CONVENT ON STYX (1975)
1975 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1980 Magna Large Print; 2010 Greyladies Publishing.
[Laura:] "You don't want to go wearing yourself out chasing some obscure poison-pen when you ought to be conserving your strength for more important matters."
[Dame Beatrice:] "I have always been interested in the psychology of writers of anonymous letters. I cannot feel that the subject has has ever been explored sufficiently."
"I thought it was all old hat. You know, thwarted spinsters and gaga old maids and so forth."
"Then why don't all thwarted women write such letters?"
"Can't afford the postage stamps, perhaps."
The nuns comprising the sisterhood The Companions of the Poor have been plagued with a recent outbreak of poison-pen letters, and Sister Mary Hilary, headmistress of the convent's girls school, is understandably concerned. Letters have surfaced that carry accusations--of malice, misappropriation, even murderous intent--and have been received by school staff and villagers. After the headmistress' office is ransacked, the nuns contact Dame Beatrice to ask for her help in the delicate matter.
The elderly sleuth is already on her way when an alarming development occurs: Miss Lipscombe, a nosey tenant at the convent who some suspect as the author of the anonymous letters, is found drowned in a nearby pond. In the middle of the pond, the police discover the victim's leather-bound Bible, its pages thoroughly clipped out, as if the user gave the book's text a more sinister task. An inquest returns a verdict of accidental death. Some think the woman drowned herself while trying to dispose of the incriminating evidence; others believe she actually took her life out of remorse for writing the spiteful letters. But if this is so, how did the Bible come to land in the middle of the pond, surely a lengthy distance for an old woman to throw a heavy book? And what significance should be attached to the removeable bars on her ground floor bedroom window? With a little investigation, Dame Beatrice uncovers the answers, and by the end hands the police motive, means, and murderer responsible for Miss Lipscombe's demise.
Nearly 40 years after Mrs. Bradley paid a visit to St. Peter's Convent (in 1938's St. Peter's Finger), the unageable detective finds herself once more taking temporary Holy Orders in Convent on Styx. (Though that's not strictly true; Dame Beatrice is respectful of the sisterhood and perhaps reverent of its disciplines, but she pointedly does not observe matins or partake in any worship during her stay.) Gladys Mitchell infuses the convent of Convent with so much vitality and such attention to detail that this created world becomes immediately alive to the reader. The principal characters, sisters and residents alike, are vividly drawn, and Miss Mitchell's prose paints each of her subjects so acutely that a complete psychological as well as physical portrait emerges after only a few paragraphs. Take, as example, this introductory description of the too-curious-for-her-own-good murder victim:
Miss Lipscombe had lived at the convent for the past five years and knew more about its inside workings than any of the other inmates suspected. She was considered to be a comparatively harmless old creature, but she had an itch to ferret things out. Some instinct seemed to tell her when and where there was anything to be learnt, but, having learnt it, she did not always gossip about it. Sometimes she turned it over in her mind and extracted every scrap of flavour from it simply by speculating upon it, but sometimes she told stories in which she built up imaginary situations, in which case her hearers ended up with a mental image which, although originally based on fact, hardly approximated to the truth by the time Miss Lipscombe had done with telling the tale.
Though the setting here may be chaste, Gladys Mitchell manages to lend a good deal of understated humor to the telling. Mrs. Polkinghorne, a native of Castillian Spain and weary observer of an ongoing feud between Miss Lipscombe and another convent dweller, becomes an enjoyable confidante to Dame Beatrice. (Laura is offstage for much of this story, and absence makes the heart grow fonder.) Even periphery incidents, such as this description of a school treat, carry the author's masterful touch of wit:
The Lower Fifth decided to bring picnic meals to be eaten on the field instead of taking school dinners; not to be outdone, the Upper Fourth brought record-players and organised an unauthorised dance in the gymnasium, while the Lower Fourth, claiming half the available space there, ran an equally unauthorised auction sale of the goods and chattels that they had filched from the Upper Fifth prefect who had been responsible for collecting lost property during the term. The Third Form muscled in on this and demanded a share of the proceeds and a disgraceful melee was broken up by the reappearance of Sister Wolstan, who confiscated the cash takings, took the names of the chief combatants and threatened to report both forms to Sister Hilary, a threat unlikely to be carried out so near the end of term.
But vivid setting and style can't quite mask the fact that Convent's central mystery is rather an average one. The murderer's identity verges on the arbitrary (that is, another suspect could be substituted in its place with more or less the same result and logic), the clues are singular but not put to much use, and a last-minute MacGuffin (something that's important to the characters but really doesn't have much relevance except to further the plot) strikes an unconvincing, false note. Still, the plot fares better here than in some other convoluted later-Mitchell stories, and the masterly evocation of setting is reason enough to pay a visit to Convent on Styx.