INTERVIEW WITH GLADYS MITCHELL
by B.A. Pike
The following Question and Answer session with Gladys Mitchell is taken from an interview presented by B. A. Pike in the article "In Praise of Gladys Mitchell," published in the Armchair Detective, Volume 9 No. 4, October 1976.
Q. Dame Beatrice, your detective, is a marvelous imaginative creation--how did she come about? Was it evolution or sudden total inspiration, pure invention or was she based on someone? Has she changed at all since 1929?
A. Physically--that is to say, in appearance--Dame Beatrice is based on two delightful and most intelligent ladies I knew in my youth. Her mannerisms and costume and her formidable brains are entirely my own invention. When I began to write Speedy Death I had no intention of making her my detective. She simply 'took over' and I became so superstitious about her that I would not dare to have another detective! I think she has changed a good deal since 1929, probably because I have changed too. She is much more mellow, I think, more sympathetic and kindly; also I have ironed out (I hope) her more irritating mannerisms. (I can understand why some critics don't like her. Personally, I should hate to meet her in real life.)
Q. Dame B. has not effectually aged since 1929. How old did you imagine her to be in Speedy Death? Did you make a conscious decision at some stage to ignore the passage of time, or did this just happen?
A. In Speedy Death I think I meant her to be about fifty-five years old, so I have had to ignore the passage of time in her case.
Q. Have you ever become tired of her and tempted to invent another investigator? Was Laura perhaps a way of achieving this?
A. No, I have never tired of her and Laura could never have taken her place. Laura is merely her Watson, as I found it necessary to have one. Laura is the kind of person I would like to be!
Q. A newspaper article once claimed that you returned to teaching because your books deteriorated, and Penguin say you were bored without the constant stimulus of teaching. Are these statements true? If so, which books are you unhappy about, and which marks the return to teaching?
A. The newspaper article is quite wrong. I know I have written some bad books, but I thought they were all right when I wrote them. I can't bear to look at some of them now, but that certainly is not why I went back to teaching. Penguin is right, insofar as I missed the stimulus of teaching, and also, of course, my books have never made much money. The book which marks my return to teaching is Faintley Speaking.
Q. Further to the previous question, were you really bored when not teaching? You seem an enthusiast for so many aspects of life that I can't imagine this.
A. No, of course I wasn't bored when I was not teaching. Boredom is a curse which has never descended on me, thank goodness. I think I missed the daily self-discipline and the irritations of classroom work, and, in any case, I had to make up my mind in rather a hurry if I wanted the post offered me. Having said that I would take it, I could hardly duck out later, and I am very glad the decision was forced upon me at such very short notice.
Q. Which of your books do you dislike or consider substandard?
A. The books I dislike most are Printer's Error and Brazen Tongue--a horrible book--but there are many others I'm not exactly proud of, and these are too many to mention.
Q. Which of your books do you like best, apart from Laurels are Poison, which you are on record as liking particularly, since it reminds you of your college days?
A. Apart from Laurels are Poison, I like best The Rising of the Moon, which recalls much of my Brentford childhood (I am Simon in that story and my adorable brother Reginald is Keith, and the same two children appear as Margaret and Kenneth in the fiftieth book, Late, Late in the Evening, which is about the two of us at Cowley before the motor works got there); and I also like A Javelin for Jonah, because it is about athletics and swimming; Winking at the Brim (I am a firm and fervent believer in the Loch Ness Monster); and Convent on Styx. My much younger sister is a Dominican nun, although we are not a Roman Catholic family, and she gave me the setting and most of the behind-the-scenes convent detail.
Q. The imminence of Dame Beatrice's fiftieth case suggests that your invention flows easily. Do you ever labor and grind away at a book, or do ideas always come freely? Which book was easiest to write? How long does a book take to write? Do you write or type them?
