Saturday, April 21, 2018

BARBARA COMYNS, Out of the Red, Into the Blue (1960)

After reminding myself of the joys of reading Barbara Comyns with my recent foray into A Touch of Mistletoe, I determined to track down all the other books of hers that I hadn't yet read. Like her sixth novel, Birds in Tiny Cages (1964), which I'm planning to read soon, this book, a memoir of her family's time living on a Spanish island, has sadly never been reprinted and is becoming rather hard to find.

It's perhaps not impossible to see why this one, at least, was passed over by Virago when they were rediscovering Comyns' work in the 1980s. It's paced a bit slower than her novels, and it's a bit more muted in tone. Writing about things that really happened—even allowing for a writer's inevitable latitude with the truth—seems to have restrained Comyns' wilder impulses much of the time. Add to that that the circumstances in which the family moves to Ciriaco (presumably a fictional name, as Google finds no trace, and I don't know enough about Spanish islands—alas!—to recognize it), and the conditions in which they live there, aren't terribly festive, and you have a more mundane book than you might expect from Comyns. But odd events undoubtedly followed Comyns and her family wherever they went, and there are enough of those here, coupled with Comyns' quirky perspectives on life, to make it an interesting read.

Near the beginning of the book, Comyns sums up her home life:

We are a small family: my husband Raymond, myself, and two grown-up children—Nicholas and Caroline. Raymond had been working in a government office as a temporary Civil Servant for the last fifteen years, which suited him very well because his salary was slightly higher than it would have been if he had been permanent. I wrote a bit, and had had some novels published, although only one had been successful. Still, the little money I earned was most useful because, whatever economies we made, we were always living beyond our income. Our children lived at home, and at last there were no more school fees, although this did not seem to make much difference, with the cost of living going up all the time.

Presumably, the one successful novel would have been her first, Sisters by a River, which came to fame because the publisher chose, somewhat embarrassingly, to leave her work unedited, spelling and grammar errors intact. Though another of her most famous works, The Vet's Daughter, appeared only a year before Out of the Red, and seems to have earned significant acclaim as well, so perhaps Comyns was merely be modest about her success.

Oddly, in this passage she changes the names of her second husband (Richard) and son (Julian), but not her daughter, whose name really was Caroline. She also glosses over her husband's job a bit—Richard Comyns Carr was an official in the Foreign Office, working under no lesser figure than Kim Philby, whose exposure as a Russian spy was actually the reason for the family's move to Spain. There is considerable discussion of "Raymond's" search for other jobs once his Civil Service position comes to an end, but needless to say no details about the nature of his jobs.

It is particularly when discussing the conditions of the island more generally, or the personalities of its natives, that Comyns is able to really let herself go. For example, the deadly effects of her first winter on Ciriaco might have been lifted from Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead:

It had been the coldest winter Europe had perhaps ever known. On the whole the island had fared better than most places; but the houses were built to keep out the heat, and mostly had no form of artificial heating, and the old and ailing had died off like flies. Every day the black-plumed horses drew the bodies through the streets to the lonely cemetery among the cypress trees. The worst of the winter was over when I arrived because the sun had become stronger, but, as soon as it set, the damp and cold would come creeping back. I thought of it as some malignant enemy, and the lack of proper lighting made it harder to bear. But when the morning came, the horrors of the night were forgotten, and I faced my floppy bun and cool weak coffee with calm happiness.

And then there are the harrowing stories told by the family's first housekeeper on the island, which could surely have made a novel unto themselves:

The idea of having a regular job seems not to have occurred to her until she had Paul, and then she had sometimes worked on farms as a dairy maid. At one time she had been cruelly treated in a home for  girls and separated from Paul; and another time she had lost her memory and wandered round the country in a red cloak with straw in her hair, and  eventually found herself in a nursing home. Soon after she recovered, she obtained a job on a farm; but the farmer died with his face in a plate of tomato soup soon after she arrived, so she had to leave. She had lived in a place in Chelsea called Squalor Court, where no one was expected to pay any rent, and, if the house was full, you could always sleep in an abandoned bath in the yard. Once a policeman who had the key of a house let her sleep the night there, and she slept in a golden bed with golden hangings, in a room with golden walls, and the policeman brought her a cup of tea in the morning. Every day there was a new story stranger than the last. It was rather like the Arabian Nights, but it did hold up the cleaning quite a lot.

This book is perhaps a bit like having tea with a sorceress, rather than watching her perform. She might, over a warm scone, demonstrate an amazing spell or two, but for the most part she is merely chatting about the oddities of life, with the odd perspective you would expect from someone with her powers. It might not be as dramatic as the tempests in Comyns' best novels, but it's still quite fascinating.

There's not a lot of indication of the passage of time in the book, and I confess to being bewildered by trying to make the book and Comyns' ODNB entry line up. Out of the Red was published in 1960, and ends with Raymond being offered a new job back in England, and the breaking up of the home the family has made on the island. That relatively little time has passed is suggested by the fact that she mentions that only one of her sisters has made time to visit them in Spain, so they have a lot to talk about when they're all reunited. But according to ODNB, Comyns and her husband in fact spent eighteen years in Spain—no small span of time—and seem to have only returned to England in the early 1980s. Now, mathematics has never been my strong suit, but I do know the early 1980s are more than 18 years after 1960, at which time their time in Spain was, according to this book, already ending, so either they moved to Spain more than once or something is a bit wonky in the state of ODNB.

At any rate, it seems that Birds in Tiny Cages may also make use of this period of Comyns' life (she several times mentions that women in Spain liked to keep pet birds in cages, so I assume she drew inspiration from this), and I'm looking forward to seeing what other events and concerns overlap there.

Finally, I just have to quote a single line from a scene in which Comyns is helping a fellow resident set up his things in a new house. It's a self-explanatory line, and one which all readers will understand perfectly:

I helped him arrange books and clothes, which resulted in our taking the books on to the balcony and reading.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A slew of Stella Gibbons novels

I already mentioned, back in December in my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen, that I'd been obsessively tracking down, by hook or by crook, the Stella Gibbons novels that haven't yet been reprinted by Vintage. I'm not the most patient of people, and it's beginning to look like Vintage is going to leave her other books "on the shelf", as it were—meaning, not on our shelves, at least for any remotely affordable price. Which I basically take as a personal challenge…

At that time, I reported briefly on having read The Yellow Houses (meh) as well as three novels that were among my favorites of the year—The Swiss Summer (1951), A Pink Front Door (1959), and The Snow-Woman (1969). It seems that Vintage has taken the approach of reprinting only what might be viewed as the most serious or "literary" of Gibbons' works, which sadly led them to miss some of her coziest and most light-heartedly readable novels. I suspect a lot of readers of this blog would enjoy a rainy day spent curled up with any of the three above, particularly if you've enjoyed titles like The Rich House and The Matchmaker.

In the months since I mentioned those three, I've read four more Gibbons novels—somewhat astonishingly, really, considering how I generally flit from one author to another like a fruit fly.

White Sand and Grey Sand (1958) was actually among the Vintage reprints, and was merely plucked from my TBR shelves while waiting for a new interlibrary loan request to arrive. This one had an intriguing setting in postwar Bruges, and some intriguingly complex characters, but somehow it felt a bit too bleak to me—missing Gibbons' usual wit and charm. It features a classic Gibbons waif, in the form of a girl found wandering during the Nazi invasion of Belgium, who is raised by the owners of a small grocery store. But somehow, Ydette didn't awaken my interest as much as other Gibbons heroines. Fans of earlier Gibbons novels that are loose retellings of fairy tales may find it of interest, however, as it's clearly Gibbons' twist on "Beauty and the Beast." Have any of you read it?

From there, I proceeded to The Woods in Winter (1970), the last of Gibbons' novels, apparently, to have been written for publication. (The Yellow Houses and Pure Juliet were written later, but she seems to have had no intention of publishing them, which freed her up to explore their more difficult themes without fear of commercial failure.) Woods rather intriguingly deals with Ivy Gover, a curmudgeonly charwoman who inherits a rural cottage and has surprising effects on her new neighbors. There's even a slight hint of witchiness about her, which you know appealed to me. It's certainly a rather cozy scenario, but Ivy has enough of a dark edginess about her to give it a typically Gibbons-esque depth.

The Weather at Tregulla (1962), meanwhile, set evocatively in Cornwall, is a bit like a lighter, more romantic version of Gibbons' earlier Here Be Dragons—young girl falls in love with hopelessly inappropriate "artist", surrounded by other entertaining characters, and grows and matures as a result. I have to admit, it may not be as literary as Dragons, but I found it more entertaining. Though that could have come from my enjoyment of the tantalizing armchair travel to Cornwall that the novel offered...

And finally, I've just finished reading what is surely Gibbons' most extraordinarily odd novel, 1953's Fort of the Bear, primarily set—of all places—in the Northwest Canadian wilderness (to which Gibbons had never been) in the 1920s. The novel is subtitled "A Romance" and presumably Gibbons meant to evoke the earlier literary meaning the term, à la Nathaniel Hawthorne's fantasies of colonial America. The plot—a rather daft one about the eccentric and anti-social Earl of Vernay, who takes his wife, young daughter, and several of his tenant farmers from rural England to the wilds of Canada to escape the degeneration of urban life—is more than a little hard to swallow. In places I even found it downright tedious. But having persevered, due to my faith that any work by Gibbons is going to have redeeming qualities, I have to say it was ultimately hard to put down, if for no other reason because I was curious where on earth she was going with it all. And indeed, the bleakness of the terrain, the growing madness of the Earl, the wife, child, and servants held prisoner by his refusal to return them to civilization, succeeded in making me think more than once of Hawthorne, though that may or may not be a comparison individual readers would find appealing.

Gibbons' biographer and nephew, Reggie Oliver, believed that some germ of Fort may have originated in the early days of World War II, and he quoted from a piece she wrote in the St Martin's Review: "One of the deepest reliefs for the mind in these days is to think of those lovely places in Canada, New Zealand, Tasmania, where people are safe and happy and our friends. I try to send myself off to sleep at night by imagining a lake in Canada; clear and blue and lonely, echoing only to the cry of water birds, reflecting the snows of mighty mountains, silent with the heavenly sounds of nature."

I don't know if Oliver is correct, but I rather like the idea that Gibbons' fatigued wartime fantasy of an escape to the wilds led to Fort, because it shows Gibbons always challenging herself. Even what began as an understandable dream of getting away from the stresses of war had to be carefully worked through, and came to reflect, in the novel, the dark and destructive extremes to which such anti-social impulses could extend. She couldn't even imagine herself peacefully relaxing next to a lake without exploring the social and ethical issues involved!

I wonder, too, if Gibbons was doing some theological soul searching during the writing of Fort, as its Christian content is stronger here than in most of her other work. Her daughter noted that Gibbons was raised an atheist, but converted to Christianity when she married. In any case, there are here some intriguing explorations of mythology in general, including Greek and American Indian beliefs as well as Christianity, not to mention the personal mythologies we build around us.

I also noted a certain similarity between the Earl and Gibbons' final heroine in Pure Juliet. Both are, in their own way, damaged or limited characters who cause pain to those around them and yet for whom Gibbons has a touching compassion and concern. I prefer the latter novel, but in Fort too the Earl, despite his self-absorption and the pain it causes those around them, is ultimately a poignant character.

I was very curious what other readers have made of this oddity, but Goodreads has no reviews (though two users say they've read it at least) and I didn't see any blog reviews, only a photo of a strikingly inappropriate cover image that made it look like a Louis L'Amour novel. If you've come across it and have thoughts to share, please do!

