LATE, LATE IN THE EVENING (1976)
1976 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1980 Magna Large Print, 1996 Linford Library Large Print, 2004 Thorndike Press Large Print.
I said to my brother, "Do you really think we'll do any good?"
"Of course we shall. Think, if we can beat the police at their own game!"
"But even if we do find out something important we shall have to tell it to them."
"Not to them; not directly, anyway."
"What shall we do with it, then? It won't be any good just keeping it to ourselves."
"Of course not. We tell Mrs. Bradley up at the manor. She'll know whether it's important enough to pass on. In fact, I vote we tell her everything we find out, whether it's important or not."
Margaret and Kenneth Clifton pass their childhood summers with their two sets of aunts and uncles in the sleepy village of Hill. They spend their days playing in the town's sheepwash, avoiding Sunday school, investigating the old hermit's shack, and deciding which sweets to purchase at Old Mother Honour's shop. The pair has befriended Our Sarah, a matronly girl who supervises the village children like a hen with her chicks. Margaret and Kenneth also make the acquaintance of Lionel Kempson-Conyers, an inquisitive lad staying with his aunt at her manor house.
The siblings' Aunt Kirstie has for years housed a boarder named Mr. Ward, an eccentric and solitary man whose behavior has become increasingly erratic. He has been digging up the grounds with a spade in places like the chicken run, the garden and the hermit's shack. Margaret is unsettled when she finds a hole shaped like a grave within the run-down shack; a later visit reveals that the hole has been filled in again.
During a fancy dress (costume) party held at the manor house, tragedy strikes: a girl from London is found dead by the sheepwash, still wearing a dinosaur costume from the party. Mrs. Bradley, in communication with Mrs. Kempson, decides to visit Hill, and some interesting facts surface. The murder victim and young Lionel, heir to the estate, were wearing the same costume; Doctor Tassall, who absented himself from the party at an early hour, was once engaged to the girl, but is now in love with Amabel Kempson-Conyers, Lionel's sister; and Mr. Ward's spade, the apparent murder weapon, is found in the sheepwash. Also, Mr. Ward hasn't been to his room for two days. Margaret and Kenneth soon discover that the grave has been put to use after all, and rush to Mrs. Bradley with the news. The psycho-analyst must then decide whether one or two murderers are living in Hill village.
Late, Late in the Evening is Gladys Mitchell's 50th Mrs. Bradley novel, and its story takes place at a time early in the detective's career, before she earned the title of Dame Beatrice. Like The Rising of the Moon, much of this story is viewed through the eyes of a child, in this case ten-year old Margaret Clifton, and as with that earlier book, Miss Mitchell excels at capturing that perspective of wonder and innocence that disappears with the onset of adulthood. Everything, for the kids, is full of mystery and ritual in this town, and its inhabitants are defined by their eccentricities (the Widow Winter, who views all of her activities behind a forest of ferns from her front window; Mrs. Grant, a permanent fixture in the rocking chair on her doorstep, who "[declaims] to anybody who was passing, 'I hab de ague, bery bad, bery bad'"). These chapters, for me, conjure up a sunny nostalgia for days no longer accessible except as memories, when the world was more simple because the viewpoint held by the child was a simple one. This successful days-gone-by homage creates an affinity in me for this book; it's one of a handful of Miss Mitchell's stories of which I'm most fond.
It's also interesting to note this book's unique structure: when not narrated in the first person by Margaret, chapters take the form of personal letters from one person to another--sometimes suspects, and towards the end by Mrs. Bradley, sending her observations to a "Sir Walter." One chapter even contains the text of a local newspaper story on the murders. These written communications achieve something interesting, in my opinion: they give me the feeling of revisiting a past event by flipping through a sort of scrapbook. Margaret is telling her story as an adult, reflecting back to that childhood summer years ago; similarly, the letters and news columns collected here are relics of the past. Nothing intrudes narratively upon the idea that the letters are now thirty years old, and just as distant from that summer as Margaret's present reminiscences. It's an intriguing construct, expertly handled.
The mystery story in this book is smart, coherent and sufficiently strange; quite good if not great. I still find Late, Late in the Evening's primary attraction its handling of childhood memory. Perhaps I enjoy this element because it reminds me of my own experiences spending weekends at my great-grandmother's house in a tiny Wisconsin farming town. Fascination in microcosm: the hitching post in front of the grocery store, the hole under the porch (snakes? money?), the barn with the broken window, the strange sound of the creamery's steam chimney, deafening to an eight-year old. I could revisit the town now as an adult, but obviously I wouldn't have the same experience. Gladys Mitchell ends her memory book on a beautiful note, acknowledging childhood's fleeting property. Margaret and Kenneth revisit Hill village on their bicycles the following year:
"Well, let's spend our money at Mother Honour's," I said, "and then go back. Other people will be in Aunt Kirstie's and grandfather's so it wouldn't be fun. Even the hermit's cottage isn't there any more. Look! Do you see? They've pulled it down. Do you believe there was ever any treasure hidden in it?"
"I did when I was younger," said Kenneth.