest.

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 in so many words reveal whodunit, but I have discussed elements of the murder that will almost certainly make the identity of the murderer clear to you. 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. 

What is this novel about?

The story begins on board R.M.S. Illyria heading towards New York. Philip Knox, a historian, and Dr. Gideon Fell are both embarking on separate lecture tours of the United States. They spend the first chapter introducing the reader to themselves and the next few introducing the reader to famous actress Margery Vane (who’s also entitled to be known as Lady Tiverton) and her entourage, including her handsome young boyfriend Lawrence Porter and her faithful secretary Bess Harkness. A shot rings out and misses everyone by a mile, but it amplifies the sense of imminent disaster that Carr so skilfully builds.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson Carr

A later Carroll & Graf paper edition.

Everyone ends up at a Connecticut theatre where the wealthy Vane is both establishing a theatre and endowing a company of players, at the theatre where she long ago played her first roles. Philip Knox meets his estranged wife Judy, and the two seem to have rekindled their romantic interest. Meanwhile Margery’s personal life and the personal lives of the Margery Vane players, including the hot-tempered lead, Barry Plunkett and his beautiful lead actress girlfriend, Anne Winfield, are intersecting and heating up. And people are exchanging stories about a tragedy that happened at the theatre twenty years ago.

During the dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet, Margery Vane is locked in Box C of the theatre alone, saying that she wants to experience the play by herself. During the performance there is the twang of a crossbow and, as will be no surprise to the experienced reader, Miss Vane is found in the locked Box C, pierced by a crossbow bolt. Below the box on the ground floor are found some valuable pieces of Vane’s jewelry wrapped up with a newspaper cutting about the recent suicide of someone who acted at the theatre back in her heyday. And across the theatre, under Box A, is a crossbow that had gone missing from the lobby.

As is also unsurprising in the genre, nearly everyone around Vane had a motive to kill her, whether financial or emotional. This includes Judy Knox, who apparently had a run-in with Margery Vane some twenty years ago and is still the object of Vane’s dislike, although no one knows (or perhaps will say) exactly why. Many of the company were on stage, or immediately off stage, at the time of the murder; seven people were in the theatre itself watching the rehearsal, and some can alibi each other, but nothing is certain.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrLawrence Porter is the obvious suspect, because just before her death Margery Vane had wanted to have him arrested for stealing her jewelry, but we soon learn that he has a cast-iron alibi — during the time when he wasn’t onstage, he was shooting craps in a back room with a couple of other actors. This leaves the detectives with no clear-cut suspect and things become more complicated when an elderly alcoholic from the earliest days of the theatre announces that he saw a masked man dressed all in black who fired the crossbow from the stage and then vanished through a concealed trap door.

Dr. Fell rumbles around asking apparently inconsequential questions, and muttering about Honus Wagner (an old-time baseball player) until, after various interviews and searches for evidence, he figures out the identity of the criminal. There is an exciting scene at the end where the murderer is killed just before a second murder can take place, in the Crazy House at the local amusement park, and then a final wrap-up scene where Dr. Fell and local policeman Lt. Spinelli explain all the loose ends.

Why is this book worth your time?

My regular readers will already know most of my answer to this question. As I’ve said about quite a few mystery writers, their work is significantly important to the mystery genre and if you wish to know how mysteries work, or what good ones look like, every single thing that authors like John Dickson Carr wrote is worth your time. You can learn more about writing from Carr’s lesser works than you can from the best offerings of lesser writers.

That being said — this one is pretty bad.

I’ve said before that many famous Golden Age writers perhaps should have stopped writing a few books before they actually did. Christie and Marsh and Queen didn’t need to burden us with their final few efforts, by and large; they’re embarrassingly poor and most GAD critics are tired of apologizing for them. (“Yes, Agatha Christie was a great, great writer and Passenger to Frankfurt is a gigantic turd. Those can both be true at the same time.”)

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrJDC’s point of no return seems to be pretty much the book immediately before this one, 1965’s The House at Satan’s Elbow. I wouldn’t now call his decline a steep one (although I have done so before, I’d like to step it back); there’s nothing so incoherent as Passenger to Frankfurt or Photo Finish or The Last Woman In His Lifefor instance. There is much that is boring but not much that is that silly.

Some time ago, I outlined the three things that a JDC novel needs to contain to be among his best work:

  1. A strong well-thought-out puzzle structure, which is usually for him based on a locked-room/impossible crime scenario.
  2. A balance among setting, characterization, and plot, so that there are interesting characters doing interesting things against an interesting background, all well-written in their way but nothing overwhelming the book in any of those directions.
  3. Some sort of creepy quasi-supernatural element; or, if not supernatural, something that creates a sense of menace or impending doom.

I think it’s accurate to say that nothing JDC wrote after 1965 manages to contain all these three things done to the best of his ability — and the present volume has almost nothing that qualifies.

