GABRIEL'S HOLD (1935)
1935 Grayson & Grayson. [Published under the pseudonym Stephen Hockaby.]
They shut off the siren at seven and put out the lamp at sunrise, and all that day they got as much sleep as they could, and by night there were always two of them on duty. It seemed to Kegan that the tower itself was shaking. He had never believed that the sea could roar so loudly nor that the siren's hoarse, intermittent bleating could lend such desolation to the dead hours of the dark. He had been more than once on a ship in fog and storm, and had heard the answering cry from another ship's siren, and had seen the lights of a ship swing close at hand, so close that he felt his heart give a throb at his throat as he raised an impotent arm to ward off disaster. But the sound of the siren on Gabriel was like an Archangel's trump in a world already perished. It sounded to him like a challenge forlorn; unheeded. The sea would not give up her dead, though the trumpet blew to all eternity.
On the large rock named Gabriel stands a solitary lighthouse. The rock and its tower is buffeted unceasingly by the sea's crashing waves, and it is to this outpost that Robert Kegan is assigned. The tall, strong Kegan meets the other lighthousemen that he will come to know well: Erik Roomis, a jovial veteral sailor with a newlywed wife on shore; Neil Iver, a sullen Scotsman who nurses a grudge against Roomis; and Patrick Kerry, an older family man who acts as peacekeeper when needed. Mostly, though, the men have all they can do to keep the lighthouse functioning in the oft-severe coastal weather. Birds, blinded by the light, sometimes fly into the glass panes and shatter them; snow can block the light's beam, and the outside panes must be monitored and cleaned. Then there's interior maintenance, from winding the weights that revolve the light to cooking and housecleaning duties. Further, each night one man must be on watch to alert any ships which might be straying too close to Gabriel, or towards the deadly neighboring rocks Michael and Lucifer.
Three men must stay at the lighthouse while the fourth takes leave. Quitting the rock is no easy prospect, and often the men must wait for the weather to accommodate before a boat can attempt a leeward landing. The keepers' personalities come through when they visit family and friends on shore. Iver pines for his Scottish village of Eilean an Tarbh, while Kegan spends his time with his mother and younger siblings. Kerry, on his leave, returns to his wife and his garden, and Roomis waits out his wife's delivery of their first child while serving duty on Gabriel. But even as each man looks forward to his leave, the call of the sea and the lighthouse haunts his thoughts and troubles his dreams. It is under the scrutiny, and in the service, of Gabriel's light that each man will prove his worth -- as hero, coward, or mortal.
Gladys Mitchell's novels written under the name Stephen Hockaby are today very difficult to find. Many of Britain's books published in the 1930s were recycled into paper pulp during the war effort of the early 1940s, so it is probable that this measure reduced the number of existing copies. With the realization that Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley mysteries of the 1930s find the author at the very top of her game, these contemporary Hockaby "adventure" novels carry a great collector's (and reader's) appeal.
First off, I wouldn't classify Gabriel's Hold as an adventure story per se; it has scenes of adventure, but equal elements of drama, naval instruction, human pathos, and romance intertwine throughout. Ultimately, it is a character study of four different souls fighting against unceasing Nature to keep their lives and their lighthouse from breaking down. The character of Iver is trying to recover from the sadness of lost love; the restless sailor Roomis has wedded Iver's sweetheart, but now Roomis begins to feel the yoke of wife and child. Kegan looks for possibilities of a life beyond the rock, and watches from the confines of the lighthouse as, again and again, the distant ships push out to sea. Kerry, the most well-adjusted, manages to find happiness in domestic life and a vegetable garden. It's a sad, somber story, and the shadow of tragedy builds until the lighthouse and its souls are (momentarily) eclipsed by novel's end. Mitchell's generally strong characterization is well-used here, and this Hockaby title, at least, joins her most ambitious mystery books -- like The Rising of the Moon and Sunset over Soho -- in climbing above mere genre conventions and moving towards literature.
Gladys Mitchell has commented that the Hockaby novels were quite time-consuming to write, and I suspect part of the difficulty lay in the magnitude of research to get the story details right. Topics as diverse as naval manoeuvering, Highland wrestling, sea bird migration, and (of course) the daily operations of an active lighthouse are all dealt with, in their turn, knowledgeably and effectively. Very occasionally a passage becomes too burdensome with the weight of encyclopaedic detail (such as the author's overdescription of a passing work ship, right down to its obscure rigging and the lumber of its masthead); more often the research pays off and gives Gabriel's Hold a smart air of authenticity. It is in this story I realized the method of pouring oil on troubled waters (to calm the ocean's choppy surface in order to release lifeboats) was a practiced, practical one. And Mitchell/Hockaby excels at narrating her characters' attempts to survive Nature's brutal assaults, from an offshore rescue of two boys whose sailboat founders to a harrowing rainstorm that sweeps one of the keepers into the sea. These sequences are reported realistically and without melodrama, and are all the stronger for it. As a writer, Gladys Mitchell is always a strong evocator of landscape and detail, and even her weakest mysteries unfold with the assuredness of a born storyteller. This skill serves her beautifully here, her prose placing the reader right beside the struggling characters -- in this example, right in the near-freezing water, fighting against the unyielding current to reach the first of three treacherous island rocks.
It is indeed a pity that the Hockaby titles aren't currently in print. With Gabriel's Hold a fair representation, Mitchell's pseudonymous novels offer up some wonderful elements: distinctive settings, well-paced plots, and an unsentimental sympathy through which we view these very human characters.