HERE LIES GLORIA MUNDY (1982)
1982 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1983 St. Martin's Press (U.S.); 1986 Paperjacks paperback (Canada).
"Do you remember my mentioning Gloria Mundy when we last met?"
"Yes, of course I remember."
"And I gave you an impression of what I thought of her?"
"Unfavourable, on the whole, as I remember it."
"Well, I think you might have told me she was staying in the house when you relayed old Anthony's invitation."
"But she isn't staying here. She breezed in all unexpectedly and had to be asked to stay for lunch. You were probably on your way here by the time she turned up, so I couldn't have let you know, even if I had thought of it. Anyway, there is no question of her staying here. She didn't even stay long enough to finish her lunch. One of the other guests splashed soup all over her, so she upped and went."
"I spotted her in the kitchen garden after I had left my car."
"Well, she won't be coming back, that's for sure."
"You never know. I hope you're right, that's all."
Writer Corin Stratford meets up with an old college friend, Hardie Keir McMaster, in a countryside churchyard; the scribe is promptly commissioned by McMaster to update information for a series of hotel travel brochures, and Corin accepts this opportunity to tour the English countryside. During his travels, Corin pays a visit to another acquaintance, Anthony Wotton, who shares a house in the Cotswolds with his wife Celia and a shrewd but off-kilter spinster, Aunt Eglantine. Corin, while at the house, sees a thin, green-eyed young woman crossing the lawn. Her hair is fiery red on one side, the other half dark black, and this curious style reminds Corin of an unlikeable ex-girlfriend of McMaster's he was told about, a girl who sported the same unique hair. At Sunday dinner, the stranger--named Gloria Mundy--accepts a rather begrudging invitation but leaves in anger when bemused Aunt Eglantine tosses a piece of bread into Gloria's soup course, dousing her with her dinner.
From that point on, various bad luck befalls the group: a headmaster's wife, who laughed at Gloria's misfortune during the soup course, slips and falls on freshly buttered steps; Aunt Eglantine breaks her leg when a rickety staircase collapses under her; a painting depicting a probable ancestor of Gloria disappears; and Anthony and Celia fight heatedly as soon as the stranger takes her exit. But does she do so? Some time later, smoke from a ruined house on the Wottons' property brings the fire brigade, and inside is discovered a blackened body. The burnt face is unrecognizable, but strangely, red and black hair remains atop the corpse, and Anthony and Corin identify the body as that of witch-like Gloria Mundy.
As Dame Beatrice Bradley, who was initially consulted to examine the sanity of Aunt Eglantine, discovers, several motives soon present themselves. When McMaster sees Gloria Mundy's ghost haunting a London clothes shop, Dame Beatrice uses her knowledge of witchcraft and human psychology to seek out answers. As the situation resolves, fate steps in to ensure that Gloria Mundy is finally put to rest.
Here Lies Gloria Mundy proves a problematic title for me. It contains some fine elements--an intriguing plot revolving partly around witchcraft and the paranormal; a lucid, understandable story with an atmospheric, vivid ending--but in spite of these, I'm still rather indifferent to the tale. A recent rereading has given me an appreciation of the elements, but the experience remains less enjoyable than with several other Mitchell stories. This personal detachment may have its roots in the fact that this story, as in several other books written during Gladys Mitchell's final decades, is more aptly described as a novel of crime rather than a mystery story (the first narrating a sequence of activity and the second presenting a solveably constructed puzzle to the reader). There are certain clues and incidents that cling like burrs to the plotline later on, but generally the actions of Gloria Mundy's characters, and not the presence of provided information, determine the story's course. The result (for me) is a bit unsatisfying.
Another curmudgeonly complaint is aimed at the book's scenes involving Trends, a London boutique catering to the contemporarily fashionable. This dress shop strikes a false note for me, not because Miss Mitchell misuses the setting, nor because this shop would not exist, but rather that it shouldn't exist in a "Golden Age" story. Even though the book was published in 1982, discovering Dame Beatrice, unironic and unparodied, in fashion shop Trends is a bit like finding Christie's Poirot in open-toed sandals. It's not impossible, but it doesn't feel sound like the right note to strike. Dame Beatrice belongs to a different era, as does Father Brown before her and Sherlock Holmes before him. All in all, Here Lies Gloria Mundy is worth a read, though I believe there are several stronger Mitchell titles (and a small number of weaker ones) out there.