#3 is almost entirely absent; in fact Carr goes out of his way to flatten or suppress elements that could give rise to that. The suicide’s face mask of his younger self? That could have been superbly creepy, but it’s entirely offstage and we are only told about it. #2 is sadly out of alignment; many of the characters are pure cardboard and many of the interesting things that they are doing, or see done, have absolutely nothing to do with the structure of the book. For instance, there’s an entire chapter that consists of almost nothing except a bunch of people bellowing the lyrics to the football-related “fight songs” of various American universities and being very rude to each other. I’ll go into this in a little detail further on.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrAs far as #1 goes, I will say that the actual puzzle structure holds together quite well; I understand how the crime was committed and I’m pretty sure it slipped right by me on my first reading of this, decades ago. There are a couple of problems with it, though, that wouldn’t be found in JDC’s work of 20 years earlier. The book would have been essentially over if Lt. Spinelli had done his damn job properly and thoroughly questioned every single person in the theatre about what they were doing, and with whom, when the crossbow twanged. Surely, SURELY the person upon whom the murderer’s alibi depends would have spoken up; I understand the reason that we’re given for that not having happened, but I don’t buy it. The pressure is just not there. When that person is nearly killed at the end of the book, they still have no idea of what it is to which they could have testified and no real pressure to say otherwise has been applied.

Another problem for me is that I’m not so intimately familiar with the words used to describe the parts of a theatre as I might be, and thus I was labouring under a misapprehension about where people were. Once you grasp where exactly everyone was, and upon what floor of the building, it’s all clearer — and it should have been much clearer to the police. At the end, when everything is being explained, much is made of the fact that a policeman executes the actions of the murderer in a mere 29 seconds.  “Aha!” I thought. “That’s a healthy active policeman, not [for instance] a middle-aged person who is constantly described as a heavy smoker.” But then I realized that although that was true, it simply didn’t matter if the actions had been performed in 29 seconds or 300; the murderer’s alibi would have been essentially unchanged.

The thought that kept occurring to me as I refreshed my memory of this book was that there were a number of things here that hearkened back to earlier JDC novels — it’s as though the writer was dragging things out of his attic to furnish a room, but nothing quite fits or is as well-made as he once thought. For instance, there’s a couple of times during the book when everything quite ridiculously grinds to a halt while JDC adds in a great bolus of historical … stuff.  When Philip Knox meets his estranged wife and seems to fall in love all over again, he expresses his sentiments by — blethering on and on about Stonewall Jackson.  In verse. It is true that Carr knew a LOT about history and his historical novels are highly regarded.  But right about now in his books, he starts packing in great wads of irrelevant historical background that do nothing for the plot except cushion it, like excelsior.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrSimilarly there is a scene at the end set in  the Crazy House that is nowhere near as creepy as a couple of other excursions to such places in earlier Carr novels. It’s clear that he likes writing about fun fairs and amusement parks; they show up a lot in his books.  Here, it’s almost dragged in without rhyme or reason. The murderer is said to be arranging things so that lots of people are in the vicinity but that is soon demonstrated to be ridiculously impossible; the ticket-takers remember exactly who went where.  The scene has nothing connected with the Crazy House and would have been better set at the theatre, but … those settings are in another couple of JDC novels and it worked there. It just doesn’t work here.

I think the biggest problem in the book is everything that has to do with Philip Knox’s estranged wife Judy.  I’m about to give away what might be a crucial plot point here, so be warned. After Philip and Judy split up, she moved to the US and, unbeknownst to him, became a call girl to support herself for some months, then got a job and rose to the top of the magazine industry.  Both Margery Vane and Bess Harkness are aware of her past and Bess at one point starts to call her by her “working name,” Dorothy.  This is what they fought about and this is what Judy and Vane were arguing about immediately before the murder.

Now, you know, nearly everything in this plot line is just complete nonsense. Apparently Judy is worried in the present day that Philip will find out about her past — Philip doesn’t even bat an eye when he finds out. Everyone goes out of their way, officials and bystanders alike, to assure Judy that they don’t care in the slightest and that nobody will be prosecuting Judy for her crime.  (Which, frankly, is absolutely ridiculous. I’d like to see anyone brought into court on a 20-YEAR-OLD prostitution charge, even in 1965; you’d be laughed out of court.)

There’s a little bit at the end that’s very telling in this context. Judy is Telling All to Philip, and here’s what she says about how Margery Vane found out that Judy was a hooker:

“… she saw me with one of her men-friends … I don’t mean boy-friends, just another man of her acquaintance … coming out of my apartment in a place where I couldn’t have been anything except what I was. She didn’t say anything. But she made inquiries, and remembered.”

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrExcept — what the hell is she talking about? If there is such a “place”, it would be a bordello, and those don’t have “apartments”. Judy is apparently trying to convince us that she lived in an apartment building that was so well known for housing prostitutes that merely having an apartment in that building meant you were for hire. But in that case, what is Margery Vane doing there and why isn’t she tarred with the same brush?

