Friday, February 21, 2014

Recent Reading: The Great Gladys

This post is a rare confluence of my personal reading habits and some notable publishing news (that's my excuse for its length, anyway, which is even more excessive than my norm!).  Typically I'm oblivious to publishing news—though I did intend to post on the ridiculousness of the news stories (using that phrase loosely) a few weeks ago about the “discovery” of Stella Gibbons’ two unpublished novels—you know, the ones that her biographer described in depth in his bio of Gibbons…in the 1990s?  One source even described them as “lost” manuscripts, which could hardly have been the case unless her heirs had simply forgotten which drawer they'd tucked them away in!  What next?  Breaking news coverage of radio listeners terrorized by a broadcast of “War of the Worlds”?  But I digress (and overindulge in sarcasm). 

Ahem.  As I was saying, rarely am I on the cutting edge of publishing news.  Typically, I either miss it altogether or else I only cotton on to it six months after everyone else considers it old hat, by which time blogging about it would seem a bit passé.

The Great Gladys

But eureka!  As it happens, my comfort reading of the past couple of weeks has not only been greatly entertaining, but has led me to a fairly timely discovery.

I am a sporadic mystery addict.  Usually—as, perhaps, with most addictions—my mystery habit recurs at times of stress or general malaise.  At such times, there is something about life-and-death situations and their clear resolution, combined with the unique attention to everyday life that the genre requires and the compelling, page-turning style that it ideally offers, that provides some odd kind of solace.

Undoubtedly, the writer I have turned to more than any other for this kind of solace (and indeed often just for pure mindless entertainment) is Agatha Christie.  I started to read her in my teens and I’ve now read all but one of her novels (oh, why why why must Passenger to Frankfurt be so impermeably dull?!) and most of her stories, as well as her wonderful autobiography.  Many of her novels I’ve read multiple times (and I’ll confess right off that I can almost never remember whodunnit, except in the case of her most iconic plots like Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  Sometimes I can even remember how the murder was done (as in the ludicrously daft plot of Murder in Mesopotamia), but still I can only rarely recall who committed it or why.

Apart from Dame Agatha, my mystery reading of choice has included Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham (though I need to read more of all three), and even such male writers (believe it or not) as Cyril Hare and Edmund Crispin.  I’ve had the occasional lark with Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax, a few laughs with M. C. Beaton here and there, and a long love affair with the coziest of all modern mystery writers, Hazel Holt, whose Mrs. Malory books have often proven irresistible after a stressful day (or week, or month).

But in the past couple of weeks, as we have coped with the sudden loss of one of Andy’s brothers, I happened, when feeling tired and sad and anything but inspired, to pick up a Gladys Mitchell novel and fall effortlessly and irretrievably into its pages.  Then I read another.  And another.  And yet another.  (A rare occurrence for me, since I'm a reader who tends to flit hummingbird-like from one author to another.)  And I’ve absolutely fallen under her spell.

I’ve read a handful of Mitchell novels over the past few years, and I’ve always enjoyed them—particularly the eccentric, rather daft early novels like The Saltmarsh Murders and When Last I Died, which were reprinted a couple of years ago by Vintage UK along with several other of her best-known works.  But somehow I never became addicted to Dame Gladys as I have always been to Dame Agatha.  But that may now have changed.

My own cheesy paperback of Spotted
; who on earth is the woman
in the photo supposed to be?!?!  Certainly
not Dame Beatrice!

Gladys Mitchell—referred to by no less a figure than Philip Larkin as “the great Gladys”—wrote 66 mystery novels under her own name, all featuring the gloriously strange forensic psychiatrist Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley (in later novels she becomes Dame Beatrice, surely a deserved, if fictional, honor).  Intriguingly, Mitchell also wrote five historical adventure novels under the pseudonym Stephen Hockaby in the 1930s, as well as six more mysteries under the pseudonym Malcolm Torrie in the late 1960s and early 1970s, none of which seem to have ever been reprinted.  And finally, she wrote nine novels for children, mostly mysteries for younger readers, but also including On Your Marks, a girls’ career novel dealing with Mitchell’s own area of expertise, physical education—which, happily, was reprinted by Greyladies last year, and a copy of which, even more happily, is in my hot little hands.

And let me point out that I did not, in fact, just mutter an incantation and become an authority on a writer I had barely read until a couple of weeks ago.  But you too can feel like an authority on Mitchell if you consult Jason Hall’s amazing website, which includes a cornucopia of information, book covers, bibliographies, essays, and reviews on Mitchell’s many works.  I keep getting distracted from writing this post because there’s just so much on Jason’s site to enjoy.

Interestingly, none of the four novels I’ve read in the past couple of weeks rank high on Jason’s list of Mitchell’s best work.  Which—considering that I quite enjoyed all of them—may mean I will be even more ecstatic as I continue to explore her other novels.  Since Mitchell is a pretty widely-read author and has many loyal followers online who know more about her than I do, I’m going to make this a “recent reading” post with only general comments about the four books I read, rather than actual reviews, and I'll follow that with the actual bit of Mitchell-related news that I’ve just come across.

Bio and younger photo from the Penguin
edition of Watson's Choice

My reading started with Spotted Hemlock (1958), which deals with a body found at the girls’ agricultural school at which Dame Beatrice’s nephew, a pig farmer, has been teaching.  The plot is gloriously strange, involving a missing student, a secret marriage, a possibly ghostly figure riding a horse that is all too real (based on its damage to the school’s kitchen garden), and the possibility that—despite the body’s identification as the missing student by her own mother—the victim might actually be someone else entirely.  Dame Beatrice travels to Scotland, southern Italy, and Northern Ireland—seemingly random fact-finding missions that are little more than excuses for commentary on the scenery and to keep the reader guessing about the direction of Dame Beatrice’s thoughts.  (The fact that I can never begin to follow a logical progression of deduction and logic in Dame Beatrice's investigations is one of the things I love about Mitchell's novels, but of course it might be an annoyance to readers who expect to actually understand all the details of the crimes and their solutions!)

The girls’ school setting is an interesting one, especially since the girls here are learning about pigs and crops and fertilizer and the like—hardly the Abbey Girls or the Chalet School!  Lyn at I Prefer Reading recently reviewed another wonderful girls’ school mystery, Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, and mentioned her affinity for “closed society” mysteries—those set in schools and convents and the like.  I had never thought to categorize them in that way, but I realized that it’s a very useful concept and that I too—unbeknownst to myself—have long been a fan of closed society novels of all kinds (in fact, see the fourth Mitchell title I read below).

One thing that’s always fun about a Mitchell novels is its descriptions of Dame Beatrice—regularly compared to crocodiles, witches, snakes, and even pterodactyls.  And yet despite an appearance that takes strangers aback, I find her completely lovable in her blithe acceptance of all sorts of human frailty and diversity, from insanity, perversion, and violence all the way down to ordinary sex, jealousy, and fear, and she has a charming tendency to refer to people as “my dear child,” suggesting a nun-like serenity and compassion even in the face of a decomposed corpse.  In Spotted Hemlock, Dame Beatrice gets a memorable comparison to the Ancient Mariner:

Basil, who had lowered his newspaper as soon as she had begun to speak, crushed out his half-finished cigarette and looked ready to take flight, but Dame Beatrice, emulating the Ancient Mariner, held him grounded as though by some magic spell.

And there’s always at least one reptile comparison:

“I certainly sympathize with your point of view,” said Dame Beatrice, returning the grin with an alligator leer which appeared to startle her companion.

I found it difficult to put Spotted Hemlock down, even with everything else that was going on in our lives, and when I finished it I moved right on to The Death-Cap Dancers (1981), a very late Mitchell picked up at a book sale a couple of years back.  Jason and most other Mitchell fans seem to give her late novels—which become less eccentric and more mundanely procedural—a low ranking, but Jason also shares several other fans’ lists on his website and a couple of them actually place Death-Cap Dancers in their top five among Mitchell's works, which only goes to show that readers look for and enjoy very different elements even in the work of a writer they all appreciate. 

This one is set in the realm of youth hostellers and vacation campers, and features Dame Beatrice’s grand-niece Hermione Lestrange along with a folk-dancing troupe that seems to be under attack from a killer who bashes victims’ heads and then pushes a deadly mushroom into the wound.  Unfortunately, Hermione’s great-aunt doesn’t make an appearance until page 126 of a 192 novel, which almost always seems to be the hallmark of any great mystery writer’s lesser novels.  (I always wonder, if a writer is tired of their detective—which is certainly understandable—why not create a new one, or write a non-detective novel?  There’s at least one Christie mystery—They Do It with Mirrors, perhaps?—where Miss Marple barely appears at all, and the novel is much the weaker for her absence.  On the other hand, there are works like Crooked House, Murder Is Easy, and of course And Then There Were None which are great novels without any of Dame Agatha’s usual detectives at all.  So why would Mitchell write a Dame Beatrice novel and then give Dame Beatrice little more than a cameo appearance?  One wonders.  But I digress again.)

For me, The Death-Cap Dancers was readable but eminently forgettable.  Except perhaps for the murderer’s rather memorable sudden demise at the hands, er, snouts, of a bunch of hungry pigs…

Despite feeling lukewarm on that one, however, I went right into Watson's Choice (1955), which, it turns out, falls right in the middle of all the readers' lists on Jason's website.  Not too good, not too bad, would seem to be the consensus.  The reviewers on Goodreads seem to veer a bit more to the negative in their assessments, but I actually enjoyed it a lot.  It is admittedly a rather loosy-goosy mystery (which for me is a compliment but for most Goodreads reviewers is apparently not) beginning with a Sherlock Holmes-themed costume party at which a prank leads to the unplanned appearance of the Hound of the Baskervilles.  No kidding.  But only some time later do a lot of seemingly unrelated events finally result in a murder loosely connected (I'm not sure that I quite understand, even now, exactly how) to the dog involved in the stunt.

It’s all as quirky, odd, and disjointed as any of the Mitchells I've read, and the Sherlock Holmes party adds lots of interesting trivia to the mix, cleverly providing “clues” in multiple senses of the word.  Plus, we get the wonderful Dame Beatrice and her own entertaining “Watson”—her assistant Laura, here engaged to Inspector Gavin, who also attends the party and investigates the murder—straight through from beginning to end.  The novel makes a hilarious mockery of detective novel stereotypes, highlighted with some subtlety in the clues to a Holmes contest held at the party, and more explicitly when Dame Beatrice relays a message to Laura from Inspector Gavin:

He dined here last night and thinks the Gunter case is breaking very nicely. They are pretty sure of a conviction. Once they had interpreted correctly the clue of the dining-club tea-cloth, everything fell into place. Good night, dear child. Sleep well.

Ah, yes, the dining-club tea-cloth.  Of course.  Elementary, my dear Watson.

Another particular source of enjoyment in this novel is that Dame Beatrice's wide-ranging intellect is on full display.  She analyzes a suspect's anxieties with reference to "that humane genius Sigmund Freud," and then, too, it seems that Mitchell must have been reading the work of Gertrude Stein while at work on Watson's Choice, as there are at least two references to her work.  Stein's most obscure, experimental, and befuddling works were just finally being published by Yale University Press in the 1950s, and Mitchell must have been taking an interest.  Early on, she has Dame Beatrice compare a schizophrenic patient's ravings to Stein's work (a comparison which might not seem flattering, but which I bet Stein would have loved), and later one of the suspects, Mrs. Dance, begins a distinctly odd and distinctly Steinian riff on a fellow suspect's nickname:

'What is more, he hates Boo with an old-fashioned Mexican hatred that would give me nightmares if I were in Boo's shoes. Boo's shoes,' she repeated thoughtfully. 'It sounds like one of those novels where they make up half the words. Boo's shoes, shoes boo the crowd, boos through Boo, shoos away coos—I mean cows—oh, dear! How silly!'

