COME AWAY, DEATH (1937)
1937 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1939 London: Thriller Book Club; 1954 Penguin paperback; 2007 Rue Morgue Press; 2011 Vintage UK.
Cover scan provided by Ash Rare Books. 1939 reprint cover shown.
"We're going to make Homeric sacrifice both at the palace and at the Treasury of Atreus," Sir Rudri observed. "The difficulty is the oxen. However, this good man"-- he indicated the keeper of the keys-- "thinks he can prevail upon one of the peasants to let us have two goats. No doubt the result cannot be the same as with oxen, but with blood and entrails at our disposal, we surely should be able to evoke something."
"Yes, a putrid stink," said Kenneth, sotto voce, behind his father. Alexander Currie smiled upon his son.
"I don't think goats are a good idea, father," said Gelert. "They have a definite connexion with the Black Art. I think we should pause and consider before committing ourselves to goats."
He broke off and held a spirited conversation in modern Greek with the custodian.
"He says they are black goats," he added, after he and the Greek had adjusted themselves to one another's system of pronunciation. "To my mind to introduce black goats as an offering in a place like this is simply asking for trouble."
Little is known of the Eleusinian Mysteries, ancient rituals held within the temple of Eleusis to honor the goddess Demeter. Sir Rudri Hopkinson is determined to delve into these Mysteries whilst touring Greece; the historian and scholar plans to recreate worship rituals at the ruined temples in hopes of summoning the gods. He has assembled a diverse but willing group to accompany him on the experiment: among the travellers are Sir Rudri's adult children, the fellow scholar and rival Alexander Currie, a handsome photographer named Armstrong, a loyal servant (and ex-navyman) named Dish, and a trio of energetic boys. Mrs. Bradley is also along for the dusty tour, and one of the boys who befriends her is quick to point out that the group makes thirteen in number...
Along the road to Ephesus, a number of strange things happen. In the acropolis at Eleusis, a strange statue of Iacchus (another name for Dionysus) manifests itself. In Epidaurus, with a tribute box of adders for the healer Aesculapius in tow, the snakes are switched for far nastier vipers. And at Mycenae, Sir Rudri, obsessed with the idea of a blood sacrifice, is sizing up the boys a little too closely, in Mrs. Bradley's opinion. Ultimately, the unlucky victim is Io, a local cow who briefly becomes the group's mascot. Which of the travellers offered up the sacrifice, however, is not immediately known.
Other strange events occur during the expedition, many of them adding to the growing tension between Sir Rudri and Alexander Currie, and between both families and Mr. Armstrong. When one of the group goes missing--a severed head later turning up in the snake box--Mrs. Bradley calls upon her knowledge of both psychology and Greek mythology to shed some light upon the case.
An original, inspired backdrop, a busy but not muddled plot, and a highly satisfactory pair of ending chapters contribute to create one of Gladys Mitchell's best tales. Come Away, Death approaches the Greek myths in a highly rewarding way: details of the gods are integrated into the mystery plot, but not to the point where one has to be a scholar to understand or appreciate the references. Much is explained and offered in the prose; the result for the uninitiated is a crash course in the habits and characteristics of a few selected gods and goddesses. That such an instant education (for me, at least) is not too overwhelming and is actually quite entertaining via this book is a testament to Miss Mitchell's storytelling (and teaching) gifts.
The terrain travelled by Mrs. Bradley and company is dusty, unattractive, and extremely compelling; we are not in the attractive Greece of the travel guides, and so much the better. Mrs. Bradley, it should be noted, is right at home in this desert landscape, neither the blazing sun nor the rocky landscape causing her any discomfort. Our sleuth's personality is rather subdued here, but intellectually she is at the very top of her game. The narrative is sober and forthright, and it reminded me of the level, relatively serious tone of Miss Mitchell's next novel, 1938's St. Peter's Finger. In my opinion, Come Away, Death fares better, owing to a stronger plot, more exotic scenery and a more colorful cast of characters.
At the story's center, Sir Rudri Hopkinson is a fascinating figure. Unknowingly comic, monomaniacal, educated, and just possibly as loony as a cuckoo bird, Sir Rudri's professional antagonism with Alexander Currie fuels much of the expedition. He's a wonderful creation, and indeed all the characters here are given a bit more humanity than Gladys Mitchell usually bestows upon her cast. How nice, too, to have the opportunity to get to know the murderer (as opposed to the faceless, arbitrary killer haunting many of her later books--see (or don't see) Adders on the Heath or A Javelin for Jonah). Last, and most definitely not least, Gladys Mitchell provides, in the book's final chapters, a very suitable account of all the crimes and misdemeanors occurring throughout. When a Mitchell solution is this clean and clever, it is cause for celebration (hence a fifth star). A wonderful, educational trip, and one I'll take again. Recommended.
Gladys Mitchell revisited the ruins and gods of Greece in the 1971 novel Lament for Leto.
Come Away, Death was chosen as a Mitchell Mystery Reading Group title in April 2019! See what readers had to say about the book by visiting these links: