GORY DEW (1970)
1970 Michael Joseph.
"Did you do any boxing when you got to Doncaster?"
"Crikey, no! Me nerve's gorn, see? I couldn't do nuffink 'cept keep on finkin' abaht Gorinsky in 'orspital and maybe croakin' on me, and me bein' 'ad up and vat, and I couldn't a-made meself 'it a bundle of old clo'es, lat alone wiv a man inside of 'em."
"Yes, I can understand that."
Toby Sparrowe, a young chronicler of local history in Dorset's Heathcote Fitzprior, is unimpressed by a visit from two out-of-town impresarios. Their dream: to get Toby to turn his modest biography of namesake poet William Heathcote into an exciting stage spectacle, with swordplay and fisticuffs mixed in. Upon ejecting the pair of would-be producers, they soon turn up again, this time sponsoring a teenage boxing prospect they've dubbed "The Moonrocket Kid."
The Kid in question is a handsome ruffian named Dave Holley, and he and Toby quickly strike up a friendship. The boxer has a curious aversion to trees and wooded areas--this even affects his training routes and makes Toby wonder about the phobia's origins. And although an introductory fight is imminent, Dave's manager--a rough customer named Gorinsky--won't let him spar with anyone other than his chosen partner, a physically soft and mentally benign old duffer named Harry. When Toby disobeys orders and begins to work with Dave in the ring, he's surprised and unnerved to find that The Moonrocket Kid is still quite green, and possesses a quick temper that will lead to mistakes during fights. Surely Gorinsky and company know this young boxer is not ready--so what are they playing at?
One fateful day Toby finds the whole group has abruptly left the village. When the manager's body is found in a local quarry, his car turning up in London, the rest of the gang is flushed out, and Dave Holley (who had an argument with Gorinsky earlier that day) is charged with murder. Wanting The Moonrocket Kid to get a fair shake, Toby enlists the aid of Dame Beatrice to oversee the case.
Before opening the covers of Gory Dew, I had been told of two specific qualities found therein: the story's backdrop falls against the world of amateur boxing; and the author freely exercises her penchant for regional dialect (in this case, a Cockney-ish slang). Both observations are true, and both qualities work for the story in a charming, refreshing way. Dave Holley, the book's welterweight hopeful, is an engagingly rough later-book character. If there's any structural hurdle here, it's that -- like many of Mitchell's later-book tales -- action tends to happen off-stage, reducing the characters to reactive witnesses to what occurred during the crime. To its credit, the story hangs together throughout, and it moves briskly to a final-chapter twist that, if not revelatory, is at least satisfactory.
Gory Dew also joins the unofficial ranks of Mitchell mysteries populated by characters with felicitous names. Like The Devil's Elbow (1951) and the yet-to-come Mingled with Venom (1978), this book seems to signal its winking tone by offering up colorfully associative surnames. The author calls the boxing handlers Scouse and Gorinsky, names the slick promoters Maverick and Gracechurchstreet, saddles a girlish maid with the moniker Daffy, and even christens a pair of fussy lady witnesses as Mother Spreadapple and Mrs. Purse. As usual, Miss Mitchell's economic storytelling still finds time to evoke lovely details: Mrs. Purse, for one, supplies the village with her farm's rather unreliable hen's eggs.
And the infamous dialect? It runs throughout, mostly courtesy of The Moonrocket Kid himself. (A sample line: "Nuffink but flippin' joggin' don't suit me. I don't reckon to be no perishin' sprinter.") But young writer Toby Sparrowe is present to counter other characters' dialogue caprices, and as always Dame Beatrice (receiving an assist here from grandson/counsel Sebastian Lestrange) keeps her King's English intact. Although veteran Mitchell readers might be the ones most appreciative of Gory Dew, don't let its setting or imposing local manner worry you. Its feet are fleet in the ring.