MY FATHER SLEEPS (1944)
1944 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1981 Severn House.
French translation 2001 Paris: Éditions 10/18, as La malédiction du clan Stewart, tr. Katia Holmes.
"Evidence? Evidence?" said Mrs. Bradley, pleased. "There was evidence of the presence of somebody else in the house last night, you think; there is evidence—or is there?—that Loudoun's name may be Menzies; and now there is no evidence that old Morag cooked the breakfast."
[Ian Menzies:] "And I'm still puzzled about the portrait, unless he really didn't know the first thing about it, and was only trying to show off. Still, you'd think he would know what it was. Oh, and it made another discrepancy in the typescript. You see, in this picture he's got, you can't really see a claymore. The fellow has a dirk and a claymore, of course, but what you notice is the very long musket he's holding."
"Yes, that is odd," said Mrs. Bradley. "I confess that I am anxious to meet this mysterious gentleman who is half-murdered by perfect strangers who want to buy his land; who hears ghostly voices; who has night-prowlers skulking in his policies and who mislays his housekeeper."
Ian looked at her suspiciously, but she seemed perfectly serious. He did not know that he envied his sister [Laura] her job.
Newlyweds Ian and Catherine Menzies are having a fine time touring Scotland's western Highlands by motorboat. An exploration of the land, however, brings forth an unsettling character, the limping and haunted figure of Hector Loudoun, who begs Ian to stay the night with him. Ian reluctantly agrees and soon learns of his new host's strange situation. According to Hector, a man named Ure has offered him money for ownership of a loch on Loudoun land. Refusing the offer, a short while later Hector finds himself pushed down a flight of stairs by an unseen force. Recovering at home with a badly smashed leg, he begins to hear a ghostly male voice at night calling for justice and a return to eternal sleep. The morning after Ian learns of this tale, the man's aged housekeeper seems to disappear.
Ian's sister Laura is also on holiday at Ballanchulish, and her observations of the natives are just as curious. First she speaks with an artist of the moors who works in watercolors—although the canvas on his easel sports an oil painting. Then she meets a party of shepherds who are moving the body of a stranger off the path; the man has a knife protruding from his back. Fortunately, Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley is also present—nephew Jonathan Bradley with wife Deborah Cloud and 13-year old nephew Brian Lestrange round out the traveling party. As the psychoanalyst reflects upon the historical clan feuds of the Stewarts and the Loudouns (whose family is tied with the Campbells of Glenure), she agrees to visit and study Hector as a patient. Upon meeting him, she finds that he no longer wants her professional help and has apparently improved his physical health as well: Hector's pronounced limp has disappeared.
Two thuggish men appear who seem to have a stake in the affair, and Loudoun is discovered dead—but it seems to be the man Mrs. Bradley had interviewed and not the one Ian and Catherine had met initially. At this point, the entire group becomes involved in sorting out the mystery. But clan ties cannot be discounted, and family deeds have a way of becoming unearthed; only then can the wronged spirits of another world find some rest.
Alternately suspenseful and tedious, atmospheric at times while weighed down by locale minutiae at others, My Father Sleeps shows Gladys Mitchell's narrative strengths and weaknesses in almost equal measure. (1946's Here Comes a Chopper suffers from similarly uneven terrain.) To her credit, Mitchell delivers a twisty, intriguing plot with a lot of curiously compelling details. A couple of the book's sequences — including the kidnapping and escape of nephew Brian Lestrange and a somber, haunting conclusion where the Loudoun loch yields up its secret — are excellently rendered, and thanks to the inclusion of two lists from Mrs. Bradley's notebook tipped in at crucial points in the story, the reader can just keep track of the very busy events. The author has an obvious love for the west Scotland locations she describes, and the shadowy lochs and wind-swept moors provide an excellent backdrop to a tale of murder, mystery, and ancestry.
It is in her obsession with the area geography (and her fascination with the ordnance maps) that, I suggest, Gladys Mitchell oversteps here. It is no exaggeration to say that laundry lists of town names and traveling routes can be found on practically every page. Though the attention to detail is admirable, even native Highlanders may find the constant mentions wearying: besides becoming swamped with interchangeable place names (Loch Tulla does not conjure any more meaning or imagery for me than does Loch Etive), the fussy paragraphs slow down the reader's progress. An example? I flip open a page at random:
At Bridge of Orchy it was possible to do two things, either of which would have led to the Kingshouse Inn. The main road…kept east of Loch Tulla and followed the shore of the loch. It crossed the small railway bends until it came to the broken Loch Baa south of Loch Laidon, passed this loch and then wound away in a westerly bend to Glencoe, by-passing Kingshouse Inn, which was on the old road, not the new... Heavy treading indeed.
It is always a pleasure to see Mrs. Bradley in her role of psychiatrist (here she attends to the troubled Hector Loudoun), and the extended family feel of the assembled group — Jonathan Bradley, Deborah Cloud, and of course Laura Menzies are to be found in the Carteret College-set Laurels Are Poison (1942) — creates an enjoyable dynamic. As sometimes happens with Miss Mitchell, her plot characters run the risk of becoming vague and unknowable, specifically because we spend most of our time with the Bradley-Menzies-Lestrange contingent and because the men involved in the crimes are liars and lurkers and thus remain in the shadows. But the ending is strong, and if one doesn't pick too persistently at the remaining plot threads (I still do not know Ure's identity or motivation), Mitchell fans could have an agreeable holiday. But bring sturdy walking shoes.