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A CRITICAL APPROACH - Examining the works of Gladys Mitchell

by B.A. Pike

The following essay was written by B. A. Pike and published in The Armchair Detective, Volume 9 No. 4, October 1976 as part of the article "In Praise of Gladys Mitchell." It is reprinted with permission from the author.

Gladys Mitchell is a prolific writer, and her work is decidedly uneven. She has some formidable failings such as might sink a lesser writer altogether. Her books are sui generis, genial, high-spirited, bold and complicated, but lacking in the formal disciplines of the genre at the pitch of classical perfection. But it would be absurd to expect orthodoxy from a fantasist of genius.

Over-complication is probably Miss Mitchell's besetting sin: even the best of her books show signs of this, and in some the failure of organization is such that the movement of the plot is at times barely comprehensible. Here Comes a Chopper (1946) begins admirably, only to tail off into vagaries of character, motive and incident that topple it over into incoherence long before the end. Maurice Richardson complained of Dance to Your Daddy (1969) that it is "a murder mystery so mysterious that it's not easy to find out what is being done to whom, much less who by;" and Edmund Crispin's observation that Miss Mitchell narrates less well than she writes surely also refers to this sort of thing.

So much of Miss Mitchell's dialogue is allusive and inconclusive, and so many of her characters lay false trails in conversation, from the delicate half-truth to the lie direct, that the reader is sometimes in danger of not knowing what he is to believe, and is left floundering, still vague, even at the end, about details of the action and its motivation. Death and the Maiden (1947) is a distinct success and thoroughly entertaining, and yet it is possible to read it without being entirely sure of the motive for the crime.

Edmund Crispin has applauded Miss Mitchell's ear for distinctive idiom, justly, since much of her dialogue is sharp and savorsome. But here, too, there are lapses--in some of the banter in the earliest books, now sorely dated; in the casual exchanges of schoolboys and students (even when, somehow, the right spirit is achieved); and, specifically, in the uncouth roars of the amateur athletes at the beginning of Adders on the Heath (1963). Mr. Crispin regrets the resort to "generalized Mummerset" for the servants in Dance to Your Daddy. Even when Miss Mitchell has clearly worked hard to achieve a particular dialect, the results are not always happy: all that careful Cockney in Gory Dew (1970) makes for decidedly uphill reading. The characteristic utterance of Laura, secretary and Watson to Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, is a law unto itself: picturesque yet pertinent, with a vigorous crackle of metaphor, it moves in a headlong rush of slang, quotation, imprecation and flight of fancy, flippant, fervent, awestruck, satiric, literary, sporty, maddening at times, but always incisive and never dull.

In her narrative prose, Miss Mitchell is more consistent, and the melodramatic crudities of Speedy Death (1929) are not repeated; the account of Eleanor Bing, rampaging round the old home with a knife in her hand and murder in her heart is not one's favorite passage from the works. In The Longer Bodies (1930), a reassuring advance in sophistication is apparent, and the cultured fluency of Miss Mitchell's style is well-maintained over the years (and was recently described--again by Edmund Crispin--as "pellucid").

Despite her shortcomings, Gladys Mitchell remains one of the most consistently entertaining of detective novelists, her vices more than atoned for by her virtues. Much may be forgiven so colorful, varied and exuberent a writer, whose vivid inventive flair, after fifty books, happily shows no sign of declining. Repeatedly, the sheer verve of the narrative, the teasing intricacy and driving energy of the action carry the reader over obscurities of motive, and improbabilities of character and incident.

A feature of the novels is the uncommonly literal sense Miss Mitchell attaches to the word "action." Her most typical plots involve considerable outdoor activity, and an immense amount of ground is covered by her detectives: tramping the terrain is a sine qua non. Miss Mitchell explained some years ago, in a broadcast talk called "Maps, Chaps and Murder," that she uses the one-inch Ordnance Survey map, both in plotting the action of a novel in an actual setting and in adapting a real environment to a fictional one; and such books as The Worsted Viper (1943) and Death and the Maiden receive an added interest from the close coordination of setting and action encountered in them. The Dancing Druids (1948) is another very "physical" book, and so, too, is Dead Men's Morris (1936), where the meticulously detailed locality is that of Miss Mitchell's own native heath. Laura treks and climbs, scrambles and swims in the interests of detection, and Dame Beatrice is equally game for any amount of leg-work, in the Western Highlands of the New Forest, or on a Lundy-like island called Great Skua. At other times, they sail all over the Norfolk Broads, or cruise around the islands off the West coast of Scotland.

Anything is liable to be grist to Miss Mitchell's mill--archaeology or athletics, black magic or clan lore, castles or caves, Shakespeare or Freud, classical mythology or natural history, folklore or beards in literature, psychic phenomena or the Loch Ness Monster. Islands and convents exercise their fascination, and schools and colleges felicitously recur. We get ferns in Faintley Speaking (1954), Old Crome in The Dancing Druids, Sherlock Holmes in Watson's Choice (1955), and word-association and nudism in Printer's Error (1939). The range of reference is wide and challenging: in Laurels are Poison (1942) alone, Miss Mitchell invokes Webster, Keats, Shakespeare, George Eliot, Will Hay, M. R. James, Timothy Shy, "the Grave of a Hundred Heads," Toby Weller, Little Lord Fauntleroy, "the doomed cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum," Drayton, Ouida, Patrick Mahon, Swinburne, and Gilbert and Sullivan.

Miss Mitchell's sharp eye to eccentricities of character is further decided advantage. "Hoodoo, Voodoo and Just Plain Nastiness" is the title of a chapter from Tom Brown's Body (1949), but it would serve equally well as a succinct overall statement of the kinds of goings-on in which the author involves her characters. A critic described the characteristic ambience of Gladys Mitchell's fiction as "rich, fantastical and tuppence-colored," and it is in just such an atmosphere, at once bizarre and engaging, that her characters move. Eccentrics abound, and, as if the author were declaring her hand at the outset, even the corpse is odd in Speedy Death --it is female, whereas the celebrated explorer to whom it belonged in life was male. The Echoing Strangers (1952) has a blackguardly old baronet with unnerving twin grandsons and a passion for cricket; Merlin's Furlong (1953), an unspeakable old don of staggering depravity, with a Negro maid and a mulatto valet; Death of a Delft Blue (1964), a trifurcate family of of multi-national exotics, with names like Binnen, Opal, Florian, Derde, Sweyn, Rebekah and Sigismund; and My Bones Will Keep (1962), a lurid laird, "big, red-headed, red-bearded, and with a wild and bright blue eye," fixated on "fabulous animals," "the petrified fauna of another and more picturesque age," the basilisk, the gryphon, the werewolf, the salamander and the gorgon.

In Death and the Maiden, Edris Tidson watches the River Itchen for a naiad; and in Winking at the Brim (1974), Sir Humphrey Calshott surveys Loch na Tannasg for a "monster." In Come Away, Death (1937), Sir Rudri Hopkinson convenes an expedition to probe the nature of the Eleusinian Mysteries, during which the head of one of the party is substituted for the sepents of Aesculapius, and in Watson's Choice, Sir Bohun Chantrey celebrates a Sherlock Holmes anniversary with a party at which the Hound of the Baskervilles makes an unexpected appearance.


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