NOONDAY AND NIGHT (1977)
1977 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1978 Magna Large Print; 2005 Thorndike Press Large Print.
[Dame Beatrice:] "It has been pointed out, more than once, that to commit a murder is easy enough. It is the disposal of the body which presents the problem. Some bury the victim's corpse in somebody else's grave; others burn it; some dismember it and strew the remains over as wide an area as possible; others are content to dispose only of the head in the hope that the rest of the cadaver will defy recognition and identification; and there is also a school of thought which favours placing the remains in the left-luggage offices at the railway stations and destroying the incriminating reclamation ticket. It was left to the fertile imagination of my secretary to envisage the possibilities of mediaeval gatehouses."
Dame Beatrice first makes the dubious acquaintance of a “monkey-like” little man named Vittorio when she is invited to examine Basil Honfleur’s antiques collection. Vittorio is introduced as Honfleur’s crockery scout, but soon after the meeting rumors spread that the scout may be trafficking in stolen goods. With a tactful warning to the collector, Dame Beatrice separates herself from the pair. A different matter brings the players back together, however: two bus drivers have gone missing from the coach tour company Honfleur oversees. One driver, Noone, disappears in Derbyshire, while a second, Daigh, never comes back to a coffee-stop in Wales. The coaches turn up eventually, but the drivers are not to be found.
Dame Beatrice and secretary Laura follow the paths of the interrupted tours, and interview passengers along the way. The elderly detective is also careful to consider the popular castles and forts on the bus routes, as the bodies of Noone and Daigh—if the drivers are dead—must have been hidden somewhere. A more thorough inspection of the sites uncovers some grim evidence in the gatehouse of Hulliwell Hall, Derbyshire, and atop the Cathedral Close in Welsh Dantwylch. Events look particularly bleak for Basil Honfleur and his business when a third driver (named Knight) disappears in Scotland. The trail leads Laura to a dark village house, where she finds the body of a dead man inside. Surprisingly, the man is not identified as Knight, but as unscrupulous antiques dealer Vittorio. With that, Dame Beatrice soon uncovers the murderer at the end of the road.
Noonday and Night strikes me as a good representative title from Gladys Mitchell’s 1970s run. The premise—the disappearance of coach tour drivers—is striking enough to pique a mystery reader’s interest; the mobile settings allow the author to indulge her fondness for explorations of the English (and Scottish and Welsh) countrysides; and notably, the plot stays its course, and does not meander or step falsely as Mitchell occasionally allows with her books of the previous decade. If Noonday and Night is not a particularly inspired Dame Beatrice outing, neither is it a poor one. Given that much of the story’s actions take place off-stage (another later Mitchell trademark), I was impressed with the book’s steady and engaging pacing: each new chapter builds neatly on the information given in the previous ones, and such assured parceling out of plot helps explain why even her modest efforts are quite readable.
And the book’s off-stage action allows for a big exception: in one memorable chapter, Dame Beatrice thwarts a nighttime knife attack in her bedroom at the Stone House. The wily old psychiatrist is, after more than fifty cases, particularly adept at defending herself, and she rises to the confrontation. Not only does Dame B. rely on the “useful kind of watchdog” of a creaking stair, but she has a papier-mache dummy, complete with raven-haired wig, to substitute in her bed for just such occasions. It is to creator Gladys Mitchell’s great credit that she created a detective so strikingly unique that the possession of a murderer-deflecting decoy is not only plausible for the character: it’s perfect.