A. I find every book difficult to write, partly because, even if I make a plan, I seldom keep to it. Then I am apt to get new ideas as I go along, and this often necessitates a certain amount of rewriting. I can't think of any book which it was easiest to write, but I have, fortunately, immense powers of concentration and a single-track mind, so on the whole I suppose each book takes about seven months to write, but I do a great deal of revision and a certain amount of research as I go along. I write in long-hand and send the manuscript away to be typed. Then I make alterations to the typescript, so that means more typing. I can't stand the sound of a typewriter, and can't spell on a machine, either.
Q. The Nine Stones of Winterborne Abbas--and may they be forever blessed--suggested The Dancing Druids to you. Did they precisely do that? Or did they fit with an idea you already had? Can you think of other starting points like this? How do ideas suggest themselves?
A. Yes, the Nine Stones did suggest the book. The setting often does. I also heard a child say 'Soppy runner' to a young man in a track suit (as at the opening of this novel). In the same way, I once saw a boy dressed as I have described Simon in The Rising of the Moon, and I coupled this with a dirty little junk shop in Brentford high street, although there was no connection between the two things until I made one.
Q. You are, as a novelist, a specialist in eccentric behavior. Do your characters 'take over' and strike out on their own, or are you always fully in control of them?
A. No, I am never in control of my characters. They do and say things I never intended.
Q. Did you decide Dame B.'s profession before you read Freud or after? How great an influence (or source) was Freud for characters and emotional situations in your books?
A. I had read some of Freud's work before I thought of Mrs. Bradley, but Freud has no influence, so far as I know, on my characters.
Q. You were a member of the Detection Club (a founder-member?), but do not, I think, belong to the Crime Writers' Association. Is the latter part of this true, and if so, is there any reason why not? Have you any specially happy or picturesque memories of the Detection Club, its meetings, its ritual, and your fellow members? How did those collaborations work?
A. On the contrary, I have been a member of the Crime Writers' Association for many years, although I have never attended any of their meetings. Of the Detection Club, I have many happy memories. One of my proudest is that I was sponsored by Anthony Berkeley (Francis Iles) and Helen Simpson, and was initiated by G. K. Chesterton, our first president.
Apart from the brilliant, witty, charming and highly intellectual Helen Simpson, I liked Freeman Wills Crofts and Anthony Berkeley best of the early members, and later the delightful boy (as I thought and think of him) Edmund Crispin, always so courteous, happy and kind. I myself was one of the earliest members of the club, though not a founder. The main rules, according to the ritual, were that we should furnish all necessary clues to our murderers, ignore sinister Chinamen and poisons unknown to science, promise never to steal other people's plots, whether these were disclosed to us under the influence of drink or otherwise, and (as it began as a dining-club, although we had premises later) not to eat peas with a knife or put our feet on the dining table.
I remember that at one annual dinner some important 'prop' or other for the initiation ceremony had been left at the club rooms to which, of course, nobody had thought to bring his or her key, and we took an Assistant Commissioner of Police with us to break into the house. He was a co-opted member, but did not seem to be exactly delighted to join us in committing the crime of breaking and entering, particularly as there were other daytime occupants of the building besides ourselves.
I was engaged in only one of the collaborations, which were for the benefit of club funds. Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy L. Sayers exchanged detectives and, of course, Anthony's manipulation of Lord Peter Wimsey caused the massive lady anything but pleasure. Helen Simpson took over Mrs. Bradley in exchange for Sir John Saumarez. We two, I am glad to say, got along famously and it is to her that I owe, as you know, Dame Beatrice's second name, Adela.
Q. Dame Beatrice's omniscience annoys some people (e.g. Barzun & Taylor). How often is she wrong? Do knowing readers delight in pointing out her (or your) mistakes?
A. I am not a bit surprised that she annoys people, because she never is wrong. Besides, she has a god-like quality of being much larger than life, and of being so much superior to ordinary people that she can afford to be benign and kind even to my murderers, who seldom get hanged (in the old days) or suffer life imprisonment (in the later books).