It can be no coincidence that one of Stein's most famous (and racy, once one realizes what it's really about) works dealt prominently with cows.  And given Stein's well-known affinity for detective novels, one can't help but wonder if Mitchell's earlier work might have made occasional appearances on Stein's bedside table?

Finally, as Dame Beatrice is beginning to reveal to Laura some of what she knows about the solution of the case, she gets distracted into this wonderfully random, yet wholly compassionate and intelligent meditation on Sodom and Gomorrah:

'Well, I'm dashed!' said Laura. 'What don't you know?'

'Exactly what went on in the Cities of the Plain, child. Even allowing for all the sources and idiosyncrasies of human behaviour which modern psychology has laid bare, it is difficult to conceive of a state of things so far removed from normal conduct that the cities had to be destroyed in so uncompromising a fashion. One thinks of post-1918 Hamburg; one thinks of the port of Suez; one thinks unutterable thoughts; and, after that, imagination boggles, as the master of the comic novel has said.'

Perhaps someday I'll share my own thoughts on the Cities of the Plain, but meanwhile this has to be one of my favorite Mitchell quotes to date...

After having so much fun with Watson's Choice, I recalled that had just lucked into a used copy of the now out-of-print Greyladies edition of Convent on Styx (1975), and so I dived right in.  This is another late Mitchell but one which, for my taste, is much, much stronger than The Death-Cap Dancers.  To prove that there's an exception to every rule, in this novel, too, Dame Beatrice doesn't appear until nearly the halfway point, but here I found that a strength.  (I know, I'm being inconsistent, but after all, Emerson did say that foolish consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds, and even a middlebrow hates having hobgoblins dancing around in his little mind!)

Dame Beatrice's absence early on works here because what we get in that time is a wonderful picture of ordinary life in the convent at which the murder will (eventually) occur—the little bitternesses, annoyances, pleasures, and joys of this particular "closed society."  This seems to be the real focus of the novel, and I found it completely fascinating.  No wonder Greyladies chose it as the one Mitchell mystery they would reprint (so far, at least).  As a sample, the narrative starts entertainingly but also poignantly with the somewhat embittered Sister Wolstan:

Sister Wolstan had no real quarrel with her lot. Long enough ago she had renounced the world (although one still had to live in it), the flesh (although one still had to eat, drink, sleep and wash), and the devil (although Sister Wolstan sometimes thought that it must be easier to oust him from a reformatory than from a convent) and she was prepared to be humble and meek, offering her meekness and her humility (and the rheumatism that had begun to trouble her) upon the same altar on which so many years ago she had laid her vows of poverty and chastity and her vow of obedience to her superiors.

Then there is Sister Hilary, who "[i]n her unregenerate days … had led protest marches, obstructed the police and had stood out for women's rights in a militant, aggressive, troublemaking manner that had resulted in a most disagreeable blaze of newspaper publicity and a threat of dismissal from her teaching post."  Most of the nuns are presented with similar vividness, and the result is a portrait of convent life so compelling that I almost regretted the murder and resulting investigation when it finally occurred.  The mystery itself is rather run-of-the-mill, and the solution distinctly uninspired, so those looking for a thrilling page-turner might want to look elsewhere.  But as for myself, I have a feeling Convent on Styx will be one of my most frequent Mitchell re-reads.

We also get one of the best descriptions of the ageless Dame Beatrice (who, much like Hercule Poirot, began her literary life elderly and remained timelessly old for nearly sixty years thereafter) that I've yet come across:

Fennell saw a formidable old lady who could be anything between seventy and ninety, small and thin, with sharp black eyes which he was convinced would miss nothing and, having summed up what they saw, would regard it with resignation and amusement. Apart from her costume, which was of a particularly villainous shade of green topped off by a purple silk shirt-blouse, other noticeable features were her yellow, claw-like hands, her shrewd, beaky little mouth and the unnerving cackle with which she received his lighter remarks.

How could anyone not love such a figure?

Alas, it seems that despite Mitchell's continuing popularity among a passionate group of fans, all too many readers have been able to resist Dame Beatrice's witchy charms.  The result being that until the last few years most of her novels had lapsed out of print and been allowed to languish. 

But that has now begun to change. 

Rue Morgue Press began the effort by reprinting a dozen or so of Mitchell's works.  Then a couple of years ago Vintage UK published a few more in snazzy new editions, and they've added even more to their list in the past few months, so that they've now made available almost thirty titles in all. 

And finally, as I've poked around in the past week or two to see what other Mitchells I might be able to find, I discovered that Thomas & Mercer, an imprint of Amazon Publishing (who knew?), appears to be making many, many more Mitchells available in e-book format.  In fact, though I haven't taken the time to check for every single title, it appears that by the end of April, virtually all of Mitchell's Dame Beatrice novels will be available, and (so far, at least) at the bargain price of $3.99 each.  This includes numerous titles—such as the World War II-era Sunset Over Soho and Brazen Tongue—that have become scarce or downright nonexistent.

And all of this seems to have been a relatively recent development, as most of these e-books have appeared on Amazon just since I first searched a couple of weeks ago.  Thus, for once, I am shockingly timely with this post.  I'm also hopeful that a batch of new readers will now take the plunge into the great Gladys's odd, brilliant oeuvre.


  1. Goody! Another author to investigate - and my library actually has 2 with 5 stars (as per Jason Hall): The rising of the moon (1945), and Tom Brown's Body (1949). Will give her a read!

    Hope Andy is coming to grips with his loss, and know you're tremendous comfort for him.

    Thanks for a lovely post & suggestions.


    1. Oh yes, Del, those are both considered among her best, I think. I read The Rising of the Moon first, and didn't absolutely love it, but it may just be that her style takes a bit of getting used to. Tom Brown's Body is on my "to read" shelf too, and is set in a boys' school, so should be great fun. I hope you enjoy!

  2. Aha - the great and glorious Gladys! Some years ago I set myself the task of completing a friend's collection by giving her a GM as a thank you each time she did led some workshops which I organised (3-5 times a year)

    For some time it was easy enough to find reasonably priced copies on ebay but we have now reached the stage, with 14 of the 60 or so still to find, where the prices have become unaffordable.

    So I was delighted to see at least one of them available on Kindle - though I am not sure she will want to own any of them as an ebook. Somehow not at all the same thing.

    We both hated Brazen Tongue, but Sunset over Soho is one of my favourites and is quite easy to get in the UK. Can I help with that?

    1. What a wonderful idea, Cestina, to give Dame Gladys gifts as rewards. I'm finding it hard not to just keep reading her until I've finished all of them, but if I do that my blog will become a bit repetitive!

      I bet those 14 titles should be available on Kindle, though I know that hard copies are nicer, and of course, if she gets some on ebook, her collection on her bookcase will still look incomplete.

      I did find a paperback reprint of Sunset over Soho a couple of years ago, but thanks so much for offering to help. I've seen it for as much as $80 (in the reprint edition!), but grabbed it as soon as I saw it at a reasonable price.

      Oh, dear, of course I just made Brazen Tongue the first of my ebook purchases! Oh, well, even if it's terrible, I hope I'll be able to find something of interest in it.

    2. Well you might love it :-) It's a very long time since I read it and it's one of those that seems to fetch a lot in hardback, not sure why. I'd be interested to know what you think of it.

      I read a lot of these when I was a teenager in the 1950s,haunting my local library, and didn't revisit them until a few years ago when I started the collecting. (I see a mis-type in my previous contribution but can't get rid of it :-( - it should read "each time she led some workshops....)

      I love the ones set in school or college backgrounds - the relationship between Mrs Bradley and the very young is always beautifully drawn. Laura however irritates me greatly.

    3. Awww, I kind of like Laura! Somehow, she seems just as "in the dark" about the case solutions but somehow not quite as dim-witted as the usual Watson/Colonel Hastings type of sidekick.

      I note from Jason's website that Mitchell herself called Brazen Tongue "a horrible book," though Jason liked it. So, even more interesting to see what Dame Gladys disliked about it. But do check out the cover art for it on Jason's site, featuring a portrait of Dame Beatrice looking quite plausibly like MItchell's descriptions of her!


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