No, this is just all so much nonsense, and frankly it’s mean-spirited nonsense too. No one in this case investigates Judy in the way she ought to be investigated, and it seems as though there is an unspoken consensus among Fell and the police that Judy is not the murderer and there’s no need to ask her unpleasant questions to remind her of her sordid past. In addition, much is made of the fact that Judy had quarrelled with Margery Vane on an ocean crossing 20 years ago, immediately after Judy had left Philip. And that very interesting development is dismissed in the final lines of the book: they quarrelled about “nothing at all.”

The mean-spirited part is that Carr is saying a number of things here about sex work, and none of them are very attractive. Apparently it completely ruins your life (except where it doesn’t). It is such a horrible secret that it can cause you to cover up things connected with a murder. Now, I’ve spoken before about my admiration for Carr’s forthrightness about human sexuality in books like The Judas Window, where a young woman stands up in court and says, “Yes, I let my boyfriend take nude photos of me, what’s it to you?” (Paraphrased LOL) He talked about sex in mysteries at a time when no one other than Gladys Mitchell was doing so. Here, though, there’s a certain … sniggering quality about the whole thing that is really unattractive. Perhaps it’s Carr trying to be part of the swinging 60s — perhaps it’s Carr indulging his own fantasy life. But because it’s all just nonsense, it’s clear that he put it in for reasons that weren’t connected with the mystery per se — it just doesn’t stand up. Much like he wanted to talk about the Crazy House and Stonewall Jackson, he wanted to talk about hookers, and none of it contributes anything to the novel.

The bit about Honus Wagner? That goes nowhere near that baseball player. And it’s annoying, because where it actually goes is to a person who does not actually appear in the book and who should be front and centre giving testimony.

So it’s all very sloppy work. The sloppy nature of it is exemplified by something that Carr actually seems to have forgotten until the end of the book. Dr. Fell is chaffed by someone for not having mentioned a rip in some fabric — and believe me, he should have done, it might have been an important clue. There’s another forgotten item too. Much is made of a reference to an old stage play called Sherlock Holmes, in which a specific visual device is used to make the audience think that an actor is in one place when he’s really in another. Well and good. But there’s absolutely no point in including something like that unless, in the current plot, you have someone trying to execute the same thing. Or, rather, they are — it’s just that JDC forgets to tell us that anyone was looking at the time. So that clever little reference is completely wasted and any deductions based on it become unavailable.

Oh, there’s certainly more evidence that JDC was starting to decline — honestly, it’s been depressing to even give the plot this much attention, because I keep finding holes and issues. All I can say is, it’s John Dickson Carr so it’s worth reading … just read it quickly and without too much attention to what’s going on.  Let yourself be carried away by characters and scenes that remind you of other spooky Carr excursions; “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” and you’ll be pleasantly amused.

A note on editions

Like many books dating back to the 1960s, this title was not well-served when it came to nice-looking editions. I rather like the aqua curtains and the alabaster hand wrapped with jewelry in the first US paper edition I used to prepare these comments, shown at the very top of the column.  A copy of the first US or first UK editions seems to be about US$50 as of this writing, which seems about right.  I’ve remarked before that a poor book by a good author is sometimes more difficult to obtain than a well-known title and this would be no exception. A small investment in the first US paper edition in perfect condition may pay off very well in the future for the speculative collector.

Other opinions

(Added some hours later) I carelessly forgot to include some links to material which may also interest my readers.

  • My fellow GAD blogger (and blog friend) at The Green Capsule looked at this book (here) earlier this year: the Green Capsule has set out to read his way through JDC and is doing so in a consistently interesting way.
  • My friend Patrick, in At the Scene of the Crime back in 2011, (here) says “It’s readable, but far from Carr’s best.”
  • The esteemed Marvin Lachman in Mystery*File (here), writing in 1987, is terse but highly complimentary; he thinks there is “effective use of the theatre, both its physical settings, and its lore, to add to an unusually good detective story.”
  • Esteemed mystery blogger and my friend Bev Hankins, in My Reader’s Block, looked at this book in 2011 (here), saying “The mystery is a bit of a disappointment.”




The Devil at Saxon Wall, by Gladys Mitchell (1935): A few comments

51mQ+0mR7gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_At Hallowe’en of this year, my blogfriend Jamie Bernthal-Hooker wrote a piece on The Devil at Saxon Wall (in his excellent blog, Sign of the Crimes, which I recommend to your continued attention) and did me the honour of quoting me extensively in the process. Unfortunately this was, as my regular readers are both aware 😉 in the context of me not enjoying Gladys Mitchell’s writing very much at all and making the decision to put approximately 80 of her e-books into cold storage. Jamie’s opinion of Gladys Mitchell’s writing is much more favourable than mine.