Now, what's next in my Gibbons orgy? By my count I've now read 18 of her 26 novels, which isn't bad for a reader who tends to be unfocused in his reading. Three of those remaining are novels that have never been reprinted—Miss Linsey and Pa (1935), The Shadow of a Sorcerer (1955), and The Wolves Were in the Sledge (1964). (The last of those is, according to her biographer, an experiment, written when Gibbons was in her 60s, in first person narration from the point of view of an 18-year-old heroine, which I have to admit is quite intriguing me.) Then there are two of her more popular books, Nightingale Wood (1938) and My American (1939), which I have thus far shunted aside in favor of less well-known works, and the distinctly unpopular Ticky (1943), reportedly Gibbons' own personal favorite of all her works (which therefore also intrigues me), as well as the autobiographical Enbury Heath (1935) and finally Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (1949), the one I seem to have the most resistance to, owing to my lukewarm feelings about CCF in the first place.

(And of course, then there's her one, vanishingly rare children's book, The Untidy Gnome, from 1935, which may well be altogether unprocurable…)

Which do you think should come next?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

JOYCE DENNYS, Mrs Dose the Doctor's Wife (1930)

I know some of you are already fans of Joyce Dennys' humorous, fictionalized Home Front letters, first published in Sketch and collected in the 1980s into two delightful volumes, Henrietta’s War (1985) and Henrietta Sees It Through (1986). If you don't already know about them, I highly recommend them, and happily they are both in print, in paperback and e-book, from Bloomsbury. I've long been a fan, and they can be recommended almost as much for Dennys' wonderful illustrations as for their humorous insight into wartime life.

And for as long as I've been a fan of those books, I have yearned to get hold of her earlier works of humor, which include three volumes—Mrs Dose the Doctor's Wife (1930), Repeated Doses (1931), and The Over-Dose (1933)—dedicated to the vicissitudes of life as a doctor's wife, as well as one other title, Economy Must Be Our Watchword (1932), which certainly seems to be a novel, or at least what might loosely be called one.

Simon at Stuck in a Book briefly mentioned Economy Must Be Our Watchword in a post, which in turn inspired a full review by Danielle here. As it turns out, Simon had already written about the Dose books as well (see here), though I had somehow missed it until now. (Fortunately, I am well accustomed to being a few steps behind Simon most of the time!)

For some reason, although I've been yearning for the books, I believed that they were all hopelessly inaccessible to me. I don't know what made me double-check this recently, but when I did I found that the three Dose books, at least, were each available in exactly one American library (and medical libraries at that). I requested the first one, and a few days later it arrived.

In one way, for certain, the book was no disappointment. Dennys' illustrations here are as wonderful as ever, and I started wondering why there isn't a catalogue or a website devoted to her wonderful art. I'm sharing a few of these illustrations here in the interests of adding to her artistic reputation. (Bear in mind that the book I got hold of was a re-bound library copy that was very tightly bound, so some of the scans have ominous dark shadows on one side of the other. I promise I didn't damage the book in any way—I'm not sure a sledgehammer could have damaged that spine.)

The book itself is quite short—130 or so pages of gargantuan print, with the illustrations and their blank backs counting toward that page count. It's comprised of a series a short vignettes about the difficulties of being married to a doctor (as Dennys herself, and her fictional alter-ego Henrietta, were). It's subtitled "A Book on False Nosery" due to the fact that a doctor's wife must resign herself to forever wearing a false nose, in order to protect the doctor's reputation and standing in the community. The difficulties that ensue when wives are reluctant to wear the nose, or when they inadvertently lose it, are dire indeed, as in the example of Emily Bragge, who attempted (perhaps with particular relevance to Dennys herself) to remain an artist even after marrying a doctor:

Her crowning infamy was to turn the Waiting-Room into a studio, because, she said, it had a good light. There she established herself amid the ghastly confusion of her trade. She said she didn't mind the Patients waiting there too, as long as they did not disturb her, but she made a man who was groaning with pain sit in the hall, also a little girl with hiccoughs.

