LOVERS, MAKE MOAN (1981)
1981 Michael Joseph.
"Well, what's our next move?" asked Laura, when they were alone again.
"We must find the person who cut up the rapier and turned it into two daggers. The police are already looking for him."
"Nobody is going to admit to having done it. After all, two murders have been committed with the beastly things."
"Or two suicides; or one murder and one suicide."
Jonathan and Deborah Bradley come to the rescue when relations wish to enjoy a cruise: not only does the couple agree to tend to a handsome country house, they also temporarily inherit two young charges, Rosamund and Edmund. Knowing that they can always press into service Jonathan's ageless aunt should he and Deborah require a holiday of their own, arrangements are soon put into place. The suggestion to use the picturesque Bradley grounds to stage a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is met with enthusiasm, and soon rehearsals are underway.
The role of Pyramus is given to a difficult young man who soon manages to have nearly the entire cast against him, as his lack of tact and dubious criminal background hardly prove endearing. For this character's play-acting death scene, the producer acquires a realistic-looking dagger with a retractable blade (introduced in the chapter entitled "Retractable Blade") and all goes well for the first two performances, but decidedly less so for the third. Hinckley, the actor who wielded the dagger so convincingly in that role, suddenly falls ill--mussels are suspected--and another actor is hastily costumed for the role. It is only after the fatal weapon's plunge that it is discovered the prop dagger has been switched for a real one. Accident? If not, who was the intended victim? Dame Beatrice looks into the matter and answers these questions--but only after the dagger has claimed another life.
Lovers, Make Moan is not very notable save for the fact that, at age 80, Gladys Mitchell is still able to pen a lucid and pleasant mystery story. As the publishing years push on, more and more of Miss Mitchell's principal story action takes place off-stage; this book is a very good, rather tedious example of this practice. As a reader, we are rarely present for anything first-hand, most especially the murder. The book's chapters are built around conversations where people discuss what has happened, a little like expositional dialogue within a radio script. Excluding us from events may be forgivable, though it makes this reader wonder why, with interesting events occurring elsewhere, the author keeps us stuck in the parlor, forced to hear about the subject from the only characters who didn't have direct involvement.
Such a diluted storytelling structure also makes fair-play clues more difficult to plant; in using commenting dialogue the author no longer has the luxury to quote victim or murderer, or to hide a significant narrative detail among unimportant ones. Lovers, Make Moan sidesteps this by not bothering the reader with clueing at all. Once more Mitchell provides, as with many of her titles from the 1970s and '80s, a coherent series of events that is procedural rather than deductive. The mystery trappings are there -- colorful murder, detective, suspects -- but the reader feels as distanced from the proceedings as the narrators.
One more ill effect of this presentation: as the reader has no investment in these suspects who remain on the outskirts of the story, the killer's unmasking is not satisfying and feels arbitrary. We have not been given the luxury of studying him (or her), observing his reactions, listening to his lies, and a final-chapter proclamation that X is the murderer carries little weight. Under this light, X is barely more dimensional than the letter 'X' itself. In this particular book, the killer's identity and motive (refer, please, to the title) have potential to anchor a very good mystery tale; but with the story out of focus, villain, I hardly knew ye.