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?


  1. Did you know that "Gloria Mundy" was the name of the name of the librariian, as played by Goldie Hawn in the 1978 film, "Foul Play," also starring Chevy Chase and Burgess Meredith, and a new (then) Dudley Moore?
    "Sic transit Gloria Mundi."

    1. I had forgotten about that, Tom. One of my favorite movies though, and set in San Francisco which is always a plus!

    2. The library interior scenes, however, were set in the Pasadena Public Library. I had just started working there - they filmed all night, so as not to interrupt out work, but one morning, some of them very nicely stayed to meet us - my goodness, Goldie Hawn was even prettier in real life!

  2. I got really confused, having mixed this author up with Elyne Mitchell, an Australian author. This sounds like a great project and presumably they don't need to be read in order with no big story-arc for Mrs B herself?

    1. There are some minor developments, and the advent of children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews who sometimes appear in the later novels, but no need to read them in order. You just have to love rather zany plots!

  3. Well, nothing you've said, Scott, entices me to take up any of Gladys's books. Sorry. :^)

    1. Wow, Susan, if you took that post as an effort to entice you, I'd hate to see what you consider a critical post! I would have thought you'd be a Mitchell fan, actually, but there's no question you either "get" her or you don't, probably more so than any other mystery writer.

  4. I have read a few Gladys Mitchell books, years ago. The Death Cap Dancers stopped me cold and kept me from looking for more.


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