That's one of a handful of passages that gave me real chuckles. The book is certainly pleasant and enjoyable, but much of the time the humor was a bit too exaggerated for me, or, on the other hand, a bit too tepid. The vignette form also prevented me from feeling the kind of involvement with characters that one got so wonderfully from the Henrietta books. What might be silly good fun regarding a character one has gotten to know and love doesn't work so well with a character we're only glimpsing for six pages.

Here's a slightly longer passage that might give more of an idea—though it does end in a chuckle-worthy line (but oh! all those Capital Letters!):

There was once a young Doctor called Edward Cardiac who so far forgot himself as to marry a girl called Cynthia Larke who had once been On The Stage.

She had been a student at the Academy of Dramatic Art for two years, where they had told her that the best thing she could do would be to Marry some Good Man.

Edward Cardiac met her at a dance given by her uncle, Sir Joshua Tonsil, one of the biggest Ear, Nose, and Throat men in Harley Street, and you can hardly blame Edward for thinking she was the right sort of girl for a Doctor's Wife, because when he first caught sight of her she was answering the telephone in the hall.

I do admit to laughing at the telephone bit, though. But what about this joke about malpractice?:

If he puts poison in a patient's medicine, by mistake, and kills him, it is, of course, pretty serious for him, but there are many ways of wriggling out of Awkward Situations of this kind; in fact, the last year of a medical student's training is devoted entirely to this most engrossing subject.

Hmmm, not so much. 

I was so hoping that I would find that these books were true buried treasure, but apart from the wonderful drawings, I didn't quite. I do remain curious about Economy Must Be Our Watchword, which might be more in the form of a novel. But alas, that one seems to be completely inaccessible. Barring an opportunity to read it, my most fervent recommendation is to pick up the Henrietta books and enjoy them yet again. (Or perhaps Dennys' memoir, And Then There Was One, published not long after the Henrietta books? Has anyone read that one?)

But I cannot end on a bummer of a note. So here, without further ado, I give you what I thought was the single funniest passage in the book, in which poor Mrs Septum, convinced that she has appendicitis, gets a bit more frank conversation from her nurse than she might have if she'd not been a doctor's wife:

Then she undressed and got into bed, and Nurse Barker stayed and talked to her for a long time, and told her that they hadn't had a Death in the Home for six months, but she supposed they'd have to have one before long. And then she said what pretty hair Mrs. Septum had, and she had only once before nursed anybody with hair that colour and she was an appendicitis case too, only she hadn't done well; in fact, she had died, and nobody knew why.

Now that passage is worthy of Henrietta.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Catching up with Gladys

Gladys Mitchell seems to have been a fairly constant companion to me over the past few months (with the result that I am now on a first name basis with her), so I have some catching up to do here.

The Greyladies reprint of Gladys Mitchell's one career/school story had been on my TBR shelves for at least a couple of years. I would say I can't imagine what took me so long to get to it, but actually I can imagine only too well. Other books got in the way, of course.

But I'm glad I finally made time for it, as it proved to be quite entertaining. It follows two girls (young women, really), Lesley Scott and Frankie Allinson, during their three years at the Falcons Physical Training College. As the book covers all three years, as well as the beginning of the girls' careers after they've finished the program, the pace is understandably brisk. I could have wished, for example, for more about the girls' visit to Norfolk; Mitchell particularly excels at providing armchair travel to her readers, and I would have welcomed a whole chapter or two about Norfolk, not to mention a bit more about the trip the girls make to Greece later in the book. But it's clear that Mitchell was having to limit herself a bit to the focus of a career story.

On Your Marks does feature some mildly mysterious happenings, such as the draining of the school swimming pool and the shifting of planks across a stream during a foot race. Not quite at the Mrs Bradley level, but pleasant enough. And there's plenty of Mitchell's other great love, sports, though the descriptions of competitions are brisk enough that they didn't even bore a complete sports curmudgeon like myself. And there's just the suggestion of a budding romance by the end of the book…

All in all, it's energetic and humorous, and as tightly paced as one would expect from the glorious Gladys.

Although, having said that, perhaps I should qualify it and say "as tightly paced as one would expect from Gladys at her best." Because among the nine Mitchell mysteries I've read in the past few months, I've come across a few for which "tightly paced" is not the expression that first comes to mind.