People who write to me usually do so to point out errors of fact. A Scottish lady told me that one cannot put a car on the train from London to Glasgow, an Irish priest pointed out my misuse of Hibernian dialect, and a very irate Scotsman complained that no elderly female could perform the feats I attributed to Dame Beatrice. As, at the age of seventy-four-plus I can perform most of them myself, including throwing a knife, and hitting a postcard ten times out of ten at twenty-five paces with a rifle (a thing I don't believe I have ever mentioned as being one of her accomplishments, as her favorite weapon is a revolver), I think the gentleman is wrong.
Q. Do you read other people's detective stories? If so, whose do you most enjoy? What sort of crime novels do you avoid? Which straight novelists do you admire? Who besides Wodehouse makes you laugh?
A. Yes, I do read other people's detective stories, but by no means all. I have a big collection of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh (what a superb writer! How I wish I had written some of hers!), Dorothy L. Sayers and Edmund Crispin. Sad to say, I can't enjoy Margery Allingham or Michael Innes, but I like and admire all Nicholas Blake's detective stories. The only American writer that I can read is Hillary Waugh. I very much like John Dickson Carr as a person, but can't read his books.
As for straight novelists, by far my favorite is that very 'odd bod,' Ivy Compton-Burnett, of whose works I have a collection which I read and re-read. The authors, apart from Wodehouse, who make me laugh are both American, Damon Runyon (although sometimes he is over-sentimental) and the creator (Leonard Q. Ross) of the immortal Hyman Kaplan.
Q. Are your non-fictional reading tastes clearly defined, or are you continually breaking new ground as new areas of interest catch your attention?
A. My non-fictional reading tastes are very clearly defined. I read poetry, mostly the Elizabethans, the Border ballads and the not-quite moderns up to about 1940, and I also read about real-life murders and the reminiscences of the great lawyers.
Q. Society is much changed since 1929, but the horrors of modern life seem happily not to impinge on your novels. Do you consider this to be fair comment, or have you in fact attempted to change with the times?
A. No, I don't think I have attempted to change with the times. In fact, I was glad to retire from teaching because I realized that my lovely and sweet-natured girls, although we were very fond of one another, were not on the same wavelength, kind to me though they were, and most patient with an old fuddy-duddy.
Q. You began as a novelist, but turned to detection because your novels failed to find a publisher. What sort of novels did you write? What are the Stephen Hockaby novels like? Why did you abandon 'him' and why did you use a male pseudonym?
A. I suppose my first novels were love stories, some of them with a historical background, but I've forgotten about them. The Stephen Hockaby books were rather good, I think, but I received very little encouragement over them. Marsh Hay was romantic, colorful and full of action and received splendid notices from the critics. Seven Stars and Orion was a historical novel set in the fourteenth century. Gabriel's Hold was set in a lighthouse, on detailed information supplied by one of the keepers of the Needles light, and the last one, Grand Master, was concerned with the knights of St. John of Jerusalem and the Siege of Malta.
I abandoned them because the rewards were so utterly inadequate considering the amount of research involved and also because, after Grand Master, I wrote a book about the First Crusade which Michael Joseph turned down so I felt that, one way and another, I had shot my bolt. I chose a male pseudonym because Marsh Hay was told in the first person by a young man.
Q. Do you read reviews of your books? Have you ever been hurt by a harsh criticism or exhilarated by a glowing one?
A. Before the war, I subscribed to a press-cutting agency. Nowadays, I read such reviews as come my way. Some are sent by the publishers, others by friends. No, I have never been hurt by harsh criticism and have had very little of it. People who rebuke me are very helpful, in fact, and I almost always agree with what they say. The good reviews always give me great pleasure and encouragement.
Q. Despite the fact that you deal in crime and specifically in murder, your work is essentially cheerful: however dark the deeds, you transmute them into entertainment. Are you an optimist? Is the writing of crime novels in any way therapeutic for you?
A. Yes, I suppose I'm an optimist. I would far rather ignore (from cowardice, I think) the seamy side of life. I have only academic knowledge of romance and sex, love to laugh, and hate and detest violence and cruelty. The writing of crime novels is in no way therapeutic to me. I am fascinated by murder because it is about the last thing I would think of committing, apart from blackmail.