153ff56In fact, it seems as though everyone with any literary taste and scholarship enjoys Gladys Mitchell more than I do, and in particular The Devil at Saxon Wall. Nick Fuller calls it “Gladys Mitchell’s triumph” in a superb in-depth analysis found here; another esteemed blogger and podcaster, Les Blatt, calls it “marvellous” here. Even the comments on Amazon and Goodreads are generally favourable. Critically speaking, I’m a lonely little onion in the petunia patch.

coverAt the end of his analysis, Jamie wonders what my “thoughts were on this one”. And this left me in a kind of ethical bind. I had a copy at hand, it was certainly no trouble to pick it up and read it. But I had already said that I was prepared to set aside Gladys Mitchell and not continue to flog a horse that my readers had already seen me butcher in front of them. I know you get it — as I said, and as Jamie quoted, “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 …”. That’s simply it. I admit it’s fun to be rude and acerbic about novels I don’t enjoy, and I am told my readers enjoy this process, but (a) I have no wish to pursue Gladys Mitchell like the Avenging Furies, and (b) I greatly suspect that, given the number of intelligent analysts and eminent critics who DO enjoy her work more than I do, I’d be making a fool of myself in the process.

witches-the-1966-002-ceremonial-actSo I read the damn book, and I didn’t enjoy it at all, and that’s more or less all you’re going to hear on the topic from me. But I did give it a reasonable amount of thought as to why I didn’t enjoy it, and I actually had an insight or two that I thought was worth sharing. And I will try to keep the acerbity to a minimum. I still think if you want better analysis of Mitchell’s strengths you should go elsewhere, and I’ve given you some links, but I thought I had something original to offer below that has little to do with my personal feelings.

33c62763d1dc7b56e24b46676e54bb32--hard-times-in-new-yorkThe Devil at Saxon Wall is set in a tiny village in Hampshire which is, as Nick Fuller puts it, “horribly rustic”. It’s a story about how the villagers and the vicar are coming into conflict against the background of a few different issues; one is the death of a young woman after childbirth, possibly at the hands of her insane husband; another is what has happened to the child of that marriage; and there’s quite a bit about witchcraft and local superstition and widespread drought. All the villagers are unpleasant (verging on downright evil), speak a local dialect that is quite difficult to understand, are constantly doing unusual things for incomprehensible reasons, and lying. Lying, lying, lying, lying.  They lie about everything that happens around them, constantly and consistently, and it is up to series detective Mrs. Bradley to untangle the lies and figure out what has happened, which she does and solves a lot of problems. At the end, the heavens pour with rain and end the drought.

UnknownThe word that kept coming into my head as I read this book was “squalid”. To quote a dictionary, “(of a place) extremely dirty and unpleasant, especially as a result of poverty and neglect; showing or involving a contemptible lack of moral standards”. The squalid village of Saxon Wall is filled with squalid people doing squalid things. Now, I did say I wouldn’t comment much about the actual book. But in view of my previous remarks about the laudable sexual forthrightness of Mitchell at a time when her peers wouldn’t countenance sexuality in a mystery, I have to note that at one point one of the female villagers comes to the narrator’s bedroom dressed only in a raincoat and boots and offers herself to him; hell, she attacks him and he has to fight her off. And this is not the merely sexual act that it seems, but connected with an alibi and yet another tangle of lies. The encounter is unpleasant to contemplate and mercifully not consummated, but I have to say, Mitchell Went There.  Nevertheless, it is squalid in the extreme.

d8731889042209b597375766c41444341587343The small insight that I had, though, came after I closed the book and tried to ruminate on why I hadn’t enjoyed this book very much at all. Where was this book coming from in the context of 1935? Why did Mitchell want to write about these squalid villagers; what need did she feel she was meeting by doing so? Nick Fuller remarks that this book was written as “the result of hearing a lecture on witchcraft by Helen Simpson (to whom the book is dedicated)”, and I’ll buy that. But why was Helen Simpson, a detective novelist in her own right, lecturing about witchcraft? And why did Gladys Mitchell think that the public would be entertained by a mystery set against a background of rural witchcraft with strong overtones of sexuality and low intelligence?

the-witch-cult-in-western-europeI was aware that many novelists at the time had been influenced by a very popular book called The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, by archaeologist Margaret Murray, published in 1921, whose Wikipedia biography is found here. Essentially and briefly, this volume talked about the idea that European witches had been persecuted for their religious beliefs in a pagan religious tradition that is not 100% modern Wicca, but fairly close. Murray also published a follow-up volume in 1933, The God of the Witches, in which

9780006133933-us-300she tried to describe “the Old Religion” in more positive and everyday terms. Significantly, Murray wrote the entry on witchcraft for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and “used the opportunity to propagate her own witch-cult theory”. Apparently academic reviewers believed that she had “distorted and misinterpreted the contemporary records that she was using” but the book had a great deal of influence and I believe Mitchell would have been very familiar with it. Other mystery writers were influenced by it too, notably Ngaio Marsh in Off With His Head.

happy-halloween-sexy-witches-edition-L-c3tfzLThe general zeitgeist of the times was interested in witchcraft as the Old Religion and it seems to me to contribute to the background of The Devil at Saxon Wall. But that doesn’t explain the entirety of the novel to me, merely a portion of it. Where was all this squalor coming from?

eugenicsIt did seem likely that Mitchell’s interest in eugenics, another component of the cultural zeitgeist that was more prominent in 1935 than today, had something to do with it. There are elliptical mentions of the inbreeding that takes place in small villages such as Saxon Wall; to be fair, though, the exact parentage of a particular individual is a major question of the novel and so it’s not unrealistic that the topic should be mentioned. I do think there’s an undercurrent of Mitchell suggesting that inbreeding contributes to the village being full of mendacious and sexually liberated scoundrels with no moral fibre, but even my dislike for the adherents of eugenics wouldn’t allow me to find direct references in the text where none seem to exist.  (Readers, feel free to prove me wrong, please. Eugenics needs to be exposed to the light of day as being a horrible idea and I’m not sure I did a really effective search.)

3cff6f783a87505ab94087d10ceaedc2.jpgWhat finally struck me was the thought that The Devil at Saxon Wall was like a peculiar British take on a kind of American genre that has now passed entirely out of fashion; the “hillbilly novel”. And this started to interest me. The concept of “hillbillies” as part of American culture is a long and complex one; it started as a way of describing the impoverished inhabitants of rural areas like Appalachia and the Ozarks and transmogrified into a media stereotype that changed its meaning as time went by.  In the late 1920s, “hillbilly music” was what we would now call “country music”; a fusion of folk songs with other genres like gospel and bluegrass. But the image of lazy, tobacco smoking, overall-wearing farmers clutching a jug of moonshine liquor labeled “XXX” concatenated through American media. Cartoons like “Li’l Abner” and radio and movie depictions of characters like “Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick” and the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys contributed to a simplistic cliche that audiences recognize to this day. You may not be surprised to know that Elvis Presley got his start as a “hillbilly singer”.

61mwW0gP6wL._SL500_SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I first encountered the hillbilly novel because one of its exemplars was in the well-known collectible paperback series known as Dell mapbacks; Their Ancient Grudge (which the casual reader could be excused for thinking is here titled “Hillbilly Feuding and Loving”, but read carefully, the blurb is disguised as the title) is mapback #435 from 1950. There was a tiny sub-genre of such novels as first-edition (and only edition) paperbacks in the 1950s. These had names like Swamp Hoyden, Backwoods Tramp

39550722-6932279231_088d37b82e_o1and Desire in the Ozarks and usually had as their subject matter a young woman of easy virtue who wanted desperately to get to the big city and would have sex with any man likely to get her there.  I think hillbilly novels were primarily meant as inexpensive erotica for the prurient male that, as a sub-genre, did not survive beyond about 1960. But there were an awful lot of them in the meantime, as paperback collectors can tell you; they can command huge prices as collectibles in today’s market.

beverly hillbilliesThere’s a mediaological excursion probably worth taking in tracing the history of the hillbilly through American culture, from early radio through to The Beverly Hillbillies and beyondbut it’s beyond the scope of these comments. I did want to go back to the origins of the hillbilly novel because I think I can see what might have been a direct connection to The Devil at Saxon Wall — the novels of Erskine Caldwell.

51Gx--vDakL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Tobacco Road (1932) is perhaps Caldwell’s most famous novel but God’s Little Acre (1933) is a close second, mostly because it was banned in Boston. Both volumes are filled with profanity, violence, and frank sexuality that makes them extremely unusual for their time; both volumes were runaway best-sellers, and God’s Little Acre sold more than 10 million copies. You can get plot summaries at the links in this paragraph. I think it’s fair to say that Caldwell pretty much invented the hillbilly novel; I remember remarking in my youth that it seemed as though the entire output of Signet as a paperback publisher seemed to consist of Caldwell’s hillbilly novels.

e2ab10f4194f427078de0faa526ccbe2Now, let me say right off the bat, I have zero evidence and zero chance of getting any to back up this theory. I just want to set it out there, like a temptingly planted pawn in the initial stages of a chess game, that Gladys Mitchell was influenced by these two novels that had such a great success in the years immediately before The Devil at Saxon Wall. I think these two novels had a lot to do with the rise of the hillbilly stereotype in American media. And I think it’s extremely likely that Gladys Mitchell would have been moving in literary and intellectual circles such that she would have had access to these novels to read (I understand they were hard to get in Britain, because of the explicit sexual content).

When I thought about this, it seemed to make sense. Gladys Mitchell wanted to write novels with fairly frank sexual content, as I’ve seen in the reasonably large sample of Mitchell titles I’ve managed to make it through. It’s clear that she was influenced by Helen Simpson’s lecture and I’ll venture to say it’s clear she was aware of and influenced by The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and its sequel; she wanted to write about rural witchcraft. I think it’s not out of the question to suggest that Mitchell wanted to write commercially successful novels and that by emulating certain aspects of Erskine Caldwell she could sell a lot of books. It was more difficult to get books with clearly sexual scenes published but there are many reasons for her to think that, once published, they would sell. Who knows what a researcher more competent (and interested) than myself might find by investigating Mitchell’s papers?

All I’m willing to assert is that the relationship between Mitchell’s work and Caldwell’s work is possible and not wildly unlikely. Your mileage may, of course, vary. I still didn’t enjoy the experience of reading The Devil at Saxon Wall but I hope to have contributed in a small way to the understanding of readers who like her work more than I do. I now intend to return to my intended silence on Mitchell’s work in general, unless provoked, and I leave her to your better judgment.


A Murder in Thebes, by Paul Doherty (1998)

Note: This book was originally published as by “Anna Apostolou”; the author whose work it is has many pseudonyms but is generally known as either Paul Doherty or P. C. Doherty. It is now published as an e-book under Paul Doherty.

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 and come quite close to giving away a central secret. 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. 


I’m never quite sure how to feel about authors with a huge output of published writing. I’ve had bad experiences with Gladys Mitchell just lately — similarly Edgar Wallace, Elizabeth Linington, and John Creasey. Simenon leaves me relatively cold, although his skill is evident. But Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, and Agatha Christie are always interesting to me. It’s too simplistic to say that if an author produces a huge number of volumes they must automatically be a hasty and poor writer. It does sometimes make me approach a prolific writer with caution, though.

And that’s the frame of mind I brought to the work of Paul Doherty, who has written, by Wikipedia’s last count, more than 100 mysteries; I believe all or nearly all of them can be categorized as “historical”. I read a few of his earliest books back in the 80s, but have forgotten very nearly everything about them; at that point in time I was already surfeited with Ellis Peters’s adventures of Brother Cadfael (yes, you read that right, I’m not a fan; I think they’re ersatz and bland) and didn’t feel I needed more mediaeval hijinks in my life.  When you couple that with the idea that I only occasionally read anything written after I was born, you can understand why I’ve only experienced about 5% of his output, if that.

But then I discovered that, as Anna Apostolou, Doherty had written a couple of mysteries featuring Alexander the Great. Now, I’ve always had a huge interest in Alexander the Great; I’ve read a bunch of books about him, sparked off by the excellent novels of Mary Renault, and will always pick up anything about him, fiction or non-fiction. When I happened across a copy of #2 in the series, A Murder in Thebes, I thought, what the heck? How bad can it be?

I say this because my pessimism for once had no payoff.  I found, to my pleasure, that while this is not a novel for the ages, it’s very competent and smartly done, and Doherty (whom Wikipedia tells me is an expert on Alexander the Great in his own right) has hit most of the right notes along the way.

The story is actually about sister-and-brother Israelite detectives Miriam and Simeon Bartimaeus; they are fictitious and the conceit is that they were sent to be educated by Aristotle along with Alexander. Miriam is an intellectual with a “determined mouth” who acts as a kind of … well, let’s say “private eye” for Alexander, who apparently keeps running into locked-room murders unknown to history.  Some other characters are actual historical figures in the correct time and place as we know from history; the events in this novel and most of its characters are imaginary, though.

5176BX692ALI suppose you can’t write 100 mysteries without having, if not a formula, then at least a pattern.  This one was easy to see, and the book is well-constructed.  The A plot is the murder case that involves someone killing Alexander’s officers during the siege of Thebes (and after Alexander takes the city); apparently there’s a spy among them in the pay of Persia, known as the Oracle.  Most of the book is devoted to the identification and unmasking of the spy/murderer and, honestly, since I spotted the central clue pretty much within seconds of its transmission, the problem didn’t occupy my mind much. (I will merely say I’ve owned dogs; I got the right answer for mostly the wrong reasons, so that little clue will mislead you.)

The B plot is involved with “The Iron Crown of Oedipus”, a sacred relic of Thebes in its own shrine with attendant priestesses.  The crown itself is fixed to a post, and the post is surrounded by pits of fire, pits of poisonous snakes, and pits of spears. In fact, it’s an “impossible crime” situation; the chief priestess knows how the crown can be removed (without the use of tools, which are blasphemous and sacrilegious in the context) but nobody else is aware.  When the crown vanishes, just before Alexander needs to wear it publicly to confirm his acquisition of Thebes by Macedon, Miriam has to figure out who took it and how.

The reader will not be surprised by this puzzle either, if s/he ‘s paying attention; there are a couple of very broad hints that seem a little anachronistic and thus obvious even to a reader of limited experience with detective fiction.  I’ll accept that Doherty is a historian and thus I’ll suspend my disbelief about what he says was a common toy among Theban children and Macedonian soldiers. But honestly, it might just as well have had a neon arrow in the text saying, “Big ol’ clue right here.” There was just no reason to include its repetitive mention otherwise.

I actually think the reader is supposed to grasp the central premise of what’s going on; it’s an interesting idea, that the author should build in opportunities to make the reader feel better about his/her intellectual gifts.  After you put two and two together — well, okay, I’d figured out the killer and I’d figured out the puzzle, and I felt very clever for a moment. It’s not an experience I often have with detective fiction, and it would have been very unusual to have it with, say, Christie, Carr, or even Gardner upon my first reading of their works way back when. I suspect I might be able to solve other volumes in this series, and others of Doherty’s many series, without too much strain, and while that seems superficially an attractive prospect it does rather pall when I contemplate the great books which have so cleverly pulled the wool over my eyes and provided me with more pleasure by fooling me.  Your mileage may definitely vary, and I know Doherty has a lot of adherents, so perhaps I’m extrapolating far too much from a single example.


I’m not sure why Doherty inserted the distancing mechanism of having the central characters as Israelites … for me it doesn’t work as well as merely having a Macedonian do the job. I suspect it has something to do with offering the reader a female character with whom to identify and having her not be, as one might say, overly troubled with sexual activity. Miriam protects children and the innocent and wields great power as a favourite of Alexander, and reacts angrily for the most part when she is sexually harassed.  I just find it hard to accept that a female from what today is called Israel would be in that position; it strains my suspension of disbelief somewhat.

The part that Doherty really has nailed on the head is the character and situation of Alexander. I’ll be blunt and say that I was expecting Alexander to have been de-gayed for the lowest common denominator of reader; not so, and full marks for having Hephaestion described as Alexander’s companion and lover, and kissed once in a while to boot.  Indeed, the everyday socialization of what we would think of today as “kinks” is a part of the narrative, and not in a sniggering or heteronormative way either; it’s part of everyday Macedonian life and this murder too, since many of the male characters have male partners and casual lovers, and cross-dressing is an accepted idea that bears upon the plot without being meretriciously paraded.

Similarly, this is not your average cozy, in the sense that as the book begins, Alexander breaks the siege of Thebes and captures the city, killing many of its inhabitants and enslaving the remainder. We’re not spared the stacks of dead bodies and the terrible smell and floating ash of their funeral pyres; there’s also a rough-and-ready cure for diarrhea offered by Alexander. The punishment for just about everything is death. The characters lead lives, at that everyday level, that seem appropriate for the time and place without any sops to 21st century morality.  (Neither do any characters decry the backwardness of their own existence, thank goodness.)

All things considered, I enjoyed this. It’s a nice easy mystery story based firmly and accurately in historical knowledge — and you don’t “walk out humming the research,” as occasionally happens with other historical mystery writers. The characters are simply drawn and pleasant to contemplate and there is the “impossible crime” aspect, although not much of a one to be honest.

Would I go out and get more of these? I hope to track down the remainder of the Alexander series, certainly, but I would have done that anyway just to see how the rest stack up. I think I’ll spare myself his mediaeval mysteries for the moment; while I’m sure it would be delightful to have a further hundred books to add to my To Be Read list, I just can’t face all that mediaevality (with the disembodied face of Derek Jacobi floating in my mind, exclaiming pompously, “But this is positively mediaeval!”). It is, however, a sharp lesson to me not to be so fast to assume that because a writer is fast, his quality suffers. This is a well-written book with good characterization and an excellent balancing of the plot structure and I’ve read a lot worse — a LOT worse — in the cozy genre.





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?




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?





Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell: Part 2

9780770104023-us-300I haven’t bothered to count just how many Gladys Mitchell titles in e-format I picked up on impulse the other day, but it looks to be about 50 titles. That should hold me for a while. I did mention that I had picked up Sunset Over Soho (1943) at random as my next attempt, but a gentleman named Mark Fowler, on my Facebook feed as a comment to my announcing Part 1 of this essay, had this to say: “Much as I love Gladys Mitchell Sunset Over Soho is my own personal least favourite of them, and one I would not recommend to anyone starting out on her.” Point taken, Mr. Fowler, and thank you. I was finding it chaotic and hard slogging anyway, although it’s hard to set aside a book where the great rescue at Dunkirk is merely an interruption to the mystery plot. I’ve set aside Sunset Over Soho for the moment and gone with the book that started the whole thing, my paperback copy of Uncoffin’d Clay.

I’m not precisely starting out on Mitchell — I’ve read about a third of her output, over the years — but it might as well be so, because I have uncharacteristically forgotten most of her plots and characters. Over the next few months I expect to keep having the “Oh, I’ve read this before” reaction about midway through some of the volumes. I mention this not because I think my failing memory will amuse you, but because — well, I tend not to forget the details of books, and if I do, it’s generally because they’re not very memorable. So that seems to be my expectation as I’m going in. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

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. 

Uncoffin’d Clay, by Gladys Mitchell (1980)


The first edition (Michael Joseph, 1980). I have no idea what the scarecrow is meant to represent, but it’s nothing from the book.

This one I had read before; I expect it was in the 80s when the PaperJacks edition came out. The basic premise is that a wealthy Arab sheikh and his family purchase an old estate in rural Dorset and there is a good deal of resentment in the neighbourhood because they don’t fit in well. This builds up to the Arab’s son Hamid sustaining a serious injury in a “man-trap”, an antique device for snaring poachers, and the disappearance of the estate’s land agent. Mrs. Bradley takes a hand and sorts out the death of the land agent, a blackmail plot that culminates in another murder, and assigns responsibility for various bad acts.

Now, I have learned over the years that as mystery writers age, their last few books are frequently quite poor. Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr; I’ve remarked before that these writers should probably have stopped a few books before they actually did, since they tarnished their own reputations with their final efforts. Just about the only major mystery writer I can think of offhand who maintained a high level of quality all the way was Rex Stout; he died literally days after publishing his magnificent final novel, A Family Affair. That’s a long build-up to explain why I was surprised that although this book was written three or four years from the end of a long life, this book is (a) coherent, and (b) quite readable.

That may be damning with faint praise, but Mitchell is an author who in the past I have found to be not always coherent and readable. Given that the author was in her late 70s when she produced this volume — and churned out two books a year until her retirement four years from this title — I wasn’t expecting much. As I read along, I kept thinking, “Wow, this is actually a very straightforward book.” No wild flights of fancy, no plot trails abandoned in mid-stream, everything relates to the central storyline, no characters who step off-stage for long periods and then come back with an important role … A to B to C, problem, investigation, solution, tidy ending, boom. Nothing especially memorable but none of the incoherency I was half-expecting.

There are some bits I found odd. One of them is that there is a narrator character who is a little bit peripheral to the action; this differs from my experience of Mitchell’s storytelling mode (omniscient third-person), although as I progress through her work I may learn differently. I found this character to be quite bland in many ways, essentially there to tell the story and be the recorder but not the Watson. There is one little thing that niggled at me. This gentleman is staying with his brother and sister-in-law for story purposes, as is reasonable, and the only interesting thing about him is that, without actually saying so, he appears to be sexually attracted to his sister-in-law. In fact it seems as though his relations realize it but he does not. The authorial work involved in producing this understanding is certainly skilled, but then at the end of the book it goes nowhere. The situation is not resolved and to my knowledge the narrator will never be heard of again. So I was left thinking, “Hmm, what’s that about?”  We’ll probably never know. Mitchell just wanted to write about two men in love with the same woman, and one of them married her.

20496500Another odd thing is that the sheikh himself is never seen or heard in the course of the novel, and — well, I don’t know about you, but I rather think he ought to have been onstage at least once, don’t you think? It’s as though the author is desperate to leave him out as a suspect at the cost of keeping offstage what might have been a fascinating character. Is that she felt she couldn’t manage to depict the sheikh accurately? I was particularly curious about why he had chosen to buy a large estate in rural Dorset, since it later turns out that he wasn’t very welcome there, but we don’t have any chance to understand his motivations. Apparently he raises horses and wants to do so on large tracts of land, to the locals’ dismay. It’s as though there was an unspoken assumption that rural Dorset is such a fine place to live that it overcomes any inconvenience involved in the sheikh abandoning his native habitat and coming to live among people who pretty much hate him.  “As for the local nobs, well, I suppose they’ll accept him in the end, if only because of his money, but at present he’s a parvenu and a foreigner and there’s enough of the old prejudice left in most people for the persistence of a belief that ‘the wogs begin at Calais’.” Perhaps they should have reflected that “wogs” with lots of money don’t actually need to care about the acceptance of the local nobs. But it would have been nice to know if the sheikh was self-aware or merely uncaring.

I performed my usual thought-exercise of trying to see if the plot made sense from the murderer’s point of view. In this case — well, not much. There’s nothing actually counterproductive about what the murderer does, but it’s not especially useful in the cause of concealing whodunit. Nothing is really all that difficult to figure out and there is a plot development near the end that makes it quite obvious who is trying to conceal what, and how. And the development itself is a matter of public record. The ending is rather flat because of that plot development — whodunit is clear, but what will happen is “probably not much”.

1769220Mrs. Bradley is by now reduced to a stock character; apparently Mitchell feels she is so well known that she merely has to demonstrate her idiosyncrasies once or twice during the course of the book and that’s it. So she cackles with laughter, her beautiful voice is remarked upon, and she’s not even referred to as “Mrs. Croc”; taken for granted. Mrs. Bradley is accompanied by her secretary Laura, who in this iteration is largely silent and off-stage while Mitchell overworks her omnipresent narrator.

To sum up: I used to characterize certain types of mysteries as “time-passers” and this is one of them. It will suffice to meet the needs of someone who requires a constant source of detective fiction that will divert them but not really challenge them; this may well be damning with faint praise, but honestly I mean this more kindly than that. I don’t call it a “time waster”. It’s perfectly all right to meet people’s needs by writing an unchallenging book in a long, long series; people expect the mixture as before, and that’s what they get here. It’s just that there is nothing that will remain with you after you close the book.





Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell

Part 1: The Worsted Viper, by Gladys Mitchell (1943)

51hkUNzfaVL._SY346_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.”

9780770104023-us-300“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.


Gladys Mitchell

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.

FA-A36015-2I 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.


Diana Rigg as Mrs. Bradley, from the only television productions of Mitchell mysteries; this beautiful lady is entirely inappropriate to play a woman of such legendary ugliness that she is referred to as “Mrs. Croc”.

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.

mitchell_worsted_viper_newWhat 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.


The jacket of the first edition. The playing cards are nothing more than a mention in an idle paragraph of the book; completely misleading.

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.

Unknown-1In 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.