I should hasten to say that my choice of Mitchell titles has been governed lately by a certain neurosis of mine, which came into play as I approached the halfway mark in reading Agatha Christie's titles as well. I started gravitating toward what were generally considered lesser titles, so I could save the best ones for last (or at least read them sparingly). A faulty logic, no doubt, but one I don't seem to be able to resist, and one that occasionally brings surprises.

If my count is correct, I've now read 26 of Mitchell's 66 Mrs Bradley novels. It might seem premature to be fretting about running out of them, but at the rate I've been reading, the 40 remaining books don't look like lasting more than three or four more years. Oh dear. Add to that that when I began reading Mitchell I gloried in her earliest, zaniest books, with the result that my supply of early Mitchells (overall her best period, by most standards) is in even more danger of running short. Which explains why I have been gravitating primarily to her later books of late, and a couple of earlier books that have had mixed reviews among fans.

The biggest surprise in the bunch was Here Lies Gloria Mundy (1982), the sixth to last of the Mrs Bradley books. Having read The Death Cap Dancers (1981) a couple of years back and being rather underwhelmed by it, I let Gloria Mundy languish on my shelves for a long while after finding it at a book sale. It ranks 57th on Jason Half's ranked list of the Bradley books (see here—Jason's website has long been my Gladys Mitchell Bible), but I think it will rank considerably higher for me, should I ever manage to come up with a complete ranking of my own. The ending is a bit anticlimactic, and it lacks the morbid daftness of the early novels, but what I loved is that it's a marvelous travelogue of some smaller villages, churches, barrows, and other fun locales in England. It's a book I wanted to sink inside and live in for a while. It's true that Mrs Bradley doesn't appear as much as one might wish, but the young writer who is featured is perfectly adequate to keep things moving along. It's not one of Mitchell's eccentric best, to be sure, but a quite enjoyable mid-range title.

After Gloria Mundy I became irrationally convinced that Mitchell's late work was just seriously underrated and I would surely enjoy all of it just as much. Ummmm, right.

I turned, then, full of delusional optimism, to Uncoffin'd Clay (1980), another book sale find also left languishing on my shelves for a couple of years. This one ranks dead last on Jason's list, and close to the bottom of most of the other readers' lists he includes on his site. I'm not certain it will be last for me, since I am still harboring a powerful (and perhaps irrational, I admit) grudge against The Longer Bodies, but it will certainly be close. It's a slow, rather lifeless mystery, which doesn't even make much use of Mitchell's flair for local color and interest in historical sites. There's far too much chewing over clues, and Mrs Bradley is largely absent or inactive, making this a distinctly lesser entry in the series.

Another of my recent reads is the only other Mrs Bradley I've read so far that might compete with Clay as my least favorite. Adders on the Heath (1963) shares many characteristics with Clay; here are my original notes:

Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. One of the least action-oriented of Gladys' novels, and not even effective for armchair sightseeing. Although the setting is the New Forest, there is even little description or exploration of that locale. The murder and the motive are far-fetched, which I can handle, but in this case also thoroughly uninteresting. Laura's 10-year-old son adds some not-entirely-plausible entertainment value (Mitchell is excellent at portraying young boys), but he's not in it enough, and although Dame Bradley is present for most of the novel, all she does is chew over the clues endlessly. A lackluster performance, for sure.

Jason ranked this on 64th out of 66, so we're in sync here too. (Though I do have to keep repeating that, if you're a true fan, even a weak Gladys Mitchell is better than anything by most other authors.) 

He actually ranked Fault in the Structure (1977) a bit higher, and I think I do too, just slightly, though my comments seem pretty consistent:

Endless chewing over of details, Mrs Bradley often absent from the scene, and little or no local color. It's strengthened a bit only because it's use of an amateur theatre production is moderately entertaining. It also has a very unusual structure (perhaps the title refers to the novel itself as well as to a method of murder?), without much real investigation apart from Laura and Mrs Bradley chewing the fat.

Well, at least I've got several of the weakest Mrs Bradleys out of the way…

Although Faintley Speaking (1954) also ranks near the bottom for Jason, it places a bit higher for me. Indeed, it was a frustrating book precisely because it started out so well. A schoolmistress who may also be a spy, a man receiving an anonymous message by mistake in a public phone booth, and an entertaining teenage boy saddled with his least favorite teacher on a holiday outing. If the second half had offered half as much, Faintley could well have ranked among my favorites. But alas, it petered out, despite a completely random trip on Mrs Bradley's part to the Lascaux cave paintings in France (which was at least reminiscent of the random occurrences in some of her best early mysteries). As a result, it ends up splat in the middle range of all the Mitchell's I've read.

Also somewhere in the middle, and also not living up to its considerable potential, is Brazen Tongue (1940). Oh my. You would think that with a well-utilized wartime setting, this one would score very highly with me, but it turned out to be another of Mitchell's "talky" mysteries, in which Mrs Bradley seems lethargically prone to chew over the details (many of which, in this case, still make little sense to me—it's a complicated plot, to say the least) instead of doing anything. I was also surprised to find a burst of anti-Semitism here, which seems anomalous in Mitchell's work and which took away points for me (apart from being intensely irritating for practical reasons, as the Jewish character speaks in a bizarre dialect that I could barely follow, not equating to the procunciation of any human I've ever spoken with!). But the details of life during the Phony War are worth the price of admission, and the stuffiness of Mrs Bradley's former sister-in-law, Lady Selina Lestrange, adds to the entertainment. Dame Gladys herself apparently had a very low opinion of Tongue, calling it "a horrible book". It's not as bad as all that, but I wonder if her strong feelings about it were inspired by the realization of how great it might have been had it lived up to its potential?

Finally, I read My Father Sleeps (1944), which I enjoyed quite a lot. I somehow forgot to make notes on this one at the time, but I remember being rather bewildered by the mystery itself—lots of appearances and disappearances of characters and victims, bait-and-switch elements, etc. (I seem to have been confused by a lot of these novels, so maybe the problem is me?) However, I also remember finding it entertaining, and the Highlands setting provides some good armchair sightseeing. It's not an absolute favorite because it's neither so zany that I don't care at all about making sense of it all and am just along for the ride, nor coherent enough for me to feel I've got a handle on it, but nevertheless quite a pleasant mid-level entry.

What a nitpicky summary of my Mitchell reading this has been! But all is not lost, because I was also quite surprised by reading the first two entries in Mitchell's Timothy Herring series, written under the pseudonym Malcolm Torrie. Happily, most of these six books have also been released in e-book format by the same company that released the Mrs Bradley books (though they seem to have, quite inexplicably, failed to make the fourth, Churchyard Salad, available, in the U.S. at least—what on earth is the deal with that?!?!)

The Timothy Herring books make an interesting comparison with the Mrs Bradley books. There's no question that Mitchell is and should always be better known for the latter, but the former do have redeeming qualities. Herring is the well-to-do secretary of—and, in large part apparently, the funding behind—an organization dedicated to the restoration of historic sites. Which means that he tends to travel around to historic churches and intriguing villages, shedding historical knowledge along the way, and which also means that the series (at least the two I've books I've read so far) partakes considerably of Mitchell's own interest in and knowledge the English countryside and her skill at sharing that knowledge. For that reason, the books are right up my alley.

That said, the mysteries are perfectly adequate, if not as sophisticated and lively as the best of the Mrs Bradleys. (On the other hand, the rather more straightforward, mellow tone might appeal to those readers for whom the eccentricities of the Mrs Bradley books are a negative.) But they are their own thing, and based on my enjoyment of Heavy as Lead (1966) and Late and Cold (1967), I'll be a fan of the whole series, and may well enjoy periodic rereads of them. Though, terrible thought, that means there are only four more of this series for me to read. Something else to feel anxious about…

Okay, I know there are many other GM fans out there. How do my reactions to these compare